Gambel’s Oak (Quercus gambelii)

Family Name: Gambel

The Gambel Oak has the unfortunate common name “scrub oak,” as if it were an inferior runt of the quercus species. Oaks are deciduous and Gambel Oaks are commonly found in the Southwest with and without many leaves. It thrives in the understory among forests of ponderosa pines at elevations between 5,000 to 8,000 feet. The rough terrain and aridity at their trunks often leaves them stunted and gnarly, which may account for the scrub nickname.

But where does the name Gambel come from?

The Gambel Oak was named by Thomas Nuttall, the English botanist and zoologist. Nuttall worked in the US from 1808 to 1841 and he placed the Latin name “Gambelii” on several species (oaks and quail) in honor of one of his students, the American explorer and ornithologist, William Gambel.

Who is William Gambel?

In the later years of Nuttall’s American research, he met the teenager William Gambel, who was an enthusiastic, young naturalist from Philadelphia. Born to a poor Irish family, Gambel’s father died when William was nine and the boy followed his personal interests in the study of nature. Nuttall hired Gambel as a research assistant, taking him on trips from the Carolina’s to Maine. Before returning to England, Nuttall encouraged Gambel to explore the US following in his footsteps – WEST – in search of new species. Taking his mentor’s advice, Gambel set out with a wagon train with a collection of traders and trappers in search of new flora and fauna. For three years he explored from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and carefully documented all of the species he could specifically identify and he took detailed notes on those with unusual characteristics. Among the many new species of birds he noted was the first description of a “handsome species” of quail that “conspicuously display the long crest.” Gambel sent a complete descriptions to his mentor, Thomas Nuttall, who named the bird in Gambel ́s honor. [1]

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Gambel Quail (Callipepla gambelii)

Gambel discovered this appealing ground-dweller and he could hardly have asked for a more exciting and beautiful avian namesake. In spring, the male Gambel’s Quail often perches atop a stump, cactus or some other prominent lookout, his black topknot or plume whiffling in the breeze. He tilts his head back, and with closed eyes, repeatedly sings his lovely song. At this time he is seeking a mate while declaring his territory and warning off other males. [2]

Returning east to Philadelphia in 1845, Gambel failed to gain a desired position as curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Undaunted, he qualified to practice medicine, married and then preceded his bride on another trip west, this one to California. Gambel had intended to set up his medical practice in San Francisco, send word to his wife to make the trip and then to further pursue his interests in medicine and natural history. The Gold Rush era cross-country journey was not without tragedy.

Gambel had difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Landing in a mining camp with some sick gold miners, he tried to help the miners with his medical talents, but the sanitation was non-existent. In the camp he contracted typhoid fever and soon fell sick with fever and delirium. He died in 1849 at the age of twenty-six. [3]

Mountain Chickadee (Poecille gambelii)

Three and a half decades after Gambel’s death, his prolific field notes and writings were still revered by researchers of the West. He studied trees, rocks, rodents and birds with keen insights. The American ornithologist Robert Ridgway named the mountain chickadee (Poecile gambelii) in Dr. William Gambel’s honor posthumously.

Gambel Quail female

Gambel ́s Quail and Gambel’s Oak are both uniquely southwest. Additionally, Gambel is the first American ornithologist to identify the roadrunner (previously recognized by Spanish explorers).

Gambel Oak leaves and acorns

And to add to the talents of this doctor, he also discovered unique species of goose, sparrow, and woodpecker (which he named after Nuttall) among other wildlife (lizards and plants) on anyone’s life lists. His short life was full of adventure and heartbreak, and should not be lost in the name game.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii)


[1] http://www.towhee.net/history/gambel.html

[2] https://www.lindahall.org/william-gambel/

[3] https://www.lindahall.org/william-gambel/