Here in SaddleBrooke, May is when we start seeing baby quail. We see Greater Roadrunners year-round, but more likely than not, we will see a lot more of them during baby quail season. Roadrunners are drawn to baby quail like seafood addicts are drawn to popcorn shrimp.
There are three species of quail found in Arizona: Scaled, Montezuma and the one common to SaddleBrooke, Gambel’s. Similar to California Quail, Gambel’s Quail (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. 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. The male is often seen perched on a wall or other high point, acting as a sentry while the rest of the entourage forages below. Their diet is almost exclusively the leaves, seeds, flowers and shoots of plants, and they scratch their way across the terrain like chickens.
Except when breeding, quail are gregarious and often found in groups. Social coveys form after the young hatch, sometimes consisting of several families. Normally only one brood is produced annually, with up to 15 eggs, although 2 females may lay in the same nest.
“Nests” might be an exaggeration, since you are likely to find a bunch of quail eggs under a bush or in a pot. We found a single egg lying on our patio one day, stuck it in with another 15 eggs under a bush and all 16 eggs later hatched successfully. The young hatch synchronously (together) three weeks later, and are precocial, walking out of the nest and foraging within hours. And a good thing, too, with roadrunners likely salivating in the neighborhood.
The Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is a big bird, 23 inches long and with an equivalent wingspan. Like quail, roadrunners prefer walking to flying, and, living up to their name, they also like to run. Almost as fast as their cartoon caricature, roadrunners can reach 15 miles per hour, which is a lot faster than a quail. The state bird of New Mexico, the Greater Roadrunner is comical (he’s in the Cuckoo family, after all), raising his crest, looking quizzical and slowly raising and lowering his long tail. Far from being a comedian, however, this is a bird with a mean streak, a necessary trait when you like to eat rattlesnakes. They aren’t model parents, either, often stopping incubation of their other eggs once the first one or two hatch. Roadrunners are fearless, as you will know if you have tried to scare one out of your quail-populated yard. They are non-migratory meat eaters, with an appetite for snakes, lizards, rodents and baby quail.
Baby quail have a high mortality rate for lots of reasons. Anyone who enjoys watching them follow their mother in a single file, like little wind-up toys, knows that the fifteen you counted on Tuesday is likely to be thirteen on Wednesday and into single digits by the weekend. The roadrunner, with those tiny quail feet sticking out of his bill, is the usual suspect. Obviously, there is good reason for large quail broods.
(This article originally appeared in the May, 2010 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)