While the shop I manage loves all wild birds, there are a few that disproportionately add to our bottom line. Hummingbirds are critical to our success, as are the lesser goldfinches. The third species that drives our business is the striking Gambel’s quail.
Several quail species inhabit North America, and three that are native to Arizona. Of Arizona’s quail species, the Gambel’s is the most common and widespread, inhabiting inviting yards and brushy habitat throughout the west’s four major deserts: the Sonoran, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Great Basin.
Quail spend most of their time in large groups known as coveys, where they surreptitiously meander through dense undergrowth in search of shelter and food. They sustain on a largely vegetarian diet, although they will gladly pick at small passing insects on occasion. As is often the case with our local wildlife, quail are well adapted to the arid climate of the American Southwest. They are able to get most of their water from their diet alone, relying on small succulent sprouts, blades of grass, berries and cactus fruit to stay nourished and hydrated. They forage for food much in the way a chicken does, by scratching at the ground to reveal seeds and other edible morsels.
As they forage, quail are never far from an escape route. Often there will be a lone male perched above the covey, providing a wary set of eyes. This bird is usually the patriarch of the group, and he will constantly monitor his surroundings to help keep it safe from approaching threats. Largely earthbound, quail are high on the menu of the neighborhood bobcat or fox. While not flightless, the quail’s main source of defense is concealment and the ability to disappear into thick brush at any sign of danger. Their contrasting, speckled and streaked plumage helps break up their shape, the same way a tiger’s stripes help it disappear in tall grass. When caught in the open, they resort to short bursts of high-speed flight, usually aiming at the nearest thicket of native shrubs. Even with all these tools at their disposal, a quail’s life is one of survival in the face of steady attrition. They breed and have young in sync with regional weather. Because the young birds sustain largely on vegetative sprouts, they need adequate precipitation to ensure new plant growth. When the odds are stacked against them and the challenges are more daunting, quail tend to rear less young. In wetter years, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, abundant plant growth provides enough shelter and concealment along with an adequate seed yield to feed larger coveys. So with this year’s impressive monsoon season our customers have reported healthy populations in their yards.
Females lay one egg a day in brood season, and this can continue for five to 15 days. Once she’s laid all her eggs, only then will she incubate them, which starts the clock. Like magic, 21-24 days later they will all hatch together. The hatchlings can walk within minutes, which is important, because their fight for survival starts immediately. These highly camouflaged little birds are a quick snack for any number of hungry predators, and they can be considered successful when only half make it to adulthood. Large broods and alert parents mean that enough make it to continue the species into the next generation.
While this has been a good year for quail, their numbers remain historically low, with decades of unreliable precipitation and habitat loss reducing their numbers. The surge in human population in Arizona has taken large swathes of their historical range and made it uninhabitable for most animals. Luckily, quail can thrive in urban habitats when the human population makes an effort. Low-growing native shrubs in your yard provide an inviting area for the neighborhood quail to forage and nest among. Establishing a feeding area on the ground is a great idea, although they will use elevated tray feeders as well. Having a yard that’s open to the surrounding habitat is ideal, but if you require a fence, make it one that critters can easily navigate through. The more we segment off wild areas from one another, the harder it becomes for all native life to thrive.
The choices you make have a very real effect on this regionally iconic chaparral dweller, so be an advocate for them. Until next time, happy birding!
Photos by John West
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.