Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane, co-author Rainy Day Thought, where they write about ideas and creativity. Diane posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments, relating to the topic, are welcome as it turns an article into a discussion, but must be in English and not include profanity or threats.

Saturday, July 07, 2018


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.


Tabor said...

No quail here although I think we have a few in the mountain areas. They are lovely birds and I also can spend hours watching birds. Spent a whole afternoon watching a mother duck with her baby ducklings swimming in our pool at the other house.

Rain Trueax said...

ducks are the others that don't bring food to their babies but have to teach them where to get it. Birds are fascinating. I've loved watching ducks and geese, etc. any chance I get.

Diane Widler Wenzel said...

We used to have quail in North Albany but a few years ago when we had more domesticated cats roaming and before increased urban development. Sad to see them disappear here.

Rain Trueax said...

We do have the males here but so far haven't seen any females. I think most of them though were planted in hunting farms and they escaped.

Annie said...

Love your photos! Fascinating descriptions of these birds. A friend of mine noted that as she got older she became more interested in birds and she wondered if that happens to all of us as we age. She remembered her mother being fascinated by birds and thought it was silly when she was younger, but then she too succumbed to the allure of birds. I especially liked your observation about the difference between birds who build nests in trees and feed their young and birds who don't.

Rain Trueax said...

That is so it, Annie. It's how we change with age and maybe our current political environment where we need peace one way or another. Birds are so rewarding to learn and to experience what we can from their worlds.

Brig said...

Quail are one of my favorite birds. We had several coveys at the canyon house. They were always interesting.
There should have been plenty are Dad's house, but there were too many house and feral cats around to allow that. There were many families of turkeys, they are large enough to fend off the cats.

Rain Trueax said...

I don't get to observe the turkeys here like the quail in Tucson. I miss that closeness but turkeys up here get hunted and they should not trust humans.

Joared said...

I recall being able to,observe hummingbirds build a nest on our patio, then raising a couple babies a few years ago. I got caught in the kitchen a few weeks ago watching two young male mockingbirds on the patio naving a bluffing, pecking go at each other, strutting about, then fluttering into the sky. I suppose it was a territorial issue.

Rain Trueax said...

Neat on the mockingbirds, Joared. I don't think we have them in Tucson or my part of Oregon. Birds are pretty territorial. I used to like mourning doves a lot more before I saw them at the seed block and how they treated each other lol