Birding Column: California-Quail Close Encounter

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Suddenly, to my amazement, the bird sprang to life and hopped (or rather, exploded) out of that shoebox, trotted across the patio, and hid himself between two potted plants on the canyon side of the patio, just where the soil began. He remained motionless in this shady spot. I figured that either he'd be eaten by a predator or he'd survive, but I thought it was best for me to leave the bird alone in its natural surroundings.

With my heart in my mouth, I went down the hill for my morning coffee, and when I returned to my yard a couple of hours later, that California quail was gone and I was left to enjoy the rest of my New Year's Day.

Side Bar: Photographing the California Quail

Although the California quail is a ground-dwelling bid, it will readily fly onto a platform feeder that is either hanging from a tree or mounted on a pole. When flushed, a covey of quail with wildly beating wings makes a rumbling sound as these balls of feather fly past me and down into the safety of the canyon.

Sometimes, I talk to the quail and encourage them to visit the yard. "Who-whoo-who," I say, in a falsetto voice, with the middle syllable higher and longer than the other two.

One word of caution: with their long toes and sharp claws, California quail are expert at scratching and digging at the ground to uncover insects and seeds. Therefore, a group of them can dig into patches of your lawn from time to time. I just place the birdseed onto a different area of the lawn when this happens, giving the original area time to recover.

Photographing the California quail is best done from a blind. I set one up in a window of my TV room, and took a lot of nice photographs of the quail, including newly hatched chicks. Even then, I would flush the quail from time to time, as they can see me through the window and are very sensitive to even the slightest movement.

In 1932, in his book Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent describes photographing the California quail at the home of J. Eugene Law in Altadena, California: "I was able to photograph some of these birds one morning from a blind, but I found them very nervous; at the slightest noise or movement they would all fly off but would soon return."

How little things change.

Previous columns by The Birdman of Bel Air:
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
At Home With Hooded Orioles
Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts
Northern Mockingbird is a Wary Neighbor
Christmas With the Pelicans
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