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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Tom Vezo

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Eats Like a Bird
The scaled quail has a diverse meal plan. In the fall and winter, it forages for seeds like many other birds, but in spring and summer, the chickenesque resident of the Chihuahuan Desert also feeds on a steady diet of ants, desert termites and beetles.

By Kelly Kramer

When it comes to fight or flight in the face of danger, the scaled quail will always choose flight, but not in the way you might imagine. Rather than taking wing away from its predators, this chickenesque resident of the Chihuahuan Desert prefers to use its sturdy legs and run.

It's an instinct that serves the quail well, particularly as it darts in and out of its preferred habitat — the dry grasslands of Southeastern Arizona, near the state's borders with Mexico and New Mexico. When searching for a place to roost, the scaled quail has three contradictory criteria: cover, concealment and wide-open spaces. It's drawn to areas that contain plenty of mesquite, saltbush, yucca and skunkbush. It's also fond of native bunchgrasses, like switchgrass, tobosa and little bluestem.

The quail uses the cover for foraging and wintering, as well as a means of escape from hungry predators. It roosts on the ground and usually forages in the early morning and late evening, searching for thistle, snakeweed, mesquite, pigweed, flax and ragweed seeds. In spring and summer, the quail likes a steady diet of six-legged crawlers: ants, desert termites and beetles. It supplements that protein with plants, including Christmas cactus and prickly pear fruit.

Even more impressive than its diverse meal plan is the quail's early aptitude. Within hours of hatching, baby quails are up and walking, following their parents. Hours later, they can forage for themselves, scoot away from predators and find their parents with calls of paycos, paycos, paycos. Within a month, the young quails are capable of flight.

As winter coveys form, family bonds are broken and the quails begin to seek out mates. Male members of the species produce a raspy mating call and effect a pretty posture, complete with erect yellow-brown feathers. Once a female answers the call, the pair ventures off to nest, usually beneath cactuses or dense brush. Breeding begins in early spring and continues through September, but the quail produces only one brood of five to 22 cream-colored, brown-speckled eggs per year.

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