This species account is dedicated in honor of Bill Michener, member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.
As one of four species of the scaled quail complex (Callipepla spp.), Gambel's Quail stands out as a quintessential representative of the Sonoran desert, together with the Saguaro cactus and Gila monster. Its jaunty plumed topknot, gregarious nature, and distinctive gathering calls make this bird instantly recognizable in the American southwest. It was named after William Gambel, a naturalist from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia who, while collecting plants and animals along the Santa Fe Trail in 1841, reported these birds as occurring “east of the California Range.” In the United States, California Quail are distributed along the coast and Gambel's Quail generally in the interior. In Mexico, however, California Quail are restricted to Baja California, while the distribution of Gambel's Quail follows the coastline of northwestern Sonora Mexico and reaches east to the Chihuahuan and Mohave deserts. The species extends into the ranges of the three other scaled quail, along with those of the Bobwhite, Mountain, and Montezuma quail.
When pursued, Gambel's Quail tends to run and hide in dense undergrowth rather than fly, much like its closest relative, the California Quail -- and in contrast to Elegant, Scaled and Montezuma quails. Like all quail, it is a gregarious bird that forms stable family groups, which in turn may fuse and form coveys -- winter aggregations containing several dozen birds. More than 90% of this species' diet is composed of plant parts, particularly legumes, depending on seasonal and annual food availability. Available green food correlates with reproductive success. A “boom-and-bust” species, the reproductive rates of Gambel's Quail fluctuate markedly from year to year. Population levels are therefore strongly influenced by the amounts of winter-spring rainfall; dry years yield few young birds. As a consequence, population cycles vary from sparse to abundant depending on habitat quality, past population levels, carryover, and the current year's reproductive success. The mean life expectancy of a Gambel's Quail is only about 1.5 years.
Although Gambel's Quail was studied intensively between 1930 and 1970, a great deal remains to be discovered about this species, especially its phylogeographic origins and role in the ecology and evolution of neighboring quail species. For land managers, further investigation is necessary to understand the effects of water development and livestock-grazing on survival and reproduction, late-season hunting on overwintering mortality, changes in nonnative annual vegetation on the bird's reproductive cycle, and increases in range fires on population sizes. Breeding behavior also needs more study. Several anecdotal reports suggest that Gambel's Quail social systems depend upon highly variable climatic fluctuations. In addition to flexible reproductive strategies within populations, stable climate and habitat differences may also be associated with other behavioral, morphological or physiological differences among populations, such as tolerance to cold.