Gambel’s Quail

We were able to find the Gambel’s Quail on a visit to the Salton Sea.  They came readily to the bird feeders and we even found them feeding beside rabbits! Gambel's quail|Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge|Salton Sea, CA   Not content to just stay on the ground, they spent a lot of time climbing on the fences, the park benches and whatever else was handy, calling to each other constantly.


The Gambel’s Quail is a stocky, plump quail. The male has a black face edged in white. He has a chestnut crown and a black throat with gray scales on the nape of his neck. He is grayish above and has bright chestnut colored flanks; his flanks are marked with white streaks. He is similar to the California quail but doesn’t have scaling on his light belly; instead he has a field mark black patch. The female is gray-brown overall and doesn’t have scaling like the California quail female.  Both sexes have the forward facing black topknots that extend over the bill from the crown.  The topknots are smaller in the females.  Immature birds are a bit smaller than the adults and their colors are not as distinctive. They are tan and gray with pale streaks.

Range and Habitat

Gambel’s Quail are found in the southwestern deserts from California to Texas.  They have been introduced into Utah and western New Mexico, southern Utah and western Colorado. There are also a few left that were introduced into Hawaii. The ranges of the Gambel’s Quail and the California quail barely meet in California.  They do not migrate.


A family grouping is usually made up of about 20 quail.  They have territories but will wander freely into territories of other quail.  They do not defend their territories. They are gregarious in the fall and winter when they live in large coveys, you might see lucky enough to see a covey of more than 100 birds. Quails walk slowly and feed in groups.  They feed both in the morning and in the evening, pausing to roost in the hottest part of the day. They eat seeds, leaves, berries, cacti, invertebrates and other plant matter.  They will also visit bird feeders. They hide and nest in thickets and usually stay close to water. Since they have to have water every day, they also will rely on the cacti for water.

Males can be found calling loudly from perches, but the whole covey keeps in contact with each other by calling.  Some of the calls are grunts and cackles; they also have a call like the California quail.  Unlike the California quail, their call is higher sounding has an extra note at the end.  It sounds like “chi-CA-go-go”.

These quail spend a lot of time on the ground running fast from cover to cover. They prefer to run, but will fly short distances to escape danger, to roost or to cross something.  Sometimes they remain motionless when facing danger and rely on coloring to keep them safe.  In flight, they alternate several stiff wing beats with glides.

Breeding and Nesting

Gambel’s Quails do pair off in the nesting period. They will sometimes hybridize with California Quails and Scaled Quails. High rainfall will result in larger broods; low rainfall means much smaller broods.  They are considered monogamous but young females will sometimes choose another male for her second brood.   The male offers bits of food to entice the female which is how the female selects her male. The female scrapes out a hollow in the ground which can be found in tall grass or at the base of a bush. The nest is lined with grasses, sticks and feathers.   She lays 10-16 eggs and incubates them for 20-24 days. Both parents care for the young which are covered in down.  The young can run and feed soon after hatching but rely on their parents to find them food. After nesting, the females and the young will join with others to form a covey.

Photo Gallery Gambel’s Quail