Gambel's Quail, One of Sedona's Favorite Little Desert Friends

Contributed by Gateway To Sedona on . Posted in Sedona Wildlife and Natural History

A male Gambel's Quail declares his territory near the birdfeeder!A male Gambel's Quail declares his territory near the birdfeeder!

Also called Desert Quail, Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii) are widespread in the Arizona deserts under 6,000 feet, and are commonly spotted in Sedona. Even though they're speedy flyers, they prefer the ground to the air, and will walk, then run, then fly only as a last resort when harassed. These roly-poly little birds can reach speeds up to 22mph on foot. Even when they roost for the night they try to stay no more than a foot or two above the ground. Because of their earth-loving nature, you'll find Gambel's Quail where their favorite ground cover is plentiful, including prickly pear, mesquite and acacia plants.

Quail demonstrate a fascinating synergy with the seasons of the desert in the way they reproduce. The quail population can fluctuate wildly from year to year, mostly due to one factor: the amount, and even more importantly the timing of winter rainfall. In ideal breeding conditions, a long season of plentiful winter rains will produce winter annuals that are high in vitamin A, critical for reproductive health in quail. It will also ensure that there's groundcover in the spring and summer for newly-hatched chicks, as well as habitat for the insects they eat.

Wildlife scientists (and quail hunters) can reliably predict the fall populations of quail by measuring the previous winter's rainfall and the male quail's subsequent breeding activity.

In breeding season, (April through May) the males vocalize with a particular breeding call. If there hasn't been enough rain, the males don't go into breeding mode, and the spring "call count" indicates that fewer males are actively breeding that year. Inevitably, there will be fewer quail the following fall, sometimes to a dramatic degree.

The seasons also drive quails' social behavior. In winter they live in large groups called "coveys," which can number up to 100 or more birds. In the spring, males leave the covey and stake out their own territory, attracting females along with them.

If you've ever seen a female Gambel's Quail fussing and fretting over her brood of fuzzy chicks, it's clear why the quail is often associated with motherhood and protection in native Southwest symbolism and lore. A story that's common to several Northern Arizona tribes is the creation story, which begins with a flood. In the Yavapai-Apache version, the flood, which began at what is now called Montezuma Well, cause the First Woman to venture out from the well into the world. Her daughter was later snatched from a creek side by a giant monster eagle, unbeknownst to the First Woman or her grandson, Sakarakaamche, who grieved for her terribly. One day, Sakarakaamche hit a quail in the leg with his arrow, and was about to kill it when the quail told him to help heal her leg and she would tell him what happened to his mother. Sakarakaamche agreed, and she told him about the eagle. She instructed him how to find the eagle, who he finally killed. Sakarakaamche would eventually craft people out of clay who would finally populate the Verde Valley.

So don't discount the nonsensical babbling of the Gambel's Quail. She may be trying to tell you something important!

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Article by Sarah Horton for Gateway To Sedona.