Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dinner and a Show

I've already mentioned that my parents and I eat most of our meals at their house at a table in front of the kitchen window, watching the birds and the rabbits in the backyard.  Lately most of the action has been coming from the quail.

Five different types of quail are native to Arizona.  Those in my parents' neighborhood are Gambel's quail, fat little birds who never fly when they can walk, and have feathered topknot plumes something like the aigrettes worn by flappers in the 1920's.  When I first moved here they were traveling in fairly large groups, last year's chicks still hanging with their mama and papa, but over the past month they all seem to have paired off.

So far only one couple has produced chicks for our entertainment.  Originally we think there were six babies (they were so small and moved so fast they were hard to count at a distance), but they are now down to three which the parents defend quite ferociously.  This afternoon the father quail was warning off several other adult males, going so far as to bump them away with his fat little tummy; it was the bird world's equivalent of jousting elk or battling bighorn sheep.  Tonight we saw the mother quail attack a mourning dove, driving it away with fierce cries and pecking.  If the remaining chicks don't survive, it will be because something quite a bit bigger or faster than a quail is responsible.

At this point the babies are about the size of the last joint of my thumb.  Their heads are roughly as big as a good-sized pea, so their brains...well, let's just say that they aren't exhibiting much intelligence yet.  Last night Mom threw some wilted lettuce shreds out the back door.  The quail family was quite excited when they found the remains; one of the chicks grabbed a hunk almost as big as he was and ran frantically around in circles with it until Papa Quail took it away.  The babies also have a tendency to freeze in place while the rest of the family moves off, noticing and racing to catch up only at the last minute.  I can't imagine how the quail parents with a dozen or so infants to herd manage.

Unfortunately, Mom and Dad's yard is occasionally visited by grackles, who think baby quail are extremely tasty.  I just hope our nightly quail show isn't disrupted by marauding big birds who turn it from comedy to a tragedy.

“The song-birds leave us at the summer's close, Only the empty nests are left behind, And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.” ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Harvest Moon"

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