Quick! Quail!

Male quail foraging at Desert Botanical Gardens

Many wild animals of the desert possess an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings, invisible before our very eyes. However the Gambel’s Quail, a plump morsel of gaudy feathers, loudly broadcasts his location from the most prominent vantage point. In February and March the unmated male quail calls to attract females. Later in spring the females appear leading long lines of miniscule chicks, often in a mad dash across a road or an open space, everyone running at top speed. Quails live in large family groups called coveys in the winter, strutting and wagging their topknots, clucking to each other and pecking at seeds on the ground. These birds have such endearing qualities you wonder how they survive our unforgiving environment. As with many common species, Gambel’s Quails thrive on an extremely varied diet. In February the birds eat tender winter greens, and they include plants in their diet throughout the year when possible. Quail eat lots of insects in the hot months, as well as grains, seeds, mesquite beans and leaves, and the fruits of saguaro, prickly pear and cholla cactus. They get much of the moisture they need from their food, but will also drink deeply from available water sources. In drought years when winter annuals sprout sparingly quails suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies and their sexual organs do not develop to enable breeding. Mother Nature’s method of contraception prevents the starvation of countless tiny babies. In wetter years when food is plentiful breeding pairs break away from the covey to establish their own families. The female scratches a depression under sheltering plants. She will produce one egg a day for 10 to 12 days, but doesn’t begin to sit on them until she’s done laying. In this way she manages to hatch her large brood all at once, so they can leave the nest immediately. Quail babies are precocial, meaning their eyes are open from the beginning and they can run and keep up within minutes of hatching. Right away the family sets out for good feeding grounds where the parents point out tasty tidbits. In about 10 days the babies begin to fly. When everyone is flighted the tribe can finally roost off the ground at night. In two or three months the youngsters are independent, but the family will stay together in the larger covey over the winter.
A nice outcome of the highly visible lifestyle of Gambel’s Quails is that we watchers can appreciate the interactions of a family just a bit different than our own as they watch out for and care for each other.

Quail facts from Bird Nests and Eggs by Pinau Merlin

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2 responses to “Quick! Quail!

  1. I love my quail. I love looking for their nests. I love worrying about all of the eggs hatching. I love fretting about how the babies will make the four foot drop to the ground. I love it that they always do. They are my favorites….but then I say that about my finches, my verdins, my thrashers, my cactus wrens…spring is lovely time for bird watching, nesting, feeding, etc. I am hoping everyone will be aware of the birds in their yards. Thanks for enhancing this awareness in such a delightful way!

  2. Interesting!

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