Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Quail's Lesson

California quail
California quail
California quail
I don't want to anthropomorphize wild animals, but as I watch the male California quail in my yard, I often think I can learn a lesson or two from these feathered fathers.

During the winter, the males and females descend into our yard to feed. Heads down, feet scratching the dirt for seeds, one male tends to look up more than the others. Keeping an eye out for predators, he is the group's sentry for safety.

As winter melts into spring, these groups disband. Pair bonding means establishing breeding territories, and the males discourage others from moving in on their turf.

Later in the breeding season, the female incubates the load of eggs deposited in a ground nest hidden beneath some shrubbery. The male maintains a nearby vigilance. If the female should die for some reason, the male will take over the incubating duties.

When the ping-pong ball sized young hatch, they are ready to run in about an hour. Both the female and male herd their offspring with soft clucks and calls. The male often assumes an elevated perch, to scan for danger and to keep an eye on his flock. If one of the young dawdles or wanders in the wrong direction, he gives a "get back over here" call.

Later in the fledgling season, this elevated perch is our fence. As the male surveys the domain and tries to negotiate moving along the fence top, he will give the all clear signal when appropriate. First one, then another, then the rest of the young birds fly up to the fence top, often accompanied by some collision antics. After the young and female descend to the ground, the male is still in his sentry position.

And so it goes, season after season. Although color-banding some of the males would be a time-consuming process, it would be fun to see if the same adults return to our yard. I guess I'll just have to be content with the lesson of the male quail and adapt his approach to my own life.

Side note. I have sent an article about California quail to DesertUSA (www.desertusa.com) for their review. If interested in the American Southwest, check out their Web site. Although you can't search by "author," you'll see that I have written several articles for them on wildflowers and wildlife.

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