California quail are wonderful creatures and now is the best time of year to enjoy them.
One thing I like about California is our choice of official state bird: the California quail. Most sports teams and schools choose quite ferocious and aggressive animals as their mascots. America puts bald eagles everywhere. Benjamin Franklin advocated the wild turkey as a better national representative than the eagle, and California’s election evokes something of that same spirit: We’d rather champion a peaceful, social bird than one that looks imposingly aggressive. Quail are wonderful creatures and now is the best time of the year to enjoy them.
That’s because it’s baby season! That’s true for birds in general from April through July, but from the point of view of the casual observer, childhood for most songbirds is a fairly insignificant event. Most neighborhood birds have what are called altricial young: they are helpless at birth, unable to fly or thermoregulate, and spend their first weeks of life confined to the nest, where we rarely see them. By the time they are ready to fly, they are dimensionally adult and largely identical to their parents.
Quail, by contrast, have precocious young: babies hatched from the egg ready to run, see, and peck for food (although they may only have a rather hazy idea of the right food immediately after emerging). As with young ducks and shorebirds, this means we get to witness the childhood and family life of quail. Instead of growing stuck in place, high up in a tree, baby quails run after their parents, a dozen furry little ones whose legs blur as their whirring little dynamos struggle to keep up with their mother. , who tries to corral his adorable stray nuts. , and his father, who reduces his own diet to act as the family’s sentinel, constantly looking for threats.
Part of quail’s appeal lies in its simple visual delight. The young, like domestic ducklings or chicks, are furry, clumsy, round, and small. The parents are also quite round and clumsy, which contributes to their endearing sense of gentle harmlessness, but also surprisingly graceful. Male Quails are indeed one of our most graceful-looking birds, with a chestnut cap and rich black throat, boldly swooping white lines on the face, a beautiful geometric pattern of white chevrons on the belly, and a plume. flamboyant that extends forward from its head, swaying like the race.
I may like the females even better, birds that trade most of that flashy exterior for simple, undramatic friendliness, their colors still rich and subtly varied, but their soft, sweet expression no longer hidden under the exaggerated black and white
Another large part of the human feeling of affection towards quails comes from their intense sociability. It’s nice to see a row of quail trotting merrily down the street and then disappearing into the blackberry thicket one after another. While many birds fly in flocks, their aggregations can often feel like a rather anonymous and impersonal affair, a merely practical ensemble that helps each individual find food and avoid predators. Quail flocks feel more familiar, as they are from late spring to early fall, and show more obvious cooperation. Most visible is their practice of posting male sentinels to keep an eye out for threats while others search for food, a habit that can be seen among both two-parent family groups and larger multi-family winter-forming flocks.
Quail’s social cooperation probably sounds even better than it looks. With a wide range of calls (15 different vocalizations with different meanings have been identified), quail are always conversing with each other to communicate useful information. “No bird has a more varied and agreeable language,” wrote the early ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush. The different tones and intensities of cluck serve as contact calls, warnings to stay still until a threat subsides, or summons to disperse the children. Most familiar of all is its loud call to assembly, the twangy but softly rounded trumpet of “Chi-CA-go!” or where you are?” that summons to reunite the herds or the dispersed families.
We too are social creatures and we can hear the anguish of the quail, whining on that note: they don’t want to be alone.
Jack Gedney’s On the Wing is presented every other Monday. He is co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and author of “The Private Lives of Public Birds.” You can reach him at [email protected].