Culture and the Gambel's Quail

Callipepla Gambelii

"click here for larger image"

A culture is the collective social behavior of a group. The process of evolution combines the survival affects of form and behavior in making its decision on whether a species will survive or disappear. Species under great stress have high death rates, short lives and small populations. The evolutionary process works best under such conditions. The individual with the slightest imperfection is discarded immediately. Due to the small population, the mutation which offers the slightest help spreads quickly throughout the species. Often, in nature, a better behavior pattern, dictated by fixed instinct, is used to offset a physical impediment. Such is the case in man. Such is the case in the Gambel's quail, a delightful and lovable little creature.

We live in the foothills of the Catalina mountains, near Tucson, Arizona, on almost an acre of high desert vegetation. Our land is covered with prickly pear, barrel cactus, teddy bear cholla; creosote and sage bushes, palo verde, catsclaw, mesquite; and even two large magnificent sahuaros, one of which has been here more than a hundred and fifty years longer than we. It is habitat for many species of desert bird and animal life. We've learned to love them all. It's dry country so we provide two watering holes for all of them, one in our front yard and another in the back. We have no fences. The wildlife traffic is heavy, day and night. In addition to the birds and the little critters, many exotic animals take advantage, especially during a long dry spell. Javelina come for a drink of water and pause at the back door, looking for a handout (usually successful). Coyotes come during the night. The neighbors cats stake the area out looking for an unwary bird. An occasional bobcat wanders through and stops for a sip. Roadrunners come by. Out of sympathy for the others, we don't feed the predators (although deeply tempted, since they are beautiful also, in their own way).

My computer and writing desk overlooks a sheltered part of our front yard and one of the watering holes through a large window. By keeping the background light low and the blinds partially closed, I am able to observe the ebb and flow of the animal and bird traffic without their knowledge. My production often drops to zero, as I become enthralled with the activity.

We also feed the birds and the benign little creatures in our backyard. We took their habitat and we feel we owe them. Among the birds we feed are two species that provide a miniature example of evolutionary divergence in the manner of Ramapithecus and Ramidus. On the one hand is the mourning dove. Although well adapted to the ground (it walks instead of hopping), the dove is still very much an air and tree bird. It flies beautifully, and it roosts and nests in the trees. On the other hand is the Gambel's quail. It is strictly a ground bird. It can run like blazes, but it is a miserable flier, and it roosts and nests on the ground. The two species are about the same size and they share the same food supply (primarily seeds and young leaf sprouts). Both species survive quite well, but in very different cultural ways.

Ramapithecus, ancestor of the modern apes, was a deep forest animal. He had hands and arms on all four corners. He could climb a tree faster than any big cat. No cat could match his agility in the trees. He nested in the trees at night, and was rarely exposed on the ground since most of his food was also in the trees. He, in essence, had copious food and little predation. About the same time (about four million years ago) that Ramapithecus lived in the trees, the walking ape,Ramidus, ancestor of modern man, lived on the forest floor and at its edges. He had only two hands and arms. On the other end he had legs and feet. Feet can't grab branches, and legs are too straight and stiff for climbing. A two-legged animal can't run as fast as one with four legs. And the cats were much larger. There wasn't a big cat around that couldn't outrun Ramidus on the ground, or overtake him in the lowest branches of a tree. The pregnant women and small children were especially vulnerable to predators.

Since they did not live in great danger, Ramapithecus and his descendants (chimp, orangutan and gorilla) had little need for extensive cultures (complex and fixed sets of behaviors). And they didn't develop them. Ramidus and his descendants, on the other hand, badly needed group effort to make up for their deficiencies, in order to survive. They were very strong and of good size, about four feet tall and fifty pounds. They also still had the ape-like teeth and strong claws on their hands, but, individually, they were no match for the ancient panther or lion. Their attrition rate must have been terrible until evolution started providing a stronger and stronger instinct for group effort. A tribe that cooperated in defense could survive. The individual could not. A tribe requires extensive social development. A cooperative culture was born in man.

The mourning dove can escape any ground predator by taking to the air. It's nests are off the ground, offering protection to the chicks and eggs. It roosts in the trees, away from the ground predators. We have a big red-tailed hawk in the neighborhood who preys often on them during the day. There is no conceivable cultural protection that would help that problem. No matter how many doves should cooperate in defense, it would still be hopeless. Group defense effort did not develop. The dove offsets the attrition with multiple broods each year. Since it needs no culture, it has none. It mates often and seemingly all year round. It does not pair off. During a mating orgy it is not uncommon to see several birds in a pile. They are such wonderful fliers that coupled with a high birthrate, they don't need a lot of intelligence. They don't have much. And not very good reaction times either. No matter, they have more chicks to offset the losses.

The Gambel's quail is a very different story. It has some terrible survival problems and has developed an intricate and exquisite culture to cope.

First of all, seasonal weather effects the quail much more than the dove. The dove thinks nothing of moving to a new area thirty or fifty miles away to compensate for a local dry spell. The quail, due to his very limited flying ability, lives in a very small area, perhaps only a few hundred yards square, all of his life. He must endure whatever happens to him there (see why we feed them? We took their home.) Our area is dry to start with, and droughts are common. A most remarkable cultural compensation is made by the quail. If there is a dry winter and spring, few quail will nest and the broods will be small. 1996, for example, was a dry year. We feed perhaps a hundred pair, but we saw less than a dozen broods and the largest was five chicks. The year before was a wet spring, resulting in a good food supply. Every quail pair nested. There were chicks everywhere and several broods of a dozen or more. They adjust the chick crop each year to fit the expected food supply. A University of Berkeley study of a fixed and isolated habitat (Santa Cruz Island) came to the conclusion that the current adult population also effected chick production - when the population was low, chick production was high and when an area was over-populated, the chick production was low. The human should be so smart.

Pairing occurs in late winter and the Gambel's quail is definitely and completely monogamous. They are inseparable. There is no attempt by either to stray from the other. If a male is seen, the female will be close by. Once they pair, neither will ever willingly allow the other out of sight. As they forage, they will change spatial relationships often, but usually the male leads and the female follows. As long as there are no chicks involved, the pairs are quite sociable, gathering together with other pairs to forage in even-numbered groups. All of them pair. Singles are very rare, and then only as a result of disaster.

Roosting time is social time. Organizing the sleeping arrangements is apparently quite a chore. There is incessant chatter and movement for about twenty minutes each evening. When they do not have chicks, several pairs will roost together in a circle. With tails together and noses pointing outward they will explode in all directions if attacked by a predator. Their main predator at night is the coyote. The coyote usually hunts alone. When he flushes a covey, he will select a bird and run along under it until it comes down. Quail cannot fly far and they are very noisy when they fly. They are easily followed and they get tired quickly. If they come down in the open, it's the end. If they are lucky they will come down in shelter, such as a catsclaw tree or a big prickly pear. Every coyote within ten miles knows that we feed quail, and that there are many nearby. The quail have a rough time almost every night. If the moon is full, I doubt if they get any sleep at all.

As the predators move through the area, scaring up group after group of quail, many pairs get separated. Quail don't care much to get off the ground. Except when leaves are young and tender, a quail will rarely climb a tree. When they are separated during the night though, they have a ritual for rejoining. The male will return to the roosting area the next morning and fly to the top of the highest plant or structure nearby. There he gives his 'where are you?' call, over and over. He thereby exposes himself to great danger and his calls will alert any nearby predator, such as that red-tailed hawk overhead. He will not stop until his mate returns, even if he is near the feeding grounds at feeding time. The female returns to the roosting area also, but she makes no sound. This is training for later when she has chicks that she must not endanger on the way back to her mate, and it protects her from blindly running into a predator who is stalking her mate. All ends well most of the time. Most of the calling ends by an hour or so after sunup. They have all been reunited. Sometimes, though, there has been disaster. The male will then call his mate for weeks. He will come down in late evening for food and sleep, but early the next morning he is back on duty, calling her. What happens when it's the male who is eaten? We have no idea. The hen makes no sound while she searches, but surely she does, for a like time.

As much of a disaster as losing a mate is, that is not the end of it. There are social implications, also. If a male loses his mate, he becomes an outcast. If he tries to approach any other pair, he will be immediately chased away by the paired male. When we feed them, the quail couples will mingle while eating, but the widower will be constantly chased away. We have tried to feed them separately, but it appears to be the companionship that they seek, which is then denied. It is not known if the widowed hen is also rejected in a like manner. If so, it is a more subtle rejection.

Nesting begins in early spring. The mating pair selects a nesting territory, which they will then defend from other quail. Nesting is on the ground, usually in a protected area under a bush or cactus. They then mate and produce the desired number of eggs, usually about a dozen. Incubation occurs only after the full number of eggs has been produced. All of the chicks hatch at once.

The eggs are vulnerable to ground predators. If a snake finds a nest, it will move in and live off the eggs until they are all gone. Roadrunners and crows rob nests. A hungry coyote will not hesitate to enjoy an egg meal. If they lose a nest, the quail pair will look for a new territory and try again.

When the chicks hatch, they have the most attentive and devoted parents that nature has ever provided. Neither parent will ever willingly let them out of their sight until they are grown and ready to pair. The day they hatch, seemingly, the family leaves the nest and the parents begin training the chicks on how to forage. Freshly hatched chicks can run almost as fast as their parents. Their little legs move so fast they can't be seen, making them appear to be low-flying wingless beetles. The family forages with the male leading the brood, while the female follows as rear guard. Although inquisitive and adventurous, the chicks are very obedient. On command from either parent, they will instantly squat motionless or run under the nearest prickly pear.

Quail are very territorial when they have a brood. The males will chase other quail and other broods off to ensure food for their own chicks. The females rarely get into these territorial disputes, it's a job for the male. It is sheer bedlam when we feed quail during brooding time. The males are all squared off fighting each other (no one ever gets hurt) while the females quietly herd their chicks around the fisticuffs and continue feeding along with them.

If a quail family is foraging and runs into another quail family, the males will fight for the foraging area. These fights are more ceremonial than real. The two males stretch upright and bump each other around with their chests. They threaten with their beaks, but the blow never lands. The strongest male will prevail and gets the area for his family. If a quail family is foraging and runs into a childless pair, a single gesture by the father is all that is required. The childless couple will quietly give up the area to the family and as quietly move away.

If a predator attacks the family, the chicks hide or run for cover and the parents try to entice the predator to chase the parents, deliberately exposing themselves to danger. Often they lose the game and are killed or maimed. If at all able they will continue to do their duty. We had a brood of four in 1996 that was led by a male with one leg. For a creature that was totally dependent on his legs it was a pitiful sight. He insisted, though, and led his group foraging, hopping clumsily on one leg, and was successful in raising all four. With only the one leg to shove off with, he could not take flight very well. He must have remained alive by sheer will-power until his chicks were grown, for he disappeared shortly after. No quail lives to a ripe old age.

The predators are relentless. As the season moves on through summer, the broods get smaller and more and more broods are being tended by only one parent. If a mate is lost, the other carries on the best it can. If a male loses his mate and she has the chicks, he will climb up high and call her; but, if he has the chicks, he swallows his pain. The care of the chicks comes first and his mate, if alive, must find him on her own. There is no time for climbing up high and calling her.

The quail family stays together even when the chicks are mature. By fall the only way the parents can be distinguished from their chicks is by knowing that the first in line is father and the last is mother. The newly matured chick is never single. He is a child of one family until he pairs to start another.

The quail pair share in everything. They are diligent, caring, responsible, courageous, loyal, dutiful, faithful, brave, resilient, tenacious, sharing, and dedicated. For you younger folks in public school, this is called a value system and it's what they are trying to erase from you. For you older people, this is a description of character, that which no longer matters in our culture.

So nature provides many paths for a species to survive. Some will offset losses with high birth rates. Some become fleet of foot or wing. Some use offsetting cultural behaviors. Ramidus was one of those, as is the Gambel's quail. Some claim that dimorphism and aggressive males indicate a society in which the male dominates the female and tends to gather females while fighting off other males. If true, quail are an exception. Quail have these characteristics and are totally monogamous, sharing the burdens of life equally and together as a pair.

The unit of quail life culture is the bonded pair, not the individual male or female.

They are devoted to each other. When they nest and brood they are devoted to their chicks. They are brave, resilient, persistent and courageous. They are energetic from dawn to dark. They are social and follow their social rules without exception. They adjust their population to fit their environment. They are aggressive as a ritual, but shed no blood. With a brain the size of the tip of your little finger, they have a culture for all man to envy. They are only instinctive, you say? So are you, my friend. So are you. The only difference we have is a couple of expanded terms in our instinctive decision mechanisms, theirs plus a couple more. It seems doubtful, at the moment, that we gained as a result.


1. As with the quail, an instinctive cultural element essential for human species survival throughout the eras of Ramidus, Africanus, Aferensis, Habilis, Erectus, Archaic and primitive Sapiens was the bonded pair.

2. With the growth of intellectual capability over the overall period of human development, and its resultant societal control (sexual behavior being the primary one), two evolutionary factors were placed in opposition, intellectual discipline and raw instinct. After millions of years of painful development of the intellect and its consequent cultural discipline, man is now moving away from cultural discipline toward satisfying his instincts. An animal needs no intellect (or culture) if it is instinctive. Evolution diminishes unused functions. In time, no one will mind the species degeneration. Soon thereafter, we join the dinosaur.

3. During the past fifty years, after almost five million years of human culture based on the bonded heterosexual pair, modern man is attempting to establish the basic unit of the human culture as the individual. It is attempting to eradicate the couple in favor of the individual and establishing man and woman as interchangeable in function, sex and culture.

4. An industrious, caring and cooperative society doesn't require a big brain. The basic elements and drives of such a culture are instinctive. We should be ashamed that with all our abilities we have allowed and do allow the degeneration of our culture. Indeed, it is becoming apparent that our public school system intends to eradicate every vestige of our cultural heritage.

5. When we study the chimp in trying to learn more about ourselves and our cultural inclinations, we study the wrong animal. He may be near us physically but not culturally. Industrious, caring and cooperative cultures are developed only in answer to severe environmental stress, where there is a harsh mismatch between the capability of the species and the environment it finds itself in. The chimp lineage has always had it easy. It lives out of reach of any predators that are larger, stronger and more vicious than it is. It lives in an environment where it is well adapted for food. Without environmental stress it has never had need for more than the most primitive of cultures - and evolution does not provide features that are not required. The quail is far closer to our cultural heritage than the chimp, since it suffers the same severe mismatch that ancient man faced. Its cultural solution was much the same. A broadened search should uncover more, even closer, examples.

6. Now that we know the elements of an ideal culture, and, supposedly, we are intelligent, why don't we institute such cultural requirements on ourselves? We intellectually see the need for certain behaviors in our culture, the very same ones that we, and the quail, developed from necessity. Yet we deny them. In the guise of seeking personal freedom, we deny the very cultural disciplines that would allow it.