QuailGambel's quail of the southwest
Gambel's Quail
(Callipepla gambelii)
California Quail (Callipepla californica)

A striking overhanging plume makes Gambel's Quail easy to recognize and a frequent sight in southeast Arizona. They are often found in mesquite shrub areas and always seem to be part of a group. Walking past some mesquites, you'll hear a whirr of wings as a dozen or two of these birds suddenly fly up and land again twenty yards off. Seems you've interrupted a town meeting.

As many as a dozen eggs are laid in a shallow basin on the ground, often concealed under a shrub or similar cover. The young are hatched with their eyes open and their bodies covered with down. Once they dry off, they are able to walk about almost immediately. They are able to run and hide and soon learn to feed themselves. When the young are of an age to learn about their surroundings they can be seen traveling about in a group under the supervision of several adults, looking for all the world like a class of kindergarteners on a field trip. Gambel's quail are primarily seed eaters with mesquite and Russian thistle (tumbleweed) seeds figuring heavily in their diet.

Gambel's Quail are very similar to California Quail. Both are about 10 inches long, with a wingspan of 14 inches. The two photos that follow show the strong similarities between the Gambel's Quail (top) and the California Quail (below), its close relative. Both birds sport the jaunty dark plume and have very similar markings though the California Quail is generally somewhat slenderer than the Gambel's. The crown of the head is darker on the California than on the Gambel's and the nape and belly patterns are different. The top photo is by Tom Newman, USFWS, and the photo below is by Lee Karney, also of the USFWS.

Gambel's Quail, USFWS photo by Tom Newman

California Quail, USFWS photo by Lee Karney

Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata) Length 10", WS 14"
Another close relative of these birds is the Scaled Quail that can be found in more barren, rocky areas where cactus, grass and thorny shrubs prevail. The scaled quail has a chubbier silhouette and shorter tail than the others.

Scaled Quail, NPS photoThe diet of the Scaled Quail is higher in animal food than that of the Gambel's Quail, consisting mainly of beetles, grasshoppers, ants and spiders. Groups of these birds often live miles from permanent water which seems not to be required for their everyday survival. They probably get sufficient water from the insects they eat. Scaled Quail get their name from the scaled appearance of their body feathers, but they are often also called cottontops because of the white fluffy headpiece they sport. In areas where both scaled and Gambel's Quail are present they may hybridize.

Scaled Quail photo from National Park Service Archives, White Sands National Monument.

Recommended reading:

Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: Arizona/New Mexico . Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, really pocket-size (4x6) guide includes most of the birds you're likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.

Kaufman, Lynn Hassler. Gambel's Quail. Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2004. The easy-to-read text is suitable for all ages and the photos are excellent, showing quail at all stages of development, as well as describing related species and cultural influences.