California Quail

at 11:43 PM

This is one of my favorite sounds every spring. It's the characteristic call made by both the male and female California quail. It's a contact call: basically, "I am here, where are you. I am here, where are you."

I first became acquainted with the quail through the movie "Bambi." Though, at the time, my younger self had no idea what those cute birds were. But Mrs. Quail and her large handful of fuzzy little chicks make regular appearances during this movie. And of course that makes sense, since the Disney animators were working in Southern California where quail are quite common.

In 1931, the California quail became our state bird, which I think is an excellent choice. However, it's hardly limited to California. It's also found in Baja, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Canada. Even urbanites can identify this bird with its characteristic topknot, actually composed of six individual feathers. The males are brightly colored, the females less so. If pursued by a predator they scurry off on the ground. I heard a comedian once say, "Leave it to California to have for its state bird, a bird that would rather jog than fly."

In the breeding season, the male and female are monogamous. They construct a nest on the ground and lay around a dozen eggs. She lays one per day but does not start incubating until all of them are out. The chicks, while they are still in the egg, call out to each other so that they emerge at the same time. They are precocial young; that is, they appear fully feathered, eyes open, legs working and ready to roll.

In good years the birds may have two or more broods and toward midsummer several family groups will merge to form a huge cooperative nursery with several sets of parents keeping a watchful eye. But in spite of this attention, many of the young (and adults as well) are taken by predators such as foxes, bobcats, hawks and even snakes.

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And even though it's our state bird, you are allowed to hunt it in season. That seems a little weird to me.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.   

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Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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