Like many people interested in nature, I have a fairly large set of bird feeders in my back yard. Last year was quite eventful for the feeders, I had several clutches of Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) born in the bushes scattered around the yard. Gambel’s Quail are skittish birds, living mostly on the ground, they run for cover at even the hint of a surprise. While they have nested in my yard off and on for several years, last year was the first time they visited the feeders. There is plenty of water, feed and shelter in my backyard and the quail apparently liked what they saw. We had at least 3 clutches and possibly as many as 5–6 with the result of many groups of adult, adolescent and baby quail pretty much all summer. Naturally I took photos, as if I was the proud grandfather. Many of the photos were taken in less than ideal light but gradually they grew more trusting and I managed a few flash captures. I thought the photos would make for a nice post so I organized the best ones to present here.
Adult Gambel’s Quail
William Gambel (1821–1849), an American naturalist who died on an ill-fated winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada. The scientific name “callipepla” comes from the Greek kalli (beautiful) and peplos (robe). The male Gambel’s Quail has an unmistakable black plume (sometimes called a topknot) consisting of 2–3 specialized feathers which bow forward. They have an orange crown with a white headband which is shaded to black towards the crown and is not present on the back of the head. There is a prominent post-auricular spot behind the brown eyes in both males and females. The forehead is black streaked with white, much like the California Quail. They have a thin white lores or stripe between the eye and the beak. There is a black bib, bordered with white. The chest is gray, with a creme belly fading to a prominent black on the lower belly. The nape (back of the neck) is gray scaled in both males and females. The chestnut sides are streaked with white and creme, the wings are olive gray. Some variation in plumage occurs across its range; mainly birds being darker and more vividly colored in areas with more rainfall. Older birds, like the one pictured above, have plumage that is more shaggy.
The female Gambel’s Quail has much less flamboyant plumage although males and females share many of the same features which have just been toned down. The female has a light gray-tan peaked crown and a white superciliary eyebrow. Both the male and female have white streaked foreheads but in the female the under-color is tan and the streaks extend under the neck. Many other features are similar: the plume or topknot is slightly smaller, the post-auricular spot, the white lores between eye and beak, the gray scales of the nape or back of the neck and the gray upper belly. The lower belly lacks a black spot and is streaked, unlike the male. The average length is 11 in (28 cm) with a wingspan of 14–16 in (36–41 cm). These birds have relatively short, rounded wings and long, featherless legs. The diet consists primarily of plant matter and seeds.
Related Species and Subspecies
There are two or more subspecies of Gambel’s Quail, Callipepla gambelii gambelli which live in Utah and Nevada through Mojave Desert to Colorado, northeastern Baja California and Tiburón Island, and Callipepla gambelii fulvipectus which live in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico to southern Sonora in Mexico. One of the main differences is Callipepla gambelii fulvipectus has darker coloration and a completely black forehead. There have been many other sub-species reported over the years although Wikipedia lists only two, HBW lists several more, I have included the reference.
Gambel’s quail can be confused with California quail due to similar plumage. They can usually be distinguished by range, but when this does not suffice, California quail have a more scaly appearance and the black patch on the lower breast of the male Gambel’s quail is absent in the California quail. The two species are sister taxa which diverged during the Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene, 1 to 2 mya.
In the spring, Gambel’s quail pair off for mating and become very aggressive toward other pairs. Gambel’s Quail mate for life although that life is usually only about 1 1/2 years. The female typically lays 10–12 eggs in a simple scrape concealed in vegetation, often at the base of a rock or tree. Incubation lasts from 21–23 days, usually performed by the female and rarely by the male. The chicks are precocial, leaving the nest with their parents within hours of hatching. Quail broods are usually larger than most other birds. Typically, 8 to 20 eggs are laid. In bad years (severe drought, less rainfall) clutch sizes can be reduced to 5 to 8 eggs laid. In particularly good years, brood size can be as high as 25 or more babies per brood. The average size brood, in most years, is usually between 8 and 15.
Very Young Quail
Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching, and follow parents. Both parents tend young and lead them to food sources, but young feed themselves. Young can fly short distances at age of 10 days but are not full grown until later. One brood per year, two in years with good food supply. The baby quail start as small balls of down with a brown stripe across the crown, a small brown plume and really big pink feet. When the chicks arrive, at first they are fed an almost pure insect diet, with ants being taken in the largest quantities.
The young quail turn into adolescents quickly, usually within a month. Adult characteristic plumage begins to form but definitive sex identification remains indeterminate. During this period, family groups or coveys are very important and the various families will feed alone until the next family displaced it. Also, while feeding, one of the parents will keep watch on an elevated location. In my case the wall of the backyard was the location and the parents would switch places periodically so everyone got fed. Feeding usually occurred in early morning and dusk.
Young Adult Quail
During spring and summer months, coveys usually consist of single family groups. But in fall two or more families group together to form large groups called winter coveys in preparation for the oncoming cold season of the year. Sometimes these winter coveys can number several dozen quail. They seem to understand the survival strategy of strength in numbers.
Aging of Gambel’s Quail
As the quail age, feathers are lost between the legs and the female develops a white bib along with generally ruffled feathers. I have included photos of the original mating pair at the spring beginning of mating and the end in fall. As you can see, breeding takes a toll on the parents who will probably not live out the winter. Age in this case is not an abstract number sometime in the future but usually at the end of the breeding season when the quail are about a year and a half old. Few quail live beyond this age though rare birds have been reported as old as 4 years.
As always, I hope you enjoyed the post. Even though these photographs are mostly on feeders and not with the best light, they are reminders of a lovely summer spent with Gambel’s Quail.