A Covey of Problems
There's no feathered fury like that of a nesting mother quail.
With summer hatching season safely behind us, I'm hoping we can at last exhale and tell the tales of what for some reason has been the Year of the Quail around our place. Not to muscle in on the territory of Ramblin' Outdoors columnist Larry Lightner (who is writing about snakes this month — completely different!), but we have experienced some wildlife adventures of our own. And for those of you who still think of this page as "stuff I saw in my backyard," well, you're probably eager for another fix of our outdoor ineptitude.
This business with the quail was not my fault, however. Blame those silly quail, or maybe just a little blame my wife. (But please don't tell her I said that!)
The first quail saga unfolded when my wife was out cleaning up the yard. Now, as faithful readers know, I view one of the great benefits of moving from a place of manicured lawns like Cincinnati or the Twin Cities to the untamed high desert as the ability to let nature be, well, natural. We sold our lawnmower when we left Ohio and haven't looked back.
Except, of course, that a few years into our Southwestern sojourn, my wife bought a "trimmer" that's something of a cross between a lawnmower and a weed whacker on steroids. This sucker can handle pretty much anything even our rough-and-tumble yard can dish out — including shooting small rocks from the ordinarily unkempt area straight through the sunroom windows. I applaud the idea of several times a year mowing down the worst of the weeds (and anything else that comes in range!) to reduce the wildfire danger around our house. But once you've crossed that line into giving a damn, well, it's hard to go back to a completely laissez-faire attitude about our little chunk of the great outdoors. Hence my "applaud"-ing, rather than actually participating.
Anyway, my wife was out there engaged in the Sisyphus-like chore of de-jungling our yard when she noticed a recently hatched quail chick. Worse, the chick noticed her. And started following her around.
Apparently we were now in that Are You My Mother? book. The chick seemed to have "imprinted" on my wife — at least that was our amateur naturalist explanation — and was following her lead as it would its quail mommy's. As the chick pursued my wife, it strayed ever farther from where it presumably belonged. What to do?
Since there were no other quail immediately about, my wife smartly figured that Quail Mom and Quail Dad must have lost track of the chick after a feeding foray under our fruit trees. They'd gone back to quail suburbia, out in the hinterlands of our property.
Every attempt to shake the chick's affections failed. Finally, my clever wife used a piece of cardboard to scoop up the chick and scampered far out into the back of the yard, where quail tend to hang out. She released the chick and made a mad dash to the house and out of sight.
Since we didn't subsequently see buzzards circling overhead or hear cries of lamentation from bereft Quail Mom and Dad, we chose to decide that this story had the happy ending of a feathered family reunion. If some smarty-pants quail expert out there has a different take, keep it to yourself, you heartless know-it-all!
We did call in the experts, however, on the summer's second quail saga. My wife had planted some herbs, mostly basil, in a big ceramic planter to which she hooked up an irrigation line. The plants took off in the summery heat and pretty soon I was cranking out pesto as fast as the blender could chop it. (See? I'm not entirely useless around the house.)
Unfortunately, this little herb-garden of Eden was also paradise for a quail looking to nest. One day when my wife went out to harvest more basil, she was startled by an explosion of feathers and squawky scolding. When the equally startled quail had retreated to an angry distance, my wife discovered eight little quail eggs nestled inside the planter, under the canopy of herbs.
Other than the hassle of disturbing Momma Quail every time I needed herbs in the kitchen, this would not have worried us much — except we began to fret about how the chicks would make it to the ground once they hatched. First there was the problem of the planter itself, which was several feet from lip to ground that would have to be navigated. Then there was the worrisome fact that the planter itself was set several more feet above the ground — with only a sloping bunch of rocks below, not offering much of a claw-hold for chicks barely able to walk.
Happy as we were to give shelter to a fledgling quail family, when those chicks actually fledged we feared the worst. We could practically see the owls planning their menus for when the chicks toppled to their doom.
So we debated: Would it be better to let nature take its (possibly grim) course, or to intervene? If we relocated the eggs to a safer hatching location, would the mother follow or would she abandon the whole clutch? (What if they began to hatch in transit and again bonded with my wife? Would each quail have to get its own room in our house? Could we afford to send them all to college?)
This time we needed expert advice. I emailed Dennis Miller, emeritus professor of biology at WNMU, who runs Gila Biological Consulting and Gila Wildlife Rescue. I'd once spent a memorable afternoon with him for a story, during which a golden eagle showed up for saving ("The Call of the Wild," August 2005).
Dennis replied that it's unusual for quail to lay eggs up high; normally they nest right on the ground. He then confirmed our fears about an intervention strategy: "I don't think moving the nest is a choice. The parents probably will not find it or will reject it if any of the eggs are moved or the nest moved. Many birds have to have their eggs carefully removed and not turned or tilted at all and the have to point the same way they were in the nest directionally (north, south, etc.), and even then the success rate after moving is low, so that would be a last resort."
Dang finicky birds! Who knew they were so OCD?
Dennis advised instead letting nature take its course — possibly with a little human assistance if the chicks seemed stranded. "The parents will find them. Don't worry about human smell on them. That is an old wives' tale; truth is that birds have a very, very poor sense of smell except things like vultures," he added. Immediately we felt a lot better about the chick in saga number-one who'd been relocated away from my wife and toward its parents.
We learned a little more about our nesting visitor: "The nest is usually shaded from the midday sun. They usually lay 10 to 12 eggs and incubate for 21 to 24 days. They may not incubate much if the temperatures stay as high as they have been, but at night they should be on the eggs. If they are not, they may have abandoned the clutch, which is rare but happens."
No abandonment issue here! Momma Quail sat it out except when we came to harvest herbs, when she'd fly just out of reach and give us a piece of her avian mind until we went back to the kitchen and she could return to duty.
We happened to take a trip out of town about three weeks after discovering the nest. When we returned, Momma Quail was nowhere to be seen — and the herb planter was full of little eggshell bits in a pattern suggesting hatching rather than depredation. Best of all, no stranded chicks (or, ugh, their remains) could be seen. Somehow they had made it to the ground.
Sure enough, a few days later we saw what we now thought of as "our" quail family scampering across the yard. And just the other day I spotted a covey of "teenage" quail following two adults through the greened-up underbrush. Whew!
It could have been much worse, we now realize. Heck, Larry keeps telling us that mysterious hole in the dirt at the edge of the upper yard could be home to a badger.
How many offspring, do you suppose, do badgers produce at one time? And how would we fit them all around the dining-room table?
When not watching his wife do yardwork,
David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure.