Birding Column: California-Quail Close Encounter

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
January 6, 2004

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

The California quail is a beautiful creature. The male has a scaled belly, black chin, and a big, black topknot sticking out of the top of his head.

He was first discovered and catalogued by Europeans in 1791 by members of the Malaspina Expedition, led by the gallant Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina. Jose Cardero, an artist on that expedition, painted a lifelike rendition of the California quail, along with paintings of the California thrasher, the northern flicker, the red-winged blackbird, and many other species of plants and animals, during that expedition's stay in Monterey and other parts of the California coast.

The California quail has flourished in the far Western U.S. and Baja California for the last 200 years, and it's a pleasure to be able to see him every day in my yard. He eats mostly millet and milo seeds, which I throw on the ground for him after I've filled up the platform feeder with mixed birdseed. (The scrub jays take care of the black oil sunflower seeds that are left on the ground.)

The quail lives in a covey, and by the soft, gurgling or popping sound that I hear from under the lemon tree, I gather that this is his jumping off point for approaching my side yard, where the birdseed is. First, the male pokes his head out from the path alongside the tree, then his whole body appears on the patio. He walks slowly on delicate feet, seemingly uninterested or unaware of my presence. However, the tiniest move on my part, however slight, will cause him to duck instantly for cover.

I would say that the California Quail is the most skittish bird I have ever seen. Even from 35 feet away (ten meters), the slightest movement by the viewer or photographer will cause him to disappear into the brush that lines my side yard. Ever wary, he might poke his head or body out of the brush a few minutes later—or perhaps not. Indeed, more often than not, the slightest advertisement of your presence will cause the California quail to disappear from your yard for hours.

However, there is one time when they are almost sure to be in the side yard, and that is in the very late afternoon, just about when the sun goes down—for about an hour.

There was one time, however, when I had an extremely close-up view of the California quail. I was sitting in my TV room at about 8 a.m. on New Year's Day of 2001, when I heard a loud thump against the picture windows lining the canyon side of the room. From prior experience, I knew that this sound could only mean that a bird had crashed into the window—and a rather large bird at that!

Upon examining the area just outside the sliding glass door, I discovered a male California quail lying motionless, on his side. I thought he was dead at first, but closer inspection revealed that he was indeed breathing, and quivering slightly. I thought that maybe he had broken a vertebra in his neck and was partially paralyzed, but I didn't want to give up on him just yet.

I immediately called the local vet that takes in injured animals, and I told the receptionist that I would be over in about an hour with the bird. Meanwhile, I lifted the bird up and put him in a shoebox. In the meantime, I finished eating breakfast, thankful that someone was available on New Year's Day to take care of this bird.

As I got ready to go down the hill, I marveled at how soft the quail's feathers were, and how intoxicatingly beautiful the scaly parts of its plumage were, when viewed from only a few inches away. Then, I decided to put some mixed birdseed into the shoebox, just in case the bird woke up while it was waiting to be treated down at the vet. Thinking that I wouldn't bother the slumbering bird, I poured a scoop of birdseed into the shoebox, and it made a loud sound when the birdseed hit the cardboard.

Continued on Next Page >>


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