Gambel’s Quail

The Gambel’s Quail is a small ground-dwelling bird in the new world Quail family. Found in the desert areas of the South-west of the Northern American continent, these birds can be found gathering along brushy washes and cactus-studded arroyos to feed. One interesting physical feature about these birds is the bobbing black topknot of feathers that both the female and male birds sport. Gambel’s Quail can be distinguished from a similar species, California Quail because of the male bird’s very significant black belly patch.

About Gambel’s Quails

Gambel’s Quails prefer running over taking a flight and can be seen running around taking covers and sometimes posting a lookout on low shrubs. Birders in Hawaii may see Gambel’s Quails on the slopes of the Mauna Kea volcano. The Hawaii Division of Fish and Game introduced this popular game bird mostly from the game farms to all of the main Hawaiian Islands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today a few remain on the Big Island, as well as on Lanai and tiny Kaho’olawe. However, Gambel’s Quail are not as widely introduced as the related species, California Quail. Gambel’s Quail along with California Quail, Scaled Quail, and Elegant Quail is a part of the “scaled quail” complex and breeds with each other in the wild and in captive. Gambel’s Quails and California Quails breed with each other to produce hybrids that can be found where the breeding ranges of the two overlap in southeast California.

Aren’t these tiny birds with their bobbing head feathers running around in the deserts pretty cute and interesting? Let’s find out more about them!

● Gambel’s Quail Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Gambel’s Quail Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Gambel’s Quail Range and Migration, Nesting


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Gambel’s Quail Color Pattern

Gambel’s Quails have a very rich color pattern. But the color also helps them to excellently camouflage in their environment. The male birds have more colors and patterns than the female birds. Both the sexes have a pattern of gray, chestnut, and cream colors that blend well with the desert habitat. The male Quails have a bright rufous crest, chestnut flanks with white stripes, and a cream-colored belly with a black patch. The male birds also have a black face and a unique white head pattern. The female birds are grayer in color and lack the strong head pattern of the male. Although a bit scaly on their wings, neither sex is as strongly scaled as the California Quail.

Description and Identification

You can identify a Gambel’s Quail easily by their comma-shaped, front-falling crest on the head along with their creamy belly and the male birds’ black patch on the belly. These birds also have very significant chestnut sides and a cinnamon brown crown. The female birds can be easily told apart from the male bird because of the absence of head markings and the black belly patch. The females are fairly gray in the head and the neck.

Similar species include the birds like California Quail, Scaled Quail, and Mountain Quail. What makes the Gambel’s Quails different from all these species is primarily the belly patch of the male birds. Also, Gambel’s Quails appear less scaly than the rest of the species like California Quails and Scaled Quails. Mountain Quails are far less scaly and fall more on the smooth side when it comes to patterns, thus making it easier to distinguish them from Gambel’s Quail.

Gambel’s Quail Song

Both males and females give a 3-4 note call when separated from the covey which is pretty distinctive in nature. The typical singing consists of a ringing “puk-kwaw-cah” with second syllable highest in pitch.

Potential danger or suspicious activities near the covey triggers an aggregate “chip-chip-chip”. But when a direct threat appears, Gambel’s Quails give out a “crear-crear” or a loud sqwauk an alarm call before taking a flight.

During the breeding seasons, the males make distinctive calls as an announcement of their availability. These calls consist of a “kaa” or a cow call from an elevated perch. Along with the song and the calls, Gambel’s Quails also produce a specific sound with their flushed rapid wing beats that sounds almost like a whirring sound.

Gambel’s Quail Size

Gambel’s Quails are smaller desert-dwelling Quail. They are plump and almost as big as a volleyball. They even have short necks, bills, and tails. Relatively, these birds are somewhere between a Robin and a Crow in size.

Gambel’s Quails are larger than a Northern Bobwhite and slightly smaller than a Chukar or Gray Partridge. These birds measure about 9.8 inches (25 cm) in length and weigh between 5.6 ounces (160 grams) to 7.0 ounces (200 grams). The wingspan of these birds is around 13.4-14.2 inches (34-36 cm).

Gambel’s Quail Behavior

Gambel’s Quails are mostly in groups or coveys walking on the ground, foraging for food. When alarmed, these birds may break into sudden flights that only reach short distances. But these flights however can go up to half a mile. The flights of these birds have mostly been described as little hops to cross vegetations and canyons.

Quail coveys forage in the early mornings and the evenings. These are the best times of the day for the birders to spot them as they take covers during the daytime, especially in the midday. The covey spends midday in shaded, brushy spots screened from predators, such as a wash or vegetated fence line where the birds take dust baths, preen, and sleep.

Coveys aren’t flocks, rather these are family groups that usually consist of an adult pair and up to 16 young stayings together in a home range. During winters, multiples coveys combine together to make a flock and forage together. By the late winters and early springs, bigger coveys break up and most males and juveniles join new coveys. As the breeding season starts, the male birds perch on vegetations like trees and shrubs, sometimes on fence posts to give their “kaa” or cow calls to announce their availability. Courting males perform a ritualized foraging display called “tidbitting” to attract a mate. As the female approaches, the tidbitting male extends his legs, fans his tail, and stands with his head near the ground and tail in the air. He may also offer the female bits of food. 

Gambel’s Quails are socially monogamous. However, sometimes the female bird leaves her mate and the brood to take up a new mate. She leaves the previous mate to raise the chicks on his own.

Gambel’s Quail Diet

Gambel’s Quails are almost herbivores. They mostly eat plant produce. These birds forage on the ground in coveys. They eat seeds of grasses, shrubs, forbs, trees, and cactus. Gambel’s Quail also picks mesquite seeds from cattle and coyote droppings. They sometimes eat leaves and grass blades.

During summers and falls, these birds shift into a diet of berries and cactus fruit, including cholla, saguaro, and prickly pear. Through spring into the peak of breeding seasons, Gambel’s Quails eat insects as well. The young are only fed with animal matter in the initials days after hatching. These animal matters include beetles, small worms, moth caterpillars, and grasshoppers.

Gambel’s Quail Habitat

Gambel’s Quails live in thorny and bushy vegetations through the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts as well as parts of the Great Basin, up to a mile high in the easternmost part of their range.

You can find them along river valleys, creeks, in washes, arroyos, at springs, seeps, as well as in the chaparral and oak woodlands of high desert settings. In farmlands, these birds live near the irrigation ditches, brush-lined river channels, and the brushy fence lines that edge the irrigated fields. In Arizona, forests of Honey Mesquite overlap with Gambel’s Quails’ ranges and thus accommodate not only these birds but also a lot of other species of Quails as Mesquites are one of the favorite seeds of these birds.

Other plants that are greatly accommodating to the needs of Gambel’s Quails include desert hackberry, catclaw acacia, yuccas, saguaro, and prickly pear cactus. In washes and riparian settings in the eastern and westernmost parts of their range, they occur near dense thickets of saltbush, salt cedar, arrowwood, and screw bean mesquite.

Range and Migration

Gambel’s Quails are primarily ground-hugging desert birds. Their range mostly includes the desert areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Sonora. These birds reside near the New Mexico-border, Chihuahua, and the Colorado River region of Baja California.

However, these birds along with the California Quails were also introduced to Hawaii as game birds. They were released on the San Clemente Island by Charles T. Howland in the year 1912. These birds are currently still present in these locations are a matter of fascination for visiting birders in Hawaii especially. Gambel’s Quails do not fly long distances and thus are unable to migrate anywhere. These birds are found in their ranges all year round.

Gambel’s Quail Lifecycle

Spring is the breeding season for these birds. In spring, Gambel’s Quail pair up for breeding and become very aggressive towards other pairs. These birds are considered socially monogamous and they rarely breed in colonies.

The female bird lays a clutch of eggs that can have a minimum of 5 eggs and the number may go up to 15. The eggs are Dull white to buff in color and have irregular, cinnamon-brown splotches. Both the parents incubate the eggs for 21-31 days and the hatchlings are covered in dense down when hatched. These young ones are immediately able to leave the nest and follow parents after the hatching, which makes them very fascinating to study.

Another very fascinating thing about Gambel’s Quails hatching process is the “synchronized hatching” of the eggs. Just before the hatching, the female bird gives the children a call and then the young ones call each other from inside the eggs. The hatching process is also very elaborate as the babies don’t simply just crack the shell open and come out. They rather neatly cut a circular door on the biggest part of the shell and keep it latched with a little membrane. When the hatching begins, they push open the shell and come out of the door they have created.

Gambel’s Quails undergo a cycle known as the “boom and bust cycle”. The yield of the egg clutches is bigger and there is an abundance of chicks if there is a good amount of rain which brought a lot of vegetation. But the year the rain and vegetations seem to be less, the clutch size becomes smaller and the number of the chicks decline significantly as well.


The female Quails choose the site for nesting. The chosen site is mostly a concealed nest site on the ground. These sites are mostly shielded beneath a shrub or in a clump of cactus or other protective vegetation. Rarely, they might also build a nest on trees that provide a stable platform. Sometimes these nests are at a height of 32 feet off the ground.

The nest basically a simple, bowl-shaped depression or scrape. The nest measures about 1.5 inches deep and 5 to 7 inches across. Small twigs are along the edges of the nest bowl, which is then lined with grass stems, leaves, and feathers to make it more comfortable for the eggs and chicks.

Anatomy of a Gambel’s Quail

Gambel’s Quails are small, plump and round birds. Their bodies, necks, bills, and tails are small making the bird appear as a very small and gullible bird. The head is small too with a tuft of prominent feathers bobbing towards the front. The wings of these birds are pretty heavy but small and rounder; a shape that does not favor too much flying or covering long distances because of which these birds prefer running over flying. To compensate, Gambel’s Quails have thick, hairless less with bigger feet claws that are strong and light enough to run fast.

Final Thoughts

Even though the amount of rainfall affects these birds and their reproduction rates, Gambel’s Quails have successfully maintained their overall population. Thus, these birds come under the least concerned species. But like any other bird, these birds are also being devastatingly affected by global warming and climate change as these phenomena interfere with the raining frequencies and rainwater volumes.


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Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingGambel’s Quails

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Gambel’s Quails are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

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Gambel’s Quail Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Gambel’s Quail. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders For Gambel’s Quails

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesFor Gambel’s Quails

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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