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Gambel's Quail: Game Bird Profile

A popular desert quail species, the Gambel's quail offers fast-flying action for wingshooters.

Gambel's Quail: Game Bird Profile

The global breeding population of Gambel’s quail is about 5.8 million birds, with a long-term population to be considered stable. (Photo By: Frank Fichtmueller/Shutterstock.com)

A member of the family Odontophoridae, Callipepla gambelii, the Gambel’s quail is a hardy quail species of the American southwest and northern Mexico and is a favorite to its fair share of bird hunters utilizing their much-beloved gun dogs.


Gambel’s Quail Range

Native to the desert southwest including the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts, as well as parts of the Great Basin, Gambel’s quail form medium sized coveys often found along brushy washes and cactus-studded arroyos to feed. These desert dwellers are much more prone to run than to fly, making them particularly challenging for younger, less experienced pointing dogs.

Gambel’s quail are found in good numbers in the far southeastern portion of California, the western and southern parts of Arizona, and much of southern and central New Mexico. They’re also found in the far western edge of Texas, the southern portions of Utah, and a few isolated spots in Colorado.

In Mexico, the largest Gambel’s quail range is along the northern and western edges of Sonora, the northern portion of Sinaloa, northern Chihuahua, and the far northeast edge of Baja California.

Gambel’s Quail Biology & Habitat 

The Gambel’s quail is a plump game bird with a forward-facing, comma-shaped crest atop its head. Their creamy buff belly has a black central patch. Sides are chestnut, and the crown of its head is a stunning cinnamon brown. Females are a plain colored gray on the head and neck, and also don’t have the black belly patch exhibited by the male.

female gambel's quail
Female Gambel’s quail. (Photo By: Bryce Alexander/Shutterstock.com)

Gambel’s quail are one of the larger of the quail species, larger than a bobwhite quail and slightly smaller than a Hungarian partridge. They typically measure about 9.8 inches in length, with a wingspan in the 13- to 14-inch range. An adult Gambel’s quail generally weighs 6 to 7 ounces, making them a welcome addition to the dinner plate.

The Gambel’s quail diet consists mostly of plants, although they feast on insects during the breeding season, and chicks will eat insects and worms for their first few days after hatching. Typical forage for adults includes seeds of grasses, shrubs, forbs, trees, and cacti. They also eat grass blades and weeds, as well as berries and cactus fruit from summer into fall. 

Courting males perform a ritualized foraging display called “tidbitting” to attract a mate. After breeding, females make a shallow depression or a scrape of about five to seven inches across, lined with grass stems, feathers, and leaves. They lay from five to 15 dull white to buff colored  eggs with irregular cinnamon brown splotches. The incubation period lasts from 21 to 31 days, and young hatch already covered in dense down and are immediately able to follow the female to feed.

Hunting the Gambel’s Quail

As with any quail species, hunting the Gambel’s quail is made most successful by concentrating on portions of their range where populations are strong and starting in areas of preferred habitat. Gambel’s quail often frequent mesquite thickets along river valleys and arroyos, dry grasslands, shrublands and cactus stands, and agricultural fields when in search of food. In wetter areas of the eastern and westernmost parts of their range, they can often be found near dense thickets of salt cedar, arrowwood, salt brush, and screwbean mesquite.

typical gambel's quail habitat in western desert areas
Typical Gambel’s quail habitat. (Photo By: Bryce MightyPix/Shutterstock.com)

Productive Gambel’s habitat can also often be found in areas with abundant desert hackberry, saguaro, yuccas, catclaw acacia, and prickly pear cactus. After feeding on vegetation in more open areas early in the morning, the birds are often found in shaded, brushy spots in the afternoon. In winter, several coveys will sometimes combine to feed together, which could yield a surprising flush. By spring, the big coveys break up into smaller family groups.

As with other quail species and, in fact, all game birds, hunting season dates vary somewhat throughout the Gambel’s range. In California, the season runs September 24 through January 29 in Zone Q2, while the open dates in Zones Q1 and Q3 are October 15 through January 29. In Arizona, the season runs October 14 through February 12, the same dates as for scaled and California quail

In New Mexico, the season for Gambel’s runs November 15 through February 15, the same as for Mearn’s quail, scaled quail, and bobwhites. Utah hunters can pursue Gambel’s quail from November 5 through December 31, and the Texas season for Gambel’s is October 29 through February 26, concurrent with the season for bobwhites and scaled quail.

brown pointing dog with bird hunter
As with other desert quail species, pointing dogs are often preferred when chasing Gambel's for their ability to cover large areas and pin down flighty coveys. (Photo By: Bryce Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici/Shutterstock.com)

As with some of the other desert quail species, Gambel’s quail are prone to running away from danger, especially in sparse cover. If you can get them flushed, the singles are far more likely to hold for a pointing dog than are whole coveys, which tend to be quite skittish.

Even though they are somewhat larger than the bobwhite, gun and load selection is basically the same for the Gambel’s quail. Choose your favorite shotgun and lace up your running boots. Small shot—typically number 7.5 or 8—will do the job nicely, as will fairly open chokes that create a good pattern at 20 to 30 yards. 

As with any species of game bird, always check the regulations in the area you intend to hunt before heading afield on a hunt. This will ensure you do your part in proper management of the species, as well as keep you out of trouble with the law.


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