The Summer Season of Quail
It’s that time of year where almost every backyard has one, two or even three families of quail. Papa quail perches atop a lookout -- at our house an old juniper snag, where he can scout the territory making sure it’s safe for mama and all 12 chicks.
They come parading up our dirt pathway clucking, scratching and pecking as they go. They’re scratching for mostly plant material including Russian thistle seeds, grasses and filaree seeds as well as seeds you provide – their favorite being black oil sunflower seed, millet and cracked corn. Jay’s Bird Barn has a seed blend with those ingredients called “Select”. The newly hatched babies have difficulty breaking open the black oil sunflower seed so we offer a mix called “No Mess”. This blend of cracked corn, hulled millet, sunflower chips, and peanut piece have all been shelled - easier for tiny beaks to peck and does not sprout with the summer rains. Quail blocks are also an alternative way to offer seed, especially helpful if you are going out-of-town and want to offer a reliable food source for the new hatchlings. Quail also consume beetles, ants, spiders and grasshoppers.
Water is critical during these hot summer months. Position at least one of your waterers on the ground with a few rocks or stepping stones so the babies can easily reach it and easily climb out. The water should be very shallow, two inches or less. Baby quail can drown in birdbaths with only three inches of water.
Male and female quail establish a pair bond in March through April. Both male and female work together to “construct” a very loose nest on the ground called a scrape. They push a few rocks around sometimes lined with bits of soft grasses and call it good. We’ve had people report finding eggs in the most unlikely places – one person while watering their flowers in a large pot on their patio saw a mama quail fly out in fright. She peeked in to see nine off-white eggs with brown splotches – no more watering until the eggs hatched. Average clutch sizes range between 10 -12 eggs. One record reported 19 eggs in a nest. Females typically lay one egg a day but don’t begin to brood until all eggs are laid insuring that all eggs will hatch at relatively the same time. Most commonly the female incubates while the male secures the territory but males have been found to incubate as well, especially if something happens to the female.
After 21-23 days the eggs hatch. Usually by June babies appear. If a clutch fails, a second brood will be laid and hatch in July. Even a third clutch will be produced in response to the summer monsoons when a new batch of weed seeds sprout after the rains.
Most passerines are completely helpless and must be fed by parents for about two weeks before fledging. This development style is called altricial However, baby quail are down-covered and precocial, meaning that soon after birth they begin walking and pecking for seeds. Gambel quail produce many chicks because they are heavily preyed upon by everything from snakes and lizards to jays, roadrunners and the larger quail by raptors. Mammals including fox, coyote, and bobcat all relish a quail meal. Gambel quail average a 48% brood loss.
By the time quail reach teenager-hood family groups may merge. There may be as many as 30 – 40 chicks forming mixed-parent, and mixed-age coveys. Quail live an average of 1 - 2 years with exceptions being 4 – 6 years.
Enjoy the parade this summer season of papa, mama and all the chicks clamoring behind. They are an Arizona icon and their call is one of our most familiar sounds of summer.
Dena is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. She and her staff can help you select the best seed, feeders and birdhouses for your location. You may contact her at 928-203-5700 or firstname.lastname@example.org