The Gambel’s Quail
Male Gambel’s Quail – by Tommy Green
Gambel’s Quail by CL Cochran
These unusual birds (Callipepla gambelii) are striking in appearance bearing their cute and amusing comma-shaped head plumes (called “top knots”) dancing above their small heads. Both male and female sport the top knot, but the male’s is fuller and more colorful. He also has a rusty crown, and black face. Like other quail, Gambel’s Quail are plump, volleball-sized birds with short necks, small bill, and square tail. The wings are short and broad. Gambel’s Quail is named for 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).
Adding to their entertaining ways is their habit of running frantically from one place to another on longish feather-less legs. They are richly patterned in gray, chestnut, and cream that can serve as excellent camouflage. Males have a bright rufous crest, chestnut flanks striped with white, and creamy belly with black patch. Females are grayer, lacking the strong head pattern. The birds have a 14-inch wing span and average weight of six ounces.
Gambel’s Quails walk or run along the ground in groups called coveys that can include a dozen or more birds. They scratch for food under shrubs and cacti, eating grasses and cactus fruits. They primarily move about by walking and can move surprisingly fast through brush and undergrowth. They are a non-migratory species and are rarely seen in flight. Any flight is usually short and explosive, with many rapid wingbeats, followed by a slow glide to the ground.
Living in the Desert Southwest, Gambel’s Quail is common particularly in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Here they look and act very much like the more widespread California Quail, but the two species’ ranges do not overlap. Look for these tubby birds running between cover in suburbs and open desert or posting a lookout on low shrubs.
Although they will eat insects and seeds, Gambel’s quail have the ability to select green foods in sufficient quantity to provide nutrition, but also to obtain the moisture they need. The ability to adapt its food choices to seasonal changes allow it to survive in the arid desert environment.
Gambel’s Quail live in warm deserts with brushy and thorny vegetation. These birds also survive well in cultivated communities and prefer mesquite lined river valleys and drainage’s near these lands. Desert mountain foothills, mesquite springs, plains with diverse vegetation and any area of the desert receiving slightly more rainfall than surrounding parts, are all home to good populations of Gambel’s quail.
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