Secrets of the Gambel's Quail
For a two-year study, biologists tracked the elusive birds in the most remote and inaccessible regions of the Trans-Pecos — even when the trail led to a rattlesnake’s belly.
By E. Dan Klepper
Texans can now look forward to perusing a wealth of new information about one of the prettiest little galliform birds in the state — the Gambel’s quail. The Gambel’s is a favorite of both birdwatchers and artists due to its distinctive head plumage, called a topknot. The bird inhabits the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and its range extends into neighboring states. But in Texas it is found only in the most remote and inaccessible regions of the Trans-Pecos, making it a very difficult bird for Texans to enjoy. In fact, until recently, the bird and its habits have remained a mystery to state biologists.
“We didn’t know anything about the bird in Texas,” says wildlife biologist and TPWD Natural Resource Specialist Mike Sullins. “So when we began our study of them we had to start at the baseline with a descriptive research approach.” The study, the first of its kind for the Gambel’s quail in Texas, is a two-year project designed to determine the status, distribution and ecology of the bird in its Trans-Pecos environs. It’s been hard work for Sullins, along with several graduate students from Sul Ross State University, but their efforts have paid off by providing new revelations about the bird’s food habits, range and susceptibility to predation.
“Most of the food items I’ve found are not in any reference manuals. This makes deciphering what they eat real detective work,” says Sullins. “For example, the quail love to load up on the seeds of desert spike. I was surprised about that because it didn’t seem like the seeds of this annual forb were big enough for them to bother eating. But I kept finding crops full of these little black seeds and then, one day, I saw a covey of quail snatching the desert spike pods, chewing them up, eating the tiny seeds, and then spitting out what was left of the pods.”
The birds, like most desert dwellers, are resourceful and persevering. “The Gambel’s quail is a boom or bust bird,” explains Sullins. “It is susceptible to extended drought and poorly timed rainfall causing its population to drop to fairly low numbers. But it also recovers pretty quickly.” Adjusting to the vagaries of West Texas weather is a real advantage considering this quail’s range. Sullins has essentially redrawn, in great detail, what was once defined as a vague shadow of the quail’s haunt. “Historically, the only information we have had on Texas distribution has been minimal,” Sullins says. “But since our surveys, we have been able to define their range from the southernmost bend of the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park westward all the way to El Paso.” Sullins also discovered one additional slice of Texas range for the bird that begins in Van Horn and extends through the rough brushy draws of the Sierra Diablo Mountains all the way northward to the agricultural fields of Del City. “The birds are scarce, but they are there.”
That statement could be said of most of the birds in Sullins’ study, but not all of them. Sullins and his crew have tried to keep radio collars on at least 50 of the 500-plus birds banded in the study at any given time. But following a signal through the dense, thorny habitat can be a real challenge. While the radio signal may be heard clearly, the bird is often nowhere in sight. And the birds’ natural predators have been anything but helpful.
“Migrating Cooper’s hawks have just hammered our birds every spring and fall,” says Sullins. “We have lost about 50 to 80 percent of radio collared birds to the Cooper’s every season.” Bobcats and gray foxes also eat the birds. Often these predators will leave distinctive calling cards. “You can tell if the predator was a hawk because they will grab the little radio transmitter antenna and peel it back, stripping the rubber off and turning it into a little wire curlicue,” explains Sullins. “The fox, on the other hand, will bend the antenna in a right angle when it chews on the collar, and often caches the bird remains underground. Bobcats will usually leave teeth marks from its carnassials, or shredding teeth, on the radio collar and defecate right next to the kill.”
But the most unusual tracking experience involved a rattlesnake. “One afternoon we followed a live signal to a pack rat burrow,” says Sullins. “Quail sometimes will hide in these burrows if they are trying to avoid you. Also, a pack rat will sometimes collect a transmitter from a dead bird and take it into its burrow. So we dug down about four feet but didn’t find anything even though the signal stayed strong. We came back the next week and followed the same live signal to another pack rat nest. Dug down and still couldn’t find anything. Third time we came back and tracked the signal to some dense brush. We pulled the brush back and uncovered two rattlesnakes all wrapped up together in some low branches.” We then stuck the antennae down amidst the bundle of rattlers and the radio signal came in loud and clear. “I figured there was no way I was going to try and retrieve the bird and its radio collar from inside a rattlesnake belly,” says Sullins. So he and his crew left, came back the next week, followed the signal another one hundred yards downriver, and found the radio collar in a small pile of snake droppings.