by Rain Trueax
While I might enjoy seeing new types of birds, have a bird book often nearby, my biggest fascination with birdwatching is seeing the interactions between them. I remember years back renting a home in Montana where the owner had bluebird houses right outside the backdoor. I would sit on the porch stoop and literally spend hours watching them coming with food for their babies.
Here at the farm, I like to watch the song birds as they come to the feeders, but don't see much interaction with the families. I do recognize when the fledglings appear based on size. In Arizona, with the trees closer, I would see fledglings being fed by their parents, watched the squabbles over territory, but most of all saw how the Gambel's quails interacted within families and without. I spent hours and not know more than minutes had gone by.
Generally, they say quail interact in coveys. Because of the time of year that (January to June) we were in Tucson, we saw less of that and more of pairs and their offspring. Because quail look pretty much alike, other than sex or size, it was only possible to identify the pairs after they began bringing their chicks to the seed outside our patio gate.
One or maybe two of the pairs raised their babies in the wash to the south of our home and under the thickets of prickly pear. They'd be safe from big predators to raise their young there-- other than the snakes who doubtless eat the babies and eggs. Others came from the mesquite thickets beyond the pool and the rest came from back where the ironwood and palo verde trees provided shelter. Quail don't make nests to lay their eggs in trees, though they can fly when required. They find shelters under brush.
Quail form pairs with both taking responsibility for protecting the eggs and their chicks. They can mate for life but also break up. We would sometimes see a pair coming in with tiny chicks and then the female would not be there. Naturally, we wondered if she'd been killed. It turns out that sometimes a hen will desert a cock and he's left to raise the chicks on his own. She does this to mate again and lay a new nest of eggs. Exactly what went wrong, if anything, nobody knows as it's not like she's going to tell.
The cocks are very territorial and we had many wars where a larger one would chase off younger males or even babies and other hens. There would be a flurry of dust swirled up with them bumping their chests against each other before one would retreat. There was a lot of dissension among the birds, and for those who think that only happens with humans-- observe animals for a while.
We have watched the young adults begin mating dances as the cock tries to call and then lure a hen to mate with him. I would have assumed this happened on the ground. It might although I observed a pair spooning with back and forth movements in the ironwood tree. Soon, they came together. The next day, it looked like they had formed a new mated pair and came to the quail block together.
I worried some about feeding them for our enjoyment and to encourage the health of their coveys. What made me more comfortable with it, knowing we would not be there in the summer, was they don't stay long at the seed. They are scroungers and go from one potential site to another, staying only short times anywhere. I read that the adult quail get most of their food from green matter, plenty of that around our Tucson home. The chicks eat more insects-- no surprise again, since they are incredibly fast from their time out of the shell. One other thing I read is that since quail don't have a crop, they only can survive three days without food, which makes some winters really hard on them in areas other than deserts.
We had at least five and maybe six pairs that successful raised some of their chicks to close to adulthood before we had to leave. The first ones came April 22nd and the last tiny chicks June 1st, just before we had to leave Tucson. It only takes one month until they are mature, according to the books. They aren't the size of the adults but they are fully feathered with the top knot.
Birds like quail, turkey, pheasants, who lay their eggs on the ground, do not feed their chicks. They lead them to food sources and teach them to eat. I have never seen the quail put seed in their babies' mouths, which I have watched other birds do, those that nest in trees.
Quail parents are incredibly alert all the time they are eating and showing the young how to do it. Any disturbance and they are gone with their babies following instantly. Prey species have to operate this way or their species will be short-lived.
The books say that quail in the wilds only usually live a year and a half-- no surprise in an area like ours also habitat-ed by coyotes, bobcats, and assorted hawks-- all of which like quail just fine-- for lunch. One book said they can live up to four years. I suspect the slower they get, the likelier their end is. The area of Tucson, where we have our home, is known as a major habitat for them. They are also hunted, which amazes me as it seems there would be so little meat on their little bodies-- at least for a human.
They have a wide variety of calls, from distress to drawing their mate or young to them. We watched one adult male high in our dead ironwood call for hours as he'd turn this way or that to send his call out with hopes of drawing a female to him. As best we saw, he got no response. Now does that mean he had one and lost her or this was his first try to courting? No clue on the human end but kind of sad to see him up there and trying so hard to be appealing.
One final observation with seeing so many birds. Song birds hop from place to place when on the ground. Quail scurry along like other bigger birds like the doves. Small observation but I never saw otherwise. I am sure little birds could walk, just never saw it happen.