Not sure why, but for some unexplained reason we’ve seen more Gambel’s Quail this year than usual. On our quarterly Tucson Bird Counts along the Canada del Oro Wash and along Willow Springs Road we’ve counted far more quail in all of the sites than we’ve seen in past years, and the same can be said for SaddleBrooke. This bodes well for future generations, and at the deadline for this article, in mid-May, most of us have already seen baby quail. By the first of June and continuing into summer, we should see many more, with lines of newly-hatched babies following their parents like a string of wind-up toys. Unfortunately, this bodes well for roadrunners, too. Greater Roadrunners seem to look forward to the arrival of bite-sized quail babies, maybe because their diet the rest of the year is mostly lizards and scorpions.
The Gambel’s Quail we see in SaddleBrooke is one of three species found in Arizona, the other two being Scaled and Montezuma. Similar to California Quail, Gambel’s (Callipepla gambelii) is a non-migratory bird well adapted to life in the suburbs. They are beautiful 10-inch birds that prefer walking to flying, and when they do fly, their short, rounded wings produce explosive and noisy takeoffs. Both females and males have a distinctive topknot, and the male is particularly striking with his dark face, forehead and abdomen. If you have binoculars, take the time to study their coloration and top knots. The male is often seen perched on a wall or other high point, acting as a sentry while his family forages below. Their diet is pure vegan, including leaves, seeds, flowers and plant shoots, and they scratch their way across the terrain like free-range chickens.
Unless they’re breeding, quail are gregarious and typically found in groups. Social coveys form after the young hatch, sometimes consisting of several families and often circling the wagons and hatchlings when roadrunners appear. Normally only one brood is produced annually with up to 15 eggs, although 2 females may lay eggs in the same nest. Calling a quail nest a nest is a bit of a stretch, since you are likely to find a bunch of quail eggs under a bush, in a pot or just randomly dropped. We found a single egg lying on our patio one day, stuck it in a nest with 15 other eggs under a bush, and all 16 eggs hatched successfully. Quail young break out of their eggs in three weeks and hit the road running. No lengthy fledging for quail; none of the soft life typical for other birds. Quail are ready to roll immediately, an important characteristic when your ‘nest’ is open to the world on the ground and you rank at the top of a roadrunner’s menu.
Once in a while one of these get-up-and-go babies gets separated from the rest of the family. Recently we had one wander in under our feet with no family in sight. If this happens to you, scoop him up and keep him in a shoe box lined with some soft cloth, water and powdered bird seed until you see or hear his family, which shouldn’t take long. Once they make their whereabouts known, release him nearby and they’ll find each other.
As cute as they are, getting attached to baby quail is not recommended. The fifteen you count on Tuesday will probably be thirteen on Wednesday and into single digits by Saturday. You might want to consider buying a puppy instead.
(This article was published in the June, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)