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Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) – Desert Quail Life History and Biology

Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) – Desert Quail Life History and Biology

  • Climate Change Impact (Audubon) | +1.5°C - 12% Range Lost | +3.0°C - 8% Range Lost
A male Gambel's Quail walks on a desert landscape

The Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) is found in the American southwest and into Mexico as one of three desert quail species

The Gambel’s quail is a desert-dwelling species that primarily occupies the American Southwest and Mexico, including most of the Sonoran, Mohave, and Chihuahuan deserts. Closely resembling the California quail, these two species are what many people imagine when they think of quail. Below are some interesting facts about the Gambel’s quail and where you can find them.

Description and life history of the Gambel’s quail

The Gambel’s quail is similar to other quail species in body shape and size. It has a small round body, short square tail, short legs, rounded and broad wings, a short neck, and a small head. Like most birds, males and females have very different colored feathers. Females are very well camouflaged in their natural habitat, sporting dull gray feathers around their head, neck, and upper breast. Their undersides are tan-colored; their wings, chestnut, and white (All About Birds 2018).

Males share a similar gray-colored neck and breast feathers, even the chestnut and white wings. Unlike the females, however, their undersides are cream/yellow-colored with a black patch in the center. Instead of gray, their heads are black and white with a cinnamon-brown colored crown (All About Birds 2018). Although males and females both have a comma-shaped black crest that points forward, the male’s crest is longer and fuller.

At the start of the breeding season, male Gambel’s quail will use an elevated perch (such as a tree branch or cactus) to call for a female’s attention. Given the opportunity, a male may also display for a female by fanning its tail and lowering its head towards the ground (All About Birds 2018). After a female chooses a mate, the pair may search for a nesting site together. The most common nesting areas include ground sites adjacent to thick cover, but they may also build nests on top of stumps or in a tree. Females will usually scratch a small depression into the ground and line it with grass, leaves, and twigs (National Audubon Society 2018). Females lay 10 to 14 buff-colored eggs which they incubate for about 21 to 24 days (NatureServe 2018, National Audubon Society 2018).

Upon hatching, both parents lead the precocial chicks to feeding areas where the chicks feed themselves. Generally, females only have one brood per season. In years of plentiful food, however, females may abandon the male and chicks to find another mate and raise a different brood.

Family groups combine to form coveys of up to 50 birds in the fall. They stay together until March the following year (NatureServe 2018). Gambel’s quail feed heavily and are most active at dawn and dusk, but they spend their day in the shade of cover to hide from predators. Gambel’s quail select their food based on nutrition and the water content. This is essential if they are going to survive in arid desert habitats (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 2018).

Foraging includes leaves, blades of grass, many types of seeds and shoots of young plants. Berries like mistletoe and hackberry or cacti fruit like cholla, saguaro, and prickly pear are also part of their foraging (All About Birds 2018, NatureServe 2018, National Audubon Society 2018). Chicks feed almost exclusively on insects (beetles, worms, grasshoppers) for the first week of life until they finally transition into an adult diet of seeds, fruits and green vegetation.

Like other quail species, the Gambel’s quail relies on its excellent camouflage and remaining motionless to avoid predators. Predators of eggs, chicks, and adults alike include snakes, raptors, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes—just to name a few (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 2018).

Range and habitat of the Gambel’s quail

The Gambel’s quail primarily occupies the desert regions of California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and western Texas. This region also extends south along the western coast of Mexico (NatureServe 2018). It overlaps its range in some parts with the Mearns quail, also known as the Montezuma quail.

The Gambel’s quail is a very successful desert game bird, thriving in some very harsh conditions. However, they prefer habitats containing or adjacent to river valleys, streams/creeks, seeps and springs, or water holes. High desert oak woodlands, chaparral, mesquite thickets, and brushy canyons all offer the habitat structure they seek (All About Birds 2018; National Audubon Society 2018). Besides the species already mentioned above, other plant species that appear to be important for Gambel’s quail include hackberry, acacia, yuccas, saltbush, arrowwood, and screwbean mesquite (All About Birds 2018).

Conservation issues for the Gambel’s quail

The Gambel’s quail is generally secure across most of its range (NatureServe 2018). It is estimated that the global breeding population of Gambel’s quail is about 5.3 million birds. About 74 percent occur in the United States with the remainder in Mexico (All About Birds 2018). Similar to the bobwhite quail or Mearns quail, Gambel’s quail likely face threats from habitat loss due to cattle grazing and urbanization. Despite this, they seem adaptable to development and sightings often occur in backyards of suburban areas. One important factor that does affect all desert wildlife is the frequency and duration of winter precipitation. Without enough rainfall, water availability decreases and habitat quickly degrades, causing a decline in quail numbers.

Hunting opportunities for the Gambel’s quail

There are seven different states where you can hunt the Gambel’s quail today. You’ll notice below that the season possession limits in all states is very liberal and the season durations are extensive.

StateSeasonSeason/Possession Limit
ArizonaOctober 6-February 1145, no more than 15 taken in one day
CaliforniaSeptember 30-January 2830 quail
ColoradoNovember 11-January 3124 quail
NevadaOctober 14-February 430 quail
New MexicoNovember 15-February 1530 quail
TexasOctober 28-February 2545 quail
UtahNovember 4-December 3115 birds
*Dates may have changed since publishing this article.

To effectively hunt quail, you should go where the prime habitat is. Bringing a bird dog along is definitely a bonus since they can detect quail much better than you. Use the fact that the Gambel’s quail gather in large coveys to your advantage. If your bird dog goes on point or you hear the telltale three-note Gambel’s quail call, cautiously work your way through the habitat. You should be ready for a snap shot at any time. If you do happen to miss the opportunity, pay attention to where the quail land to pursue a follow-up shot. Flushed Gambel’s quail may hold extremely tight to cover or run through the cover fast and flush where you do not expect it. That certainly makes for one exciting (or frustrating) hunt!


All About Birds. 2018. Gambel’s Quail. Accessed at:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. 2018. Animal Fact Sheet:  Gambel’s Quail. Accessed at:

National Audubon Society. 2018. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at:

NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at

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