Callipepla gambelii

Gambel’s Quail, although synonymous with the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is also found in parts of other deserts of the United States: the Chihuahuan in New Mexico and Texas, the Mohave in California and Nevada and the sagebrush desert in Utah and Colorado. The center of abundance is in Arizona where observers reported averages of  30-100 quail on many North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) .routes in the state. One route with only about half of the observation stops in quail habitat, had a multi-year average of 86 birds. By contrast, observers on 3 routes in the Trans-Pecos region found an average of 3-10 birds per route (Price et al.1993, Brown et al. 1998, Sauer et al. 2005).

Populations of this quail, a popular hunted species, follow a “boom-or-bust pattern. When winter and spring rains are ample, leguminous trees, shrubs and forbs produce abundant food, over-winter survival is high, birds enter the breeding season well- nourished and newly hatched chicks find food easily. In dry years legumes produce less foliage and seeds , winter survival suffers and reproductive success declines. As these quail have an average lifespan of 1.5 years  in dry years the population may decline drastically (Brown et al. 1998).

In parts of the southwestern United States, the range of Gambel’s Quail overlaps the range of Scaled Quail (C. squamata), although this latter quail is more common in the Chihuahuan Desert and usually found at higher elevations than Gambel’s. Vocal and plumage differences separate these species (Pyle 1997, Brown et al. 1998)/

Coveys of Gambel’s Quail often roost foe the night on  branches of palo verde or mesquite trees. An early morning walk in a desert wash may flush a covey which departs in a whir of wings. When groups of quail are surprised on the ground they usually run and a group may scatter. In breeding season, chicks following a parent may become separated and follow another clutch, even one with older or younger chicks. Researchers have reported as many as 30-40 chicks of different ages accompanying a single adult or a pair (Brown et al. 1998, RC).T.

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987=1992 field work for the TBBA project volunteers found breeding evidence for Gambel’s Quail in 6 latilong blocks in Trans-Pecos, Texas: One confirmed, 1 probable and 3 possible records in 31106; 2 confirmed in 31105; 2 confirmed in 31104 ; 1 possible in 31103; 2 possibles in 30104; and 4 probables in 29104. Many of these records were along or near the Rio Grande River between El Paso and Presidio counties.

Elsewhere the species is found in much of the drainage basins of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah; and on the coastal plains of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995, Brown, et al. 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Gambel’s Quail is a year-round resident in its range. Breeding evidence has been found from May to August (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004). In Arizona almost all breeding evidence was found between April 1 and September 10 (Wise-Gervais 2005).

BREEDING HABITAT. In Texas Gambel’s Quail breed from 600 to 1500 m (2000 to 4500 ft) in riparian areas and nearby desert scrub (Oberholser 1974). In Arizona this quail is associated with the denser vegetation along desert streams and washes below 1650 m (5400 ft). Nearly 30% of breeding reports came from Sonoran Desert uplands (small leguminous trees and large cacti), about 17% of reports came from Sonoran desert scrubland (leguminous trees without large cacti), about 10% were from semiarid grassland with scattered sotol, agave, acacia and mesquite, 10% were from mesquite/creosote habitat and about 8% in cottonwood/willow riparian (Wise-Gervais 2005).

The nest of Gambel’s Quail is a bowl-shaped scrape in the ground about 4 cm (1.5 in) deep and 13-18 cm (5-7 in) in diameter, bordered with twigs and sparsely lined with grass stems, leaves and a few feathers. The nest is usually concealed under a shrub or cacti. The female usually lays 10-12 (range 5-20) smooth, slightly glossy, dull white to buff eggs (see Harrison [1979] for photo of markings) which she usually incubates for 21-23 days (occasionally as long as 31). Her mate may incubate if she dies.

The precocial chicks follow their parents after hatching, feeding on insects for the first few days. Both parents brood chicks until the young can regulate their temperatures early in the 2.5- 3 months before chicks are fully independent. Broods remain with their parents, foraging and roosting together through the winter (Brown, et al. 1998).

STATUS. The TBBA map is quite similar to the historic range map of Oberholser (1974). Lockwood and Freeman (2004) consider Gambel’s Quail a common resident in the range shown on the TBBA map. This quail was detected on 3 BBS routes in Texas. This amount of data does not provide a ,meaningful trend estimate. Data from 109 routes across the range of the species in the United States produce a 95% confidence interval (There is a 95% chance that the actual population trend will be between these two numbers.) of -1.4 to +1.2% population change per year for the period 1966-2004 (Sauer et al. 2005). This small change for this quail, with the evidence in Lockwood and Freeman (2004) of recent range expansion away from El Paso county and the Rio Grande River, suggests the future of Gambel’s Quail in Texas is relatively secure, barring an increase in hunting of this species or further climate change. .

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2006)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

Brown, D. E., J. C. Hagelin, M. Taylor and J. Galloway. 1998. Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii). In The birds of North America, No. 321 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Price, J., S. Droege, and A. Price. 1995. The summer atlas of North American birds. Academic Press, New York.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification guide to North American birds, part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2004. Version 2005.1. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD (Web site,

Wise-Gervais, C. 2005. ). In Arizona breeding bird atlas. pp. 86-87 (T. E. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, eds.), University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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