By Dennis Hester

Where are they and why haven’t I been able to spot one in Montana?
So you have been all over Montana trying to fill your quail sighting quotient in hopes of being able to check all those little boxes in the back of your bird book but to no avail. You’ve logged 5 species of grouse, the White-tailed Ptarmigan, a covey of fugitive Chukars, a California Quail in the Bitterroot, Gray Partridge, and a Northern Bobwhite Quail. Being an expert birder, you know that the latter four species are not native. But since you haven’t spotted a Gambel’s Quail, that box remains unchecked. Well there are three easy steps to putting a Gambel’s Quail in your sights. Here is the secret, but there is one caveat.

First and foremost is the caveat. You must leave Montana, because if you claim to have seen a Gambel’s Quail in Big Sky Country, your credibility as a birder, and for that matter your credibility about anything else, will be forever suspect. And January is a great time to leave Montana in search of Gambel’s Quail, not because anyone would want to leave here in the winter, but because no one would want to go to where they are in the summer. Second, go where they are. The range of the Gambel’s Quail includes northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Sibley shows the range to include eastern California, southern Utah and Nevada (where the subspecies Gambler’s Quail can be found), southern New Mexico and much of lower elevation Arizona. So make your winter birding vacation plans now. Third and finally, for the non-purist, find a park, like Cattail Cove on the Colorado River south of Lake Havasu City, AZ and wait for a covey of 20 to 60 of the little cuties to appear in front of your tent. And appear they will in the mornings and evenings when they are most active, as they go about their rounds in search of food provided by willing campers.

The more hardy and adventurous may find Gambel’s Quail in hot, dry deserts with mesquite or other thorny cover, and because they require a lot of water, you will often find them where there is water nearby such as in riparian areas and juniper-pine woodlands. They are common residents of the giant saguaro cactus forests like Organ Pipe Cactus or Saguaro National Monuments.

The species is named after William Gambel (1821-1849), who explored the Southwest in 1841 and described the bird. Gambel may qualify as the most important 19th century figure in California ornithology. He arrived by foot in 1841, and left California at the end of 1843, having experienced all seasons, and visited many parts of the state. His namesake legacy is a rich one: Gambel’s Quail [Callipepla gambelii] and Mountain Chickadee [Poecile gambeli], both of which Gambel first discovered for science. Also named for him are a subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, and a formerly recognized subspecies of White-fronted Goose— both winter in California.

The Facts
Gambel’s Quail, Callipepla gambelii, are members of the family Odontophoridae, along with all other quail and Bobwhites. They are chicken-like, ground-dwelling birds that forage on seeds, fruit, plant material and insects. They are not known for their extraordinary intelligence.

They are plump, short-tailed quail with gray plumage. Approximately 10 inches long and weighing 8 ounces, the male Gambel’s Quail is most easily recognized by the slender teardrop-shaped knot curving gracefully forward over the bill. The male is particularly striking, with a russet crown and black face, both delicately framed in white, and a black patch on an otherwise light belly. Adult females are similar to adult males but muted, lacking distinctive facial pattern.

Their range that barely overlaps with the California Quail, making it less likely that you will spend hours pondering which species you saw that morning. However, they have hybridized with both California and scaled quails where their ranges overlap.

The Gambel’s Quail are truly a desert quail. They are so well adapted to desert conditions that when necessary, they can get the water they need from succulent vegetation. But feeding activity in the summer is nonetheless constrained by hot weather. As a result, they follow a bimodal pattern, with morning and late afternoon foraging separated by a long quiet period. In winter, a similar bimodal pattern occurs, apparently to avoid raptor predation.

Gambel’s Quail make their nests by scraping out a shallow depression, often under vegetation positioned so the nest is sheltered from the midday sun. The nest is lined with dead leaves, twigs and grass and is well-camouflaged against predators, including cats, roadrunners and snakes. They normally lay ten to twelve eggs, though as many as twenty have been found in a nest. Interestingly, the female lays approximately one egg a day, but incubation does not begin until all the eggs have been laid. And although the eggs were not laid at the same time, they will all hatch on the same day, approximately 21 to 23 days after incubation begins.

Gambel’s Quail sleep on the ground in a protective circle reminiscent of pioneer wagon trains. When disturbed by a predator, they suddenly fly in all directions creating total confusion.

Population Status

Because they seem to be more tolerant of habitat disturbances than other Callipepla (California and scaled quails), their numbers appear to be stable over the past 60 years. In fact, they have been introduced to Hawaii, Idaho, and San Clemente Island, California.

Mission Possible – Search and Observe

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to leave the warmth and comfort of your January fireplace and head south to where the sun shines, and there to search for, find, and then observe these beautiful small birds scurrying around on the ground as they scratch out a living in an otherwise harsh and inhospitable environment. After watching a covey of Gambel’s Quail and hearing their soft clucking notes, you will know that you have discovered gems in the desert that you will want to see again and again.

References cited:

* Ferdon, Arizona State Parks pamphlet 1989.
* Sibley, David Allen, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, A. Knopf, 2003, p.133. (Note: Sibley contains no reference to the existence or range of the Gambler’s Quail in Nevada.)
* Ehrlich, Dobkin & Wheye, The Birder’s Handbook, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1988, p.262.
* Cunningham, Richard L., 50 Common Birds of the Southwest, Southwest Parks & Monuments Assoc., 1990, p.8.
* Harry Fuller, Ashland, Oregon.
* Williams, Ted, Earth Almanac, Audubon, November/December 2011, p.55.
* National Geographic, Complete Birds of North America, 2006.