Illustration by David Sibley from Sibley's Guide to Birds of North America
January 2007 A quirky collection of quail quips....
Walking through the desert in winter, the quiet air is quelled by an explosion of feathers. A covey of quail erupts from the brush, in quantities of up to two hundred birds. Just as quickly, they disappear into the grey-green quilt of desert vegetation.
Gambel’s quail are especially abundant this season after a quantum leap in production as a result of last winter’s prolific rains and thus, abundant food for quails and their chicks. However, this year’s lack of rain will undoubtedly quash the quail population, since there is less fresh vegetation in the desert to quench their hunger and thirst. Plenty of green’s are also necessary to build up a critical quotient of Vitamin A, which triggers reproduction in both the quail male and quail queen. Without the required greens, few to no eggs are produced. Another part of the equation may have to do with dry year diets having a higher quantity of heavy metals, especially from drought resistant locoweeds, which harbor high levels of selenium.
Both male and female sport a quaint quiff of dark feathers on their forehead, also known as a topknot. Males are also equipped with dark face and throat feathers, a red patch on their crown, and white stripes on their cheeks and brow. The less flamboyant female is better camouflaged in order to safely brood her clutch of eggs. The quail quills are the source of the Latin name, Callipepla, which means “beautiful robe”. Arizona’s most common species, Callipepla gambelii, is named after 19th century naturalist, William Gambel, who is also the namesake for Gambel’s oak (Quercus gambelii), mountain chickadee (Poecile gambelii), and leopard lizards (Gambelia ssp.), all of which occur in our area.
Quail couples are monogamous for their short lives of one to four years. Courting begins in late February, and nesting peaks in April and May. Spring call counts provide wildlife managers with a reliable estimate of quail reproduction. Mating males will call loudly from their perches to attract a partner. This years count will probably be a quintile of last years, because of less than average winter rains. In a good year, however, frequent calls indicate mating success. Quantities of up to a dozen eggs are laid in shallow grass-lined depressions on the ground, or occasionally grassy nests built high in scrub. After three weeks, the tiny chicks hatch, and queue through the underbrush with their parents in search of insects, the high-protein diet necessary for early development. In ten days they are able to fly. By the end of summer, a brood of chicks is usually reduced by nearly three quarters (70%), leaving only quintuplets under the best circumstances.
Hunter’s are allowed to bag fifteen birds a day during quail hunting season between October and February, ranking humans as the top predator for these birds. Coyotes, hawks, owls, and bobcats will also pursue these quixotic birds when they are plentiful. Squirrels, snakes, and gila monsters quest for the eggs, and are have no qualms about destroying an entire clutch in order to quaff on the juicy treats.
The quintessence of the Gambel’s quail is their song, a lively variety of calls ranging from quiet peeps to raucous calls. You will usually hear them before you see them, clucking and chattering as they scuff through the underbrush. As the flock feeds, a dominant male will perch as sentry to approaching predators. Although they are primarily ground-feeding birds, pecking about for fresh greens, seeds, fruit, and the occasional insect, quails are quite good fliers, and will quickly soar out of a hunter or predators site with ease, creating their own small earthquake as they take flight. An encounter with a covey of quail is sure to spice up an otherwise quotidian day in the desert.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.