April 16, 2015
Gambel's Quail pair
Gambel's Quail pair
When we moved into our present home in late summer, 2004, one of the first things we did was start a yard list, something most serious birders eventually do but we had never done before.  From a birding perspective, our neighborhood in south Scottsdale is a mixed bag—residential, but close to strip commercial areas on the west, the Scottsdale Greenbelt to the east, some yards scorched earth, others with large trees and good vegetation.  We have not landscaped for birds per se, but more for privacy, particularly in front where we have many bushes, a vine covered fence on two sides, and three trees, one a huge, old, dense olive tree.

For avid birders, our yard list is rather disappointingly short, only sixty-five species in eleven years, and the real surprises like Zone-tailed Hawk, have been flyovers.  Our best “yard” yard bird has been a one-day wonder Gray Catbird.  The bright spot is that all resident neighborhood birds eventually discover our yard which provides leafy, covered foraging areas, feeders in the back, and year round droppings from the olive trees which we have never had “fixed” to preclude fruit.  I’m guessing some neighbors see our yard as a mess or a jungle but the neighborhood birds see it as a haven.

It was a couple years before we noticed Gambel’s Quail around the neighborhood and a couple more before they found us.  Presumably they reached the neighborhood via the greenbelt, and one winter a small family began showing up in our yard in the late afternoon, foraging in the front under the olive tree, then moving on at nightfall.  Although many of the local birds were obviously eating the olives we have never seen the quail do that, but they were for sure cleaning up the seed spilled from the backyard feeders. 

Two years ago we began seeing a larger group of quail, a covey which is a fusion of multiple families, frequenting our yard both mornings and evenings, and we became hopeful the result might be a springtime nest.  Gambel’s nests are typically a scrape on the ground in the shade of a bush.  Biologists tell me they are nearly impossible to find, but we have friends who have discovered nests in flower pots around their homes and been able to photograph the whole life sequence.

Early last summer on a trip out to our trash receptacle, I counted 18(!) little fuzzballs running up the alley behind their parents, and I know the overall neighborhood quail population has increased dramatically as the feral cat population has plummeted.  This winter for the first time we began hearing the “ut growl” and the rising “took” calls coming from our front olive tree after sunset and before sunrise, startling in pitch blackness as I stretch out by the fountain under the tree after my early morning run assuming there isn’t another living soul anywhere around that’s not asleep.

Obviously the old olive tree has become one Gambel’s family’s overnight roost.  Beneath the tree are several large cactus pots, and more are in the backyard.  This spring we have moved from hopeful to expectant about them nesting with us.