The two faced each other warily through a cloud of testosterone. The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly. Circling and feinting amid a crowd of women and children, the combatants gauged each other's strengths for a moment, then flew at one another. They met, hit, and backed off. They shouted insults at each other, then sparred again.
I watched through the window. In our last place in Palm Springs, I'd have grabbed the phone to call the cops, to tell them that the tourists from Reseda or Edmonton or somewhere had had a few too many in the bars on Palm Canyon Drive, to come and break them up before they broke a window or something. But things are different here in Joshua Tree, at least in our neighborhood. The two boys fighting hadn't been drinking much, if at all. They were unlikely to do each other much damage. They were only nine inches tall and they weighed about six ounces each.
In other words, we've got quail in our yard. Gambel's quail, to be precise, Callipepla gambelii, a species widespread throughout the less-developed parts of the desert southwest.
Ground-foraging birds like their close cousins the coastal California quail, Gambel's quail hunt in family groups for seeds, insects, and green plant material. In fall and winter adult quail forage in coveys of up to three dozen. They're non-migratory, spending their entire lives in a reasonably compact home range that may be a few hundred acres in open desert, less in well-watered places. In spring, males and females begin to pair off, and hostile encounters between males -- mostly related to social status rather than territory -- bust up the adult coveys.
Eventually nature takes its course and the hens lay up to a dozen eggs in nests that are not much more than depressions scratched into the ground. The chicks begin to follow their mother and forage as soon as they hatch. Until fall, each mated pair and their offspring will travel in "brood coveys," the parents keeping close watch on them. When the young reach adulthood and the pair-bonding urges die down, different neighboring families re-convene into larger coveys.
Gambel's quail are very closely related to California quail. Ornithologists suspect the two species diverged only a million or so years ago, an eyeblink in evolutionary time -- but something like 300,000 generations from the quails' perspective. It's a rare quail that reaches its fifth birthday. The two species are often mistaken for one another, but Gambel's lack the scaly-patterned bellies of their coastal cousins, and Gambel's males have a dark belly patch that their counterparts lack. Telling the two species apart is easier if you know where you are. Aside from a thin corridor that pretty much follows the summits of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, the two species' ranges don't really overlap. If you're in the desert, it's a Gambel's.
Gambel's quail are apparently pretty tasty; bobcats and coyotes and roadrunners and just about any other carnivore larger than a quail will eat them. This includes humans: the long hunting season for Gambel's, California, and the less-closely related Mountain quail generally runs from late summer through February or so.
But the thing that really controls the size of the Gambel's quail population is weather. Though a Gambel's may live its entire life without drinking liquid water -- they can get the water they need from their food if they have to -- a dry winter means less of that food, and hot summers mean they need the food all the more.
We also reduce Gambel's quail populations by our non-hunting activities. Though they're doing okay in my neighborhood, residential development fragments the thornscrub habitat they prefer. One study of Gambel's quail near Tucson showed that each additional residence in a patch of Gambel's habitat decreased the likelihood of finding quail there by just under 20%. Interruption of local migration patterns and reduction of cover certainly play a role, as does the likelihood that those human homes come equipped with outdoor cats.
Still, there's a lot of undeveloped desert for the quail to enjoy, as long as we don't increase the frequency of hot dry years by too much. For now, the quail in our new yard seem to be doing well. And driving our indoor cat to distraction as the males fight.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.