BIRDING IN GJ: Getting to know your neighborly quail |

BIRDING IN GJ: Getting to know your neighborly quail

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
A male Gambel's quail.
Ned Harris / |

A bird common to the desert Southwest is the Gambel’s Quail; particularly in southern Arizona and New Mexico. They are also abundant in western Colorado and look and act very much like the more widespread California Quail, though the two species’ ranges do not overlap. Look for these tubby birds running between cover in suburbs and open desert or posting a lookout in low shrub areas.

They live in the hot deserts below about 5,500 feet elevation. Quail frequent mesquite thickets along river valleys and arroyos, shrub lands and cactus, dry grasslands, and agricultural fields.

Like other quail, Gambel’s Quail are plump, volleyball-sized birds with short necks, small bill, and a square tail. Their wings are short and broad. Both sexes are distinguished by a comma-shaped topknot of feathers found atop their small heads. This topknot appears fuller in males than females.

Their coloring is a combination of gray, chestnut and cream and serves as excellent camouflage. Males have a bright reddish crest, chestnut flanks striped with white, and a cream-colored belly with a black patch. Females are grayer and lack the strong head pattern. Neither sex is as strongly scaled as the California Quail.

Gambel’s Quails walk or run along the ground in groups called coveys that can include a dozen or more birds. They can fly but prefer to run. While on the move or feeding, the male is usually perched higher off the ground as a lookout to warn of danger. Quail scratch for food under shrubs and cacti, eating grasses and cactus fruits. You may also see them cleaning up birdseed under your feeders. There they will eat mixed seed, but prefer millet and cracked corn. The quail’s flight is explosive, powerful, and short; and can be startling if you are standing close by.

A challenge in identifying quail is determining whether the little round things with legs following the adults are cotton balls or baby quail who follow the female in a single file. There is nothing cuter than the quail babies.

There are four different quail species: Gambel’s, California, Mountain and Scaled. The following are some of the differing characteristics of the species. The California Quail’s range is adjacent but does not overlap the Gambel’s Quail. California Quail have strong light-and-dark scaling on the belly and on the nape of the neck. The crown patch of males is darker and less reddish than Gambel’s Quail males. Female California Quail lack the female Gambel’s creamy belly wash. Mountain Quail have a long, straight topknot, brown face, and strong white bars on the flanks. Scaled Quail are a plainer brown with scaly under parts and lacks a topknot.

Information for this article was taken, in part, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

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