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Gambel’s Quail

These game birds are common in Mexico and southern parts of The United States.

With its range centered on the Sonoran Desert, the Gambel’s Quail is a familiar sight to residents of Arizona. Its social nature and prominent topknot make it easy to see, although the Gambel’s Quail population can vary dramatically from one year to the next depending on weather conditions in its dry, desert habitat.

Gambel’s Quail sometimes pretend to be injured to draw a predator away from a nest. Young birds occasionally become separated from the rest of their brood and join another brood. In extreme cases, several dozen young quail of various ages may be attended by one adult.


Description of the Gambel’s Quail


The Gambel’s Quail has grayish upperparts, a gray breast, a buffy belly, and reddish flanks streaked with white.  It also has a prominent topknot on its forehead.

Males have a blackish patch on the lower belly, a black face and throat, and a white eyeline.  Length: 10 in.  Wingspan: 14 in.


Females have a grayish head and throat, and an indistinct eyeline.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are rather similar to adult females.


Gambel’s Quail are found in canyons and brushy deserts, usually near a water source.


Primarily seeds, leaves, and berries.


The Gambel’s Quail forages mostly on the ground, though it will visit low woody vegetation for leaves and berries.  During the nonbreeding season it often occurs in flocks.


Gambel’s Quail are found in the U.S. Desert Southwest and north into the Great Basin, as well as south into Mexico.  The population is stable.

Fun Facts

Coveys of Gambel’s Quail can often be seen visiting water sources early and late in the day.

Coveys often roost together at night, low in a shrub or tree.


The song is a four note “chi-ca-go-go”.  A variety of call notes are also made.


Similar Species

California Quail
The California Quail has a scaled belly and a spotted or scaled nape. Limited overlap of range.

Scaled Quail
Female Gambel’s Quail might be confused with Scaled Quail.



The nest is typically a shallow depression lined with grass and leaves.

Number: Usually lay 10-12 eggs.
Color: White or buffy and heavily marked.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 21-24 days, and leave the nest within 1 day, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time


Bent Life History of the Gambel’s Quail

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Gambel’s Quail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Gambel’s quail is also very appropriately called the desert quail, for its natural habitat is the hot, dry desert regions of the Southwestern States and a corner of northwestern Mexico. Its center of abundance is in Arizona, but it ranges east to southwestern New Mexico and El Paso, Tex., and west to the Colorado and Mohave Deserts in southeastern California. On the western border of its range it is often associated with the valley quail and has been known to hybridize with it.

This beautiful species was discovered by Dr. William Gambel “on the eastern side of the Californian range of mountains in 1841 ” and named in his honor, according to John Cassin (1856), who gives us the first account of its distribution and habits, based largely on notes furnished by Col. George A. McCall. He did not meet with it west of the Colorado Desert barrier in California or east of the Pecos River in Texas.

We found gambel’s quail very common in southern Arizona, especially in the lower river valleys, where the dense growth of mesquite (Acacia glanduloea) afforded scanty shade, or where they could find shelter under the spreading green branches of the paloverdes, which in springtime presented great masses of yellow blossoms. They were even more abundant in the thickets of willows along the streams or in the denser forests of mesquites, hackberries, and various other thorny trees and shrubs. We occasionally flushed a pair as we drove along the narrow trails, but more often we saw them running off on foot, dodging in and out among the desert underbrush until out of sight. My companion on this trip, Francis C. Willard, has sent me the following notes, based on his long experience in Arizona:

Gambel’s Quail is essentially a bird of the areas In southern Arizona where the mesquite abounds. Unlike their neighbor, the scaled quail, they seem to require the close proximity of a water supply. They are, therefore, found principally along the few living streams and close to permanent water holes. I found them swarming in the mesquite forest along the Santa Gins River south of Tucson and almost as plentiful along the Rillito between Tucson and the mountains. In the valley of the San Pedro River they were also present in large numbers. Between the valley of this last-named river and the various ranges of mountains fringing It are long sloping mesas from 5 to 20 miles wide where the “black topknot” is rarely seen except close to the Infrequent water holes. In the foothills of the Dragoon, Huachucas, Wheistones, Chiricahuas, and other less ivell-known ranges this quail again appears in some numbers but nothing like those in the lower valleys.

Dr. Elliott Coues (1874) has given us the best account of this quail, which I shall quote from quite freely. lie says of its haunts:

Gambel’s Quail may be looked for in every kind of cover. Where they abound it is almost impossible to miss them, and coveys may often be seen on exposed sand-heaps, along open roads, or in the cleared patches around settlers’ cabins. If they have any aversion, it is for thick high pine-woods, without any undergro~vth; there they only casually stray. They are particularly fond of the low, tangled brush along creeks, the dense groves of young willows that grow In similar places, and the close-set chaparral of hillocks or mountain ravines. I have often found them, also, among huge granitic boulders and masses of lava, where there was little or no vegetation, except some straggling weeds; and have flushed them from the dryer knolls in the midst of a reedy swamp. Along the Gila and Colorado they live In such brakes as I described In speaking of Abert’s Finch; and they frequent the groves of mesquite and mimosa, that form so conspicuous a feature of the scenery in those places. These scrubby trees form dense interlacing copses, only to be penetrated with the utmost difficulty, but beneath their spreading scrawny branches are open intersecting ways, along which the Quail roams at will, enjoying the slight shade. In the most sterile regions they are apt to come together in numbers about the few water-holes or moist spots that may be found and remain In the vicinity, so that they become almost as good Indication of the presence of water as the Doves themselves. A noteworthy fact in their history, is their ability to bear, without apparent inconvenience, great extremes of temperature. They are seemingly at ease among the burning sands of the desert, where, for months, the thermometer daily marks a hundred, and may reach a hundred and forty, “in the best shade that could be procured,” as Colonel McCall says; and they are equally at home the year round among the mountains, where snow lies on the ground in winter.

In New Mexico, according to Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1928), it is found in the Lower Sonoran Zone in quail brush (Atriplex lentiformis) and creosote, nnd In hot p-esquite valleys or their brushy slopes, in screw bean and palo verde thickets and among patches of prickly pear. It is not generally found so far from water as the Scaled Quail, which eats more juicy Insect food, but at times both are seen in the same landscape.

In inhabited regions, in places where cattle trails lead to water, the Gambel’s pretty foot prints call up pleasant pictures of morning procession of thirsty little “black-helmeted” pedestrians, talking cheerfully as they go. For it seems most at home about small farms, such as those cultivated by the SpanishAmericans, which dot the narrow canyons and river valleys.

Courtship: Springtime in Arixona is most charming as the desert plants burst into bloom with their profusion of many colors. The new fernlike foliage of the mesquite mingles with dangling yellow tassels. The long slender stems of the ocotillo are tipped with vermilion spikes. Even the lowly creosote bush is clouded with yellow haze. The various chollas and the pricklypears are studded with pink, yellow, or crimson flowers, and the little rainbow cactus blooms by the roadside with a wealth of large magenta and yellow blossoms. Even the giant cactus supports a crown of white, and the paloverde is the showiest of all, a great bouquet of brilliant yellow. Then we may look for the trim figure of the cock quail, perched on some low tree, bush, or stump, and listen to his challenging love call.

Major Bendire (1892) has described his courtship very well, as follows:

During the mating and breeding season, the former commencing usually in the latter part of February, the latter ahout the first week in April and occasionally later, according to the season, the male frequently utters a call like yuk-kce-jc, yak-k-ce-jo, each syllable distinctly articulated and the last two somewhat drawn out. A trim, handsome, and proud-looking cock, whose more somber-colored mate had a nest close by, used an old mesquite stump, about 4 feet high, and not more than 20 feet from my tent, as hIs favorite perch, and I had many excellent opportunities to watch him closely. Standing perfectly erect, with his beak straight up in the air, his tall slightly spread and wings somewhat drooping, he uttered this call in a clear strong voice every few minutes for half an hour or so, or until disturbed by something, and this he repeated several times a day. I consider it a call of challenge or of exultation, and it was taken up usually by any other male in the vicinity at the time. During the mating season the males fight each other persistently, and the victor defends his chosen home against intrusion with much valor. It is a pleasing and interesting sight to watch the male courting his mate, uttering at the time some low cooing notes, and strutting around the coy female in the most stately manner possible, bowing his head and making his obeisance to her. While a handsome bird at all times, he certainly looks his best during this love-making period.

Nesting: My experience with the nesting habits of Gambel’s quail is limited to three nests found near Tucson, Ariz., in 1922. On May 19 we were hunting through the mesquite forest, a large tract of once heavy timber that had been much depleted by the raids of Papago Indian woodchoppers. There were only a few large trees left, some very large hackberry trees, which were more or less scattered with many open spaces; but there was plenty of cover left in the extensive thickets of small mesquite and thorny undergrowth, or in the patches of large mesquite, oaks, and hackberry. While walking along the edge of a dry ditch, we flushed a Gambel’s quail from its nest under a tiny thorn bush. The nest was a rather deep hollow lined with sticks, straws, leaves, and feathers; it held 10 eggs.

Two days later, while hunting among the giant cactuses, which here were scattered over an open plain, scantily overgrown with low mesquite and greasewood bushes in dry stony soil, we flushed another quail from under a large mesquite bush; way under it, at the base of the trunk and almost beyond reach in the thorny tangle, was its nest with 16 eggs. The next day while investigating a Palmer’s thrasher’s nest, five feet above the ground in a cholla, we were surprised to find in it three eggs of this quail. I have since learned that it is not unusual for this quail to use old nests of thrashers or cactus wrens. Perhaps the birds have learned by sad experience that ground nests are less safe.

My companion, Frank Willard, who has had much wider experience than I, has sent me the following notes:

From early in May well into July and sometimes even Into August nests with eggs may be found. The last week of May and the first week in June seem to be the height of the egg-laying season. The eggs of gambeill are laid in more exposed situations than those of squamata. The most frequently chosen site is at the foot of a small mesquite or other bush xvhere a slight hollow is scratched in the dry ground. There is one protection, however, which the quail seems to find necossary. There must be something to shade them from the hot midday sun. The scanty shade afforded by the fern leaf of the mesquite Is sufficient but there must be some at least.

Two or more females lay their eggs in the same nest very frequently. I have had nests under observation where two or more eggs were added daily to the complement therein. It has occurred to me that this is a wise provision of nature to secure a nest full of eggs with as little delay as possible so that incubathn could be undertaken promptly and an even hatching take place without the eggs being exposed to the dry desert heat until one bird could lay a full set, which averages a dozen eggs or more. A few days of exposure to the dry air xvithout the moisture from the body of the sitting bird would make many of the eggs sterile. Nearly every egg in nests where Incubation had commenced was fertile and I seldom found more than one unhatched egg among the d6bris of a nest from which the young had hatched and gone.

On May 14, 1908, I went to collect a set of Gambel’s quail eggs which I had been watching for some time. The previous day there had been 18 eggs in the nest, some (If them those of the scaled quail. As I looked around the large rock behind which the nest was concealed I found the female quail fluttering above her nest in xvhich was coiled a large rattlesnake. With head uplifted it was striking at the bird which deftly avoided the blows. On my appearance the bird flew away. I prodded the snake, driving it from the nest, and then killed it. Eleven rattles adorned Its tail. There were 16 eggs left, all of which were fresh. I foolishly neglected to open the snake and look for the two missing eggs.

I once found a Gambel quail sitting on 16 eggs laid in a Palmer thrasher’s nest 5 feet up in a cholia sheltered by a large sycamore. The bird sat very close. On another occasion I found several eggs of this quail in the nest of a Palmer thrasher and the thrasher sitting on them and her own three eggs.

Major Bendire (1892) writes:

The nest of Gambel’s Partridge is simply a slight oval-shaped hollo~v, scratched out in the sandy soil of the bottom lands, usually alongsIde of a bunch of “sacaton,” a species of tall rye grass, the dry stems and blades of last year’s growth hanging down on all sides of the new growth and hiding the nest well from view. Others are placed under, or in a pile of, brush or drift brought down from the mountains by freshets and lodged against some old stump, the roots of trees, or other obstructions on some of the numerous Islands in the now dry creek beds, refreshing green spots amid a dreary waste of sand. According to my observations only a comparatively small number resort to the cactus and yucca covered footbills and mesas some distance back, where the nests are usually placed under the spreading leaves of one of the latter named plants. If grain fields are near by they nest sometimes amidst the growing grain in these, and should the latter be surrounded by brush fences, these also furnish favorite nesting sites.

Among the nests observed by me t~vo were placed in situations above ground. One of these was found June 2 on top of a good-sized rotten willow stump, about 2~ feet from the ground, In a slight decayed depression In its center, which had, perhaps, been enlarged by the bird. The eggs were laid on a few dry cottonwood leaves, and were partly covered by these. Another pair appropriated an old Road-runner’s nest, Geococcyx call fornianus, in a mesquite tree, about 5 feet from the ground, to which apparently a little additional lining had been added by the bird. The nest contained 10 fresh eggs when found on June 27, 1872.

M. French Gilman (1915) found this quail quite tame and confiding, nesting in much-frequented localities, for he says:

Two nests were in the school woodpile, containing 19 and 13 eggs, respectively. Another, in a pile of short hoards and kindling about 10 feet from the school woodshed, had 7 eggs in It. The nest out in the fields had 9 eggs, and was at the base of a Lycium bush. About the middle of June I put some straw in an old nail keg, open at one end, and placed It on its side In the forks of a mesquite tree about two feet from the ground. The mesquite had some saplings starting from the trunk that sheltered the keg. June 24, I found that a quail had moved in and had laid two eggs. Later she completed the set, only eight eggs, and successfully hatched all but one. She was quite tame on the nest, and would not he scared off by any mild measures. I tried hammering on the rear of the keg, rolling it gently and talking to her, requesting her to get off and let me count the eggs, but unless I put my hand at the front of the keg she sat pat.

Eggs: Ten or a dozen eggs constitute the average set, but sets of 18, 19, and 20 have been recorded. These large sets are doubtless the product of two hens, as indicated by Mr. Willard’s observations above and by the fact that these sets usually contain two types of eggs. The eggs are short ovate in shape and sometimes somewhat pointed; they are smooth and slightly glossy. The ground colors vary from dull white to “cartridge buff” or “pale pinkish buff.” They are irregularly spotted and blotched with a mixture of large Liotches, small spots, and fine dots; sometimes the ground color is well covered, but more often not. The markings are in shades of dark or purplish browns, from “warm sepia” or ~ to “snuff brown.” One of my sets has 5 eggs of the ordinary type and 11 beautiful eggs with a “pinkish buff”ground color,well covered with small blotches, spots, and fine dots of “deep grayish lavender” and “deep heliotrope gray.” This set shows the purplish bloom referred to by Bendire (1892), which turns dark brown, when washed, and dries out to purple again. The measurements of 99 eggs in the United States National Museum average 31.5 by 24 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 34 by 26, 28.5 by 24, and 30 by 23 millimeters.

Young: Incubation seems to be performed by the female alone and is said to require from 21 to 24 days. Both sexes share in the care of the young. Very early and very late dates indicate that at least two broods are raised in a season. Coues (1874) says of the young:

They run about as soon as they are hatched, though probably not “with halt shell on their backs,” as some one has said. In a few days they become very nimble, and so expert in hiding that it is difficult either to see or catch them. When the mother bird is surprised with her young brood, she gives a sharp warning cry, that is well understood to mean danger, and then generally flies a little distance to some concealed spot, where she crouches, anxiously watching. The fledglings, by an instinct that seems strange when we consider how short a time they have had any ideas at all, instantly scatter in all directions, and squat to hide as soon as they think they have found a safe place, remaining motionless until the reassuring notes of the mother call them together again, with an intimation that the alarm is over. Then they huddle close around her, and she carefully leads them off to some other spot, where she looks for greater security in the enjoyment of her hopes and pleasing cares. As long as they require the parent’s attention they keep close together and are averse to flying. Even after becoming able to use their wings well, they prefer to run and hide, or squat where they may be, when alarmed. If then forced up, the young covey flies off, without separating, to a little distance, often realighting on the lower limbs of trees or in bushes, rather than on the ground. As they grow older and stronger of wing, they fly further, separate more readily, and more rarely take to trees; and sometimes, before they are fully grown, they are found to have already become wary and difficult of approach. As one draws near where a covey is feeding, a quick, sharp cry from the bird who first notices the approach alarms the whole, and is quickly repeated by the rest, as they start to run, betraying their course by the rustling of dried leaves. Let him step nearer, and they rise with a whirr, scattering in every direction.

Plumages: In natal down the young Gambel’s quail is much like the California quail at the same age, but the colors are paler and duller. The front half of the crown and the sides of the head are from “clay color” to “pinkish buff “; there is a broad band of “russet,” bordered with black, from the tiny topknot to the hind neck, and a dark brownish auricular patch; the rest of the upper parts is light “pinkish buff,” banded lengthwise and blotched with “warm sepia”; the underparts are pale grayish buff.

As with all other quail and grouse, the juvenal plumage begins to grow soon after the chick is hatched, appearing first on the wings and scapulars; the topknot, or crest, appears at once, “hazel” at first and then dull brown. In fresh juvenal plumage the feathers of the mantle are variegated with “cinnamon,” “pinkish buff,” and black, each with a broad, median, white stripe; later these fade to gray, pale buff, and dull brown; the scapulars have buffy edgings; the tertials are at first “pinkish buff,” later grayish, barred with dusky and tipped with white; the tail is grayish, barred near the tip with dusky, dull whitish, and dull huffy; the underparts are grayish ‘white, faintly barred with dusky; on the head, which is the last part to be feathered, the forehead is dusky and the crown “mikado brown.” In this plumage the sexes are alike, and the birds closely resemble young California quail of the same age.

The birds are hardly fully grown and the juvenal plumage is hardly complete before the change into the first winter plumage begins on the back and wing coverts. This change is accomplished by a complete postjuvenal molt, except that the two outer juvenal primaries, and their coverts, on each wing are retained for a full year. Otherwise the young birds are practically indistinguishable from adults after the molt is completed in October, or later.

Subsequent molts for old and young birds consist of a vey limited prenuptial molt in April and May, involving only the head and neck, and a complete postnuptial molt in August and September.

Food: In the stomachs, collected from January to June, Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1905) found that less than half of 1 per cent of the food consisted of insects, which included ants, beetles, grasshoppers, leaf hoppers, and stink bugs. Vegetable matter made up 99.52 per cent of the food; 3.89 per cent of this was grain, 31.8~ per cent seeds, and the balance, 63.74 per cent, was made up of leaves and shoots of various plants. The grain included corn, wheat, and oats, much of which was probably picked up among the grain shocks, where large flocks have been seen feeding with domestic poultry. The seeds were largely those of leguminous plants such as alfalfa, bur clover, and mesquite, and also of alfilaria, mustard, chickweed, peppergrass, and atriplex. Succulent foliage and shoots form by far the larger percentage of the food. Of this, alfalfa, bur clover, and the foliage of other legumes constitute the greater part. Both the green leaves and pods of alfalfa are freely eaten. In spring this quail shows a fondness for buds, and in some localities its flesh has a distinctly bitter taste due to a diet of willow buds. Certain kinds of fruit also are eaten.

Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905) say that during the summer Gambel’s quail feeds extensively on the berries of the nightshade. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say:

Evidence Is also at hand that this quail, like many other desert animals, feeds upon the fruit and seeds of certain kinds of cactus. Stomachs of Gambol Quail collected along the Colorado River In the spring of 1910 contained masses of mistletoe berries, and, at the time the mesqultes were first coming into leaf, quantities of the tender green foliage of this plant.

It has been said that these quail can not exist very far from water, to which they have to resort twice a day to drink, but Dr. Robert C. Murphy (1917) found them abundant at all hours about his camp in the Colorado Desert, which “was upwards of 20 miles from the river, 7 miles from the miserable hole of the Tres Pozos, 10 miles from the Laguna Salada, and an equal distance from the nearest mountain ‘tinaja.’ The soil was everywhere sandy and porous; not a suggestion of moisture was to be detected even in the beds of the deepest barrancas.” He also says: “The crops of the specimens taken early in April were mostly crammed with caterpillars of the genus Hemileuca, assorted sizes of which were at that time marching in legions across the desert.”

Behavior: Gambel’s quail is not so persistent a runner as the scaled quail, but it is quite reluctant to fly and prefers to escape by running very swiftly away among the underbrush. It does not often squat and bide, as our bobwhite does, for this would be a poor way to escape from its natural enemies. When it is forced to fly its flight is swift and strong and often protracted to a long distance in the open; in thick brush, which it largely frequents, it flutters rather awkwardly away for a short distance; flocks separated in this way soon begin to call and gather again. We found it not particularly shy, especially among the mesquite thickets, where it probably felt that it was not observed. About the ranches and farmhouses it becomes very tame, often feeding with the domestic poultry. During the heat of the day it rests quietly in the scanty shade of the mesquites, or under denser thickets, or even on the branches of leafy trees. It comes out to feed and drink early in the morning and toward night. It takes to the trees readily at any time and piobably roosts in trees at night. When a flock of Gambel’s quail is feeding there is usually a sentinel on guard.

Voice: Cassin (1856), quoting from Colonel McCall’s notes, says of the voice of the male in June: A very good idea may be formed of his cry by slowly pronouncing, in a low tone, the syllables “kaa: wale,” “kaa: wGle.” These notes when uttered close at hand, are by no means loud; yet it is perfectly astonishing to what a distance they may be heard when the day is calm and still. There was to me something extremely plaintive in this simple love-song, which I beard for the first time during a day of burning heat passed upon the desert.

Again he writes:

Later in the season, when a covey is dispersed, the cry for assembling is “qua-el,” “qua-el.” The voice at all seasons bears much resemblance to that of the California Partrtd~e: having, in its intonation, no similarity to the whistle of the Virginia or common partridge.

Bendire (1892) gives the mating call of the male as “yuk-kae-ja, yuk-kae-ja, each syllable distinctly articulated and the last two somewhat drawn out.” Another note, given while moving about in coveys, “resembled the grunting of a sucking pig more than anything else, and it is rather difficult to reproduce the exact sound in print. Any of the following syllables resembles it, quoit, oit, woet, uttered rapidly but in a low tone. The alarm note is a sharp, discordant craer, craer, several times rapidly repeated, and is usually uttered by the entire covey almost simultaneously.”

Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1904) quotes from Joseph Mailliard’s notes, as follows:

The notes of the desert quail differ from those of the valley quail in variety, and to a certain extent in character, though they have some notes in common. The “crow” of the latter consists of three notes, varying in length and accent according to the call given, in one case the last note being a falling one. The crow” of the desert quail, while rather similar to the other, has two additional notes at the end, rendered in a softer tone. Besides the alarm calls the valley quail has a few twittering or conversational notes, while the other species has a lot of these, quite varied and often given in a way that seems remarkably loud to one accustomed only to the notes of the former. Another peculiarity of the desert quail is the queer sound that it makes as it rises from the ground on being surprised into flight: the sort of screeching cackle, on a small scale, that a hen makes when frightened from her nest.

Game: Although Gambel’s quail is a plump and delicious morsel for the table, it is an exasperating bird to hunt. It loves the thickest and thorniest cover and frequents the roughest and hardest country, through which it runs, and keeps on running, faster than a man can follow; often it will take refuge in a rocky creek bed or canyon, where it is hopeless to follow. ‘What few I have shot have required more vigorous leg exercise than they were worth and usually had to be shot on the run. When flushed in the open it flies swiftly and requires good shooting. The birds will not lie to a dog, so the best bird dogs are utterly useless in hunting them, except as retrievers. In past years these quail were an important item in the market hunter’s game bag. Herbert Brown (1900) was informed by an express agent that 3,000 dozen quail were shipped out of Salt River Valley in 1889 and 1890. He says further:

The Mohawk valley, in Yuma county, is probably the most prolific breeding spot in the territory. It was, at one time, a favorite place for trappers and pot-hunters, and it was not until the game law had been amended that their nefarious practices were broken up. In six weeks, in the fall of 1894, no less than 1,300 dozens were shipped to San Francisco and other California markets. The price at first realized, so I was told by the shippers, was $1.12’A per dozen, hut later 60 cents only were realized. The Quail were trapped, their throats cut, then sacked and shipped by express. I was told by one of tile parties so engaged that he and his partner caught 77 dozens in one day. They used eight traps and baited with barley. Their largest catch in one trap, at one time, was 11 dozens. At the meeting of the next legislature the game law was again amended, and it was made a misdemeanor to trap, snare, or ship Quail or Partridges from the Territory. This effectually stopped the merciless slaughter of the gamiest bird in Arizona: Gambel’s Partridge.

Enemies: Coues (1874) writes: Man is, I suppose, the Quail’s worst enemy; what the White does with dog and gun the Red accomplishes with ingenious snares, The Indians take great numbers aiive in this way, for food or to trade with the whites along the Colorado; and they use the crests for a variety of purposes that they consider ornamental. I saw a squaw once who had at least a hundred of them strung on a piece of rope-yarn for a necklace. But the birds have other foes; the larger Hawks prey upon them, so also do the wolves, as I have had good evidence upon one occasion, when hunting in a precipitous, rocky place ncar Fort Whipple. I heard a covey whispering about me as they started to run off in the weeds, and followed them up to get a shot. They passed around a huge boulder that projected from the hill-side, and then, to my surprise, suddenly scattered on wing in every direction, some flying almost in my face. At the same instant a wolf leaped up from the grass, where he had been hiding, a few feet off, intending to waylay the covey, and looking very much disappointed, not to say disgusted, at the sudden flight.

The quail have numerous other enemies. Coyotes, foxes, wildcats, and various hawks and owls kill the old birds and young; even the little pigmy owl has been known to kill an adult Gambel’s quail. Skunks, rats, rock squirrels, snakes, Gila monsters, and even land terrapins eat the eggs. Fortunately these quail are prolific breeders, so they are not exterminated.

Range: Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The range of Gambel’s quail extends north to southern California (rarely Los Angeles, Hesperia, and Daggett) ; southern Nevada (Ash Meadows and Pahranagat Valley); southern Utah (Hamblin, Harmony, and Fruita); Arizona (Cedar Ridge, Roosevelt, Nantan Plateau, and Blue); and central Texas (Eagle Springs). East to southwestern New Mexico (Socorro and Las Cruces); central Texas (Eagle Springs and Fort Clark); and southeastern Sonora (Camoa). South to southern Sonora (Camoa and Guaymas); and northern Lower California (Laguna Salada). West to northern Lower California (Laguna Salada and Signal Mountain); and southern California (Calexico, Pelican Lake, Agua Dulce, Palm Springs, and rarely Los Angeles). Some of the northern localities, such as those in Utah, may possibly be the result of introductions in contiguous areas. Bryant (1889) states that “a few pairs with small young were seen” on the western side of Lower California at about latitude 300 N., but it is likely that the birds seen were San Quintin quail (L. c. p~umbea). There is one record of the occurrence of gambeli at San Diego, Calif., where a female was found (1924) mated with a male valley quail (L. c. vallicola).

It is difficult to outline the natural range of this quail, since it has been transplanted extensively. For example, they were found rather commonly at Furnace Creek, Death Valley, having been introduced there from Resting Springs, Calif., by the borax company. They are easily trapped and for this reason probably have been favorites in many ill-advised projects. In the early nineties they were introduced into Massachusetts (Marthas Vineyard). Other eastern experiments were made in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Naturally, all these were failures, as were also introductions in northern California and Washington.

They were, however, successfully acclimated on San Clemente Island, Calif., and there have been several successful introductions well outside the normal range in Arizona (Snowflake, Holbrook, Vernon, and Colfax Counties) and New Mexico (Cortez, Gallup, San Juan Valley, and Huntington). A successful introduction also is reported from Montana (Blue Creek, near Billings). The most remarkable achievement, however, is the transplantation of these birds to western Colorado. About 1,000 birds from southern California (which locality gave rise to the name “California quail,” under which they have appeared in the literature on Colorado birds) were liberated at Montrose in 1885 or 1889. From that point the birds have increased and spread over the Uncompahgre Plateau and the valleys of the Grand and Gunnison Rivers. Because of plumage changes that have taken place since the introduction, they have been described as a subspecies (L. g. 8anue). There is no definite record of the natural occurrence of Gambel’s quail anywhere in Colorado.

Egg dates: Arizona: 68 records, March 19 to September 20; 34 records, April 20 to May 29. California: 8 records, March 26 to June 2.

OLATHE QUAIL [Current A.O.U. = Gambel’s Quail]


The Gambel’s quail of southwestern Colorado has been described by Dr. Edgar A. Mearns (1914) as “rather larger than the average” of Arizona birds, from which “it differs in coloration as follows: Adult male with upper parts neutral gray (Ridgway, 1912), unwashed with olive; crown chestnut-brown instead of hazel; chestpatch cartridge buff instead of warm buff or chamois. Adult female with upper parts as in the male, differing from gairibelii and ,fulvipectus in having the crown darker (sepia instead of cinnamon drab) ; chin and throat darker and more grayish; chest and abdomen pale olive-buff instead of cream color.”

The type specimen caine from Montrose County, but it seems to be a rare bird even there. Its habits are probably no different from those of the species elsewhere.

MEARNS’S QUAIL [Current A.O.U. = Gambel’s Quail]


One of the handsomest and certainly the most oddly marked of the North American quails presents a bizarre appearance when closely examined; one look at its conspicuously marked face would brand it as a clown among birds; its dark-colored breast is contrary to the laws of protective coloration and would make it very conspicuous on open ground. But when one tries to find it in its native haunts, squatting close to the ground among thick underbrush, weeds, and grass, one realizes that its dark belly and spotted flanks are completely concealed, that the grotesquely painted face becomes obliterated among the sharp lights and shadows, and that the prettily marked back matches its surroundings so well that the bird is nearly invisible.

Mearns’s quail has been called the “fool quail” because it has learned to trust this wonderful protective coloration and lie close, rather than trust to its legs or its wings to escape. How successful it has been nobody knows. The only two I ever saw I almost stepped on before they flew, and I wonder how many more I walked near without knowing it. I question whether it is as much of a fool as it is said to be. It lives in different haunts and has developed different habits from its neighbors, the scaled and Gambel’s quails. Its shape and carriage, its white-spotted sides, and its habit of clucking as it walks or feeds have suggested a possible relationship with the guinea fowls.

The haunts of Mearns’s quail are generally far removed from the habitations of man. Major Bendire (1892) quotes William Lloyd as saying that, in Texas, “the favorite resorts of the Massena Partridge are the rocky ravines or arroyas that head well up in the mountains. They quickly, however, adapt themselves to changed conditions of life and are now to he seen around the ranches picking up grain and scratching in the fields. In the vicinity of Fort Davis, Texas, they have been exceptionally numerous and may frequently be seen sitting on the stone walls surrounding grainfields in Limpia Canon.”

In Arizona we found them in the lower parts of the canyons and in the foothills of the Huachucas and the Chiricahua Mountains, where the ground was rough and more or less rocky, with tall tufts of grass, low bushes, scattered mescals, and small oaks. They range up the sides of rocky ravines and into the mountains up to 9,000 feet in summer and are seldom found below 4,000 feet. In Apache County, according to Major Bendire (1892), “the favorite localities frequented by this species during the breeding season are thick live-oak scrub and patches of rank grass, at an altitude of from 7,000 to 9,000 feet. Here they are summer residents only, descending to much lower altitudes in winter.” Henry W. Henshaw (1874) writes: “This beautiful partridge is quite a common resident in the White Mountains, near Apache, Ariz., where, in summer, it seems to shun the open valleys, and keeps in the open pine-woods, evincing a strong preference for the roughest, rockiest localities, where its stout feet and long, curved, strong claws are admirably adapted to enable it to move with ease.” Nesting: Major Bendire (1892) refers to two nests described as slight hollows, one under a small shin-oak bush, the other alongside a sotol plant. He quotes descriptions of two other nests quite fully. Otho C. Poling wrote:

I was climbing up a steep mountain side on the northeast of the Huachuca Mountains, some 10 mIles north of the border, when, at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, I flushed the female almost directly under my feet and shot It. The hillside was covered in places with patches of pines and aspena, as well as with low bushes and grasses. The nest was directly under a dead limb which was grown over with dead grass, and so completely hidden that until I had removed the limb and some of the grass It was not discernible at alL The nest was sunken in the ground, and composed of small grass stems, arched over, and the bird could only enter it by a long tunnel leading to it from under the limb and the grass growing around It. The eggs were eight in number and naturally white, but they were badly stained by the damp ground, their color being now a brownish white. They were almost hatched. The female must have remained on them all the time to have caused such uniform ineubation and preserved the eggs from spoiling by the excessive dampness.

G. W. Todd’s notes state:

The only nest of this species I have ever seen was situated under the edge of a big bunch of a coarse species of grass, known as “hickory grass.” This grass grows out from the center and hangs over on all sides until the blades touch the ground. It is a round, hard-stemmed grass, and only grows on the most sterile soil. According to my observations the Massena partridge is seldom seen in other localities than where this grass grows. I was riding at a walk up the slope of a barren hill when my horse almost stepped on a nest, touching just the rim of it. The bird gave a startled flutter, alighting again within S feet of the nest and not over 6 feet from me; thence she walked away with her crest slightly erected, uttering a low chuckling whistle until lost to view behind a Spanish bayonet plant (yucca), about 30 feet off. I was riding a rather unruly horse and had to return about 30 yards to tie him to a yucca before I could examine the nest. This was placed in a slight depression, possibly dug out by some animal, the top of the nest being on a level with the earth around it. It was ~vell lined with fine stalks of wire grass almost exclusively, the cavity being about 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. At the back, next to the grass, it was slightly arched over, and the overhanging blades of grass hid It entirely from sight. The nest was more carefully made than the average bobwhite’s nest ond very nicely concealed.

There is a set of 13 eggs in Col. John E. Thayer’s collection, taken by Virgil W. Owen in Cochise County, Ariz., June 18, 1905. The nest is described as “a slight, depression under a bunch of saw-grass, which was growing on a hillside. It was quite compactly built of straws, grass, and leaves, with a tubular entrance extending out about six inches from the nest. The whole nest was roofed over and well concealed by overhanging grass.”

Eggs: Mearns’s quail is known to lay from 8 to 14 eggs. These vary in shape from ovate to short ovate or ovate pyriform, usually more elongated than those of the bobwhite. The shell is smooth and somewhat glossy. They are pure white, dull white, or creamy white and unmarked, but often much nest stained. The measurements of 39 eggs average 31.9 by 24.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 33 by 24.4, 32.3 by 27.3, 30.5 by 24.6, and 31.5 by 23 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation seems to be unknown. Both sexes share in the incubation and in the care of the young. Frank C. Willard, who has seen many nests, tells me that In about half of the nests examined the male was on the eggs. In two instances both birds were at the nest. In one which I went to see on August 17, 1913, the male was sitting at the entrance with a newly hatched chick poking its head out from under his wing. The female was in the nest, which was well arched over. Around her was a row of little ones, and one was sitting on her back. This charming picture lasted but a few seconds. The two old birds fluttered away, pretending disability to fly. The scarcely dry young could not walk, but crawled away with astonishing rapidity.

Henshaw (1874) describes the following exhibition of parental solicitude:

August 10, while riding with a party through a tract of piny woods, a brood of 8 or 10 young, accompanied by the female, was discovered. The young, though but about a week old, rose up almost from between the feet of the foremost mule, and after flying a few yards dropped down, and in a twinkling were hidden beneath the herbage. At the moment of discovery, the parent bird rose up, and then, tumbling back helplessly to the ground, imitated so successfully the actions of a wounded and disabled bird that, for a moment, I thought she must have teen trodden upon by one of the mules. Several of the men, completely deceived, attempted to catch her, when she gradually fluttered off, keeping all the time just beyond the reach of their hands, till she had enticed them a dozen yards away, when she rose and was off like a bullet, much to their amazement.

Plumages: In the newly hatched chick the upper parts are variegated with “cinnamon-buff,”” hazel,” “chestnut,” and black, mostly hazel and chestnut, fading out to white on the chin and throat and to grayish white on the belly; there is a broad band or patch on the crown, of “hazel,” bordered with chestnut, and an auricular stripe of blackish brown.

The juvenal plumage is acquired at an early stage. A small young bird, only about 21/2 inches long, is nearly covered above with juvenal plumage; the wings reach beyond the tail, which has not yet started; the sides of the breast and flanks are feathered; but the head, neck, and center of the breast are still downy. This young bird could probably fly. In this plumage the sexes are much alike, except that in the young male the crissum, lower belly, and flanks are black, and the center of the breast is suffused with brown, whereas in the young female these parts are whitish; these characters are conspicuous in flight. In both sexes the crown is “hazel” or “russet,” spotted with black and with some whitish shaft streaks; the sides of the head are buffy white, mottled with black and with a dark brown auricular patch; the mantle is “tawny” to “ochraceous-tawny,” barred heavily with black and with broad buffy median stripes; the wing coverts are ashy with rounded black spots; the primaries and secondaries are banded with white spots; the throat is white, and the rest of the underparts are pale buff, or grayish white, barred or spotted with black and white.

The juvenal plumage is worn for only a short time, for the postjuvenal molt begins early in September and is prolonged in some individuals through November. This molt is complete except for the ollter two primaries on each wing, which are retained during the first year. The sexes now begin to differentiate rapidly, the brilliant body plumage of the male and the “vinaceous-pink” breast of the female replacing the juvenal plumage.

The molt starts on the upper breast, flanks, and shoulders, working gradually downward; the rich chestnut in the center of the breast of the male is the last of the body plumage to be acquired; but the entire body molt is completed before any change takes place on the head; the conspicuous head markings are not assumed in the young male until December or later. A very limited prenuptial molt takes place in spring and a complete postnuptial molt late in summer and in fall, after which young birds are fully adult.

Food: Mrs. Bailey (1928) summarizes the food of Mearns’s quail as follows:

As far as known, lily bulbs: ~% of the food in 5 specImens and to judge from their large strong digging feet provided with sharp claws perhaps the principal article of their diet: also great numbers of acorns and pinyon nuts, and in addition seeds and spines of prickly pear, acacia, seeds of legumes and spurges, grass blades, berries of mountain laurel, arbutus, and cedar, and such Insects as weevils, caterpillars, bugs, crickets, and grasshoppers.

A pair thnt Mr. Bailey started at the head of the Mimbres at about 8,000 feet had been scratching under the pine trees. “In the freshly scratched ground,” he says, “I found a quantity of membranacious shells of a little bulb: probably Cpperus: and several of the bulbs. I ate one of these and found it good, starchy, juicy, crisp, and of a nutty flavor. The Quail had dug two or three Inches deep in the hard ground and seemed to find plenty of bulbs, but I could not find one by digging new ground, nor could I find the plant which bore them.

Behavior: Mearns’s quail is a gentle, retiring bird of rather sedentary habits. It prefers to walk about slowly and quietly among the rocks, bushes, and clumps of grass on the rough hillsides where it lives. If alarmed, it squats and freezes, immovable, until almost trodden upon or touched, when it rises from almost under foot, flies a short distance, drops into cover and squats again. When greatly alarmed it sometimes flies to a great distance in a very swift and direct flight. Several observers have mentioned coming upon one or more of these birds in the mountain roads, where they are fond of dusting; they showed no alarm, either walking away quietly or squatting and freezing. Captain William L. Carpenter says in his notes:

I once stopped my horse when about to step on one and watched it for soule time without creating alarm. After admiring It for several moments squatting close to the ground within a yard of the horse, watching me intently, but apparently without fear, I dismounted and almost caught it with my hat, from under which it fluttered away.

Henshaw witnessed a remarkable exhibition of the confidence that this bird shows in its protective coloration, for he says in some notes sent to Mrs. Bailey (1928): Of the several quail known to me the “fool quail” of New Mexico and Arizona seems to depend for his safety upon his protective coloration more than any other. As an example I recall one that squatted on a log near the trail our pack train was following, and so closely did the colors of his back and sides harmonize with his surroundings that 12 or 15 pack mules and horsemen passed by him without seeing him or disturbing his equanimity In the least. He seemed so completely petrified by astonishment at the novel sight as to be incapable of motion, and he was so close to us that one might have touched him with a rIding whip. While the bird was no doubt actuated to some extent by curiosity, he depended for his safety, I am sure, upon the nice way in which his plumage matched his surroundings and upon his absolute Immobility. No one saw the bird but myself, and when the train had passed I had to almost poke him off his perch before he consented to fly. Whoso calls this the “Fool Quail” writes himself down a bigger fool than the bird, who has been taught his lesson of concealment by Mother Nature herself.

Louis A. Fuertes (1903) thus describes his first impression of a Mearns’s quail:

I awoke In the cool, Just before sun-up, and was lazily dressing, half out of my sleeping bag, when my sleepy eye caught a slight motion in the grass about 20 feet away. I looked and became aware that I was staring at my first Mearns quail. Even as I took in the fact, he apparently framed up his ideas as to 1u8 vision, and telling himself In a quiet little quail voice that it were perhaps as well to move on and look from a safer distance, he slimmed down his trim little form and ran a few steps. Meanwhile I was clumsily trying to get my gun out from under my sleeping bag, where I had put it to keep it out of the dew. The quail, getting wiser every second, doubled his trot, and with bead erect and body trim ran like a plover for a few yards through the short desert grass, and with a true quail f-r-r-r-r-r.r-r-r burst Into flight and dropped into the thick brush across the arroyo. The most noticeable thing about him as I watched him running was the curious use of his queer little crest. Instead of elevating it as the mountain quail does his, he raised his painted head on slim neck and spread his flowing crest iateratip, till it looked like half a mushroom, giving him the most curious appearance imaginable. When he flew I marked him down carefully, hastily drew my boots half on, grabbed my gun and stumped after him with all speed. I got to his point within a short time, but thrash and kick around as I might, I never succeeded in making him flush a second time.

Mr. Willard writes to me:

One morning, as I arrived in front of our store in Tombstone, I found a flock of a dozen or more of these birds running around in the street. Most of them flew up onto the roof of the building, but one male ran into the doorway, stuck his head down into a corner, and waited for me to pick him up.

Voice: Major Bendire (1892) quotes Mr. Todd as saying:

When scared they utter a kind of whistling sound, a curious combination between a chuckle and a whistle, and while flying they make a noise a good deal like a Prairie Hen, though softer and less loud, ilke “ch4w-chuc-clIsSo,” rapidly repeated.

H. S. Swarth (1909) writes:

Their call consists of a series of notes slowly descending the scale, and ending in a long, low trill, the whole being ventrlloquial in effect and most difficult to locate. It is easily imitated, however, and the birds readily answer when one whistles; when the flock Is scattered they will sometimes even return, ceiling at intervals as they approach. The only other note I have heard is a quavering whistle uttered as they take flight.

Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that the low call of the Mearns Quail, suggestive of the quavering cry of a Screech Owl, adds to the fascination of the pursuit of this illusory bird, for it is ventriloqulal in quality and leads you such a fruitless chase that you return to camp with an exaggerated interest in this feathered Wlii-o’-the-wisp.

Fall: In some notes sent to Major Bendire (1892) Doctor Nelson states that the birds breeding along the northern limit of their habitat migrate southward In October. In southern Arizona the same result of a warmer winter climate is obtained by descending the flanks of the mountains. The summer range of this species is inst above and bordering that of Gainbel’s Quail in parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The fact that Gambel’s Quail changes its range hut little in winter results in these birds being found very frequently occupying the same ground at this season. I have never seen the Massena Partridge in coveys larger than wouid be attributed to a pair of adults with a smali brood of young. Frequently a pair raise but three or four, and I do not remember having ever seen more than six or seven of these birds In a covey.

Range: Southwestern United States (except California) and northern Mexico. The range of Mearns’s quail is extremely circumseribed. It extends north to Arizona (Fort Whipple, Camp Verde, Mogollon Ridge, Wilcox, and Marsh Lake); New Mexico (Zuni Mountains, San Mateo Mountains, White Mountains, and Guadalupe Mountains); and central Texas (San Angelo and Mason). East to Texas (Mason, Kerrville, Bandera Hills, and San Antonio) Durango (Ramos, El Salto, and Huasamota); and Nayarit (San Blasito). South to Nayarit (San Blasito). West to Nayarit (San Blasito) ; western Chihuahua (50 miles northeast of Choix, Sinaloa) central Sonora (La Chumata and Patagonia Mountains); and Arizona (Baboquivari Mountains, Rincon Mountains, Mount Turnbull, and Fort Whipple).

The species has a vertical range from 4,000 to 9,000 feet, the birds moving to the higher altitudes early in fall and retiring upon the approach of winter. They apparently do not, however, descend below the lowest I)aIts of the breeding range.

Egg dates: New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico: 29 records, April 24 to September 5; 15 records, June 23 to August 10.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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