Quail are so common in our muddy valley that we have a Quayle Road just down the way. In the summer months we see them a lot. They dash along the roadside in single file family groups, pacing us for a few seconds before plunging into the brush. Mini roadrunners with legs flying, flouncy headdresses bobbing in front of them as they go.
California quail were first released in the Victoria area way back in 1861, a hundred years exactly before I was born. They thrived, as immigrants tend to do, and are now common all over our valley and indeed most of the west coast. In the fall and winter they congregate in “coveys” consisting of a few adults of both sexes and a bunch of youngsters. Female quail choose a new mate each year in early spring, and the happy couples leave the covey to hatch and rear their brood before rejoining, kids in tow, in the fall.
One day a few weeks ago, I noticed a lone male hanging around the chicken coops. That first day, he introduced himself by standing on top of a barnyard fence post, chuk-chuk-chuk-ing at me for all he was worth. When I got too close (rudely ignoring his warnings), he burst up into the air, flew over my head and then dove for the nearest bush, where he hit the ground running. California quail are far better runners than fliers. They use their wings much like chickens do; only in a pinch, and to escape delicate situations.
A few days later, Resident Gardener approvingly noted how well puppy Arrow was doing with his livestock guardian raptor training. “He ran off a quail!” she enthused, “he knew it wasn’t a chicken!” I politely refrained from pointing out that quail may not be chickens, but they ain’t raptors either. Nor did I mention that I had already met this particular quail.
Arrow may have run him off that day, but not for long. Our new little sentry is very much still around, popping up every single time I go out to the barnyard. And every time, I get a stern talking-to, in quail-speak, for daring to set foot in what he evidently feels is ‘his’ chicken empire. It’s a blessing that quail aren’t physically aggressive creatures, or I would surely have had my eyes picked out by now. This plucky little fellow, even smaller than Tiny Chicken, has adopted my flocks as his own, lock, stock and barrel. He stands guard from dawn to dusk, usually on the bridge railing (sadly now unfit for human hands), and roosts up high in the willows at night.
As you might imagine, I am out in the barnyard a lot, enjoying various chicken keeping activities, and I have become accustomed to his constant surveillance and commentary. Our little sentry continues to get himself quite worked up at my presence and so far he is careful to keep a healthy distance. I hope he gets more approachable over time.
When the roosters call out a warning, the little guy goes ballistic, echoing their concern in his most enthusiastic manner. But it doesn’t work the other way around. When he freaks out because, say, I’ve shown up, the chickens don’t listen. They know I am no threat.
Our barn cat is wary of him now, after their recent run in. The other day as I was filling feeders, Callie decided to come on over for a quick visit and neck scratch. She had made it halfway across the paddock separating the barn and the coops, when a brown and gray feathery spitfire launched himself at her, claws first. Scoring a direct hit, he beat her with his tiny wings, chuk-chuking loudly all the while. Recoiling in utter shock, Callie turned tail and ran to hide in the barn, while our little sentry drew himself up, gave his headdress a satisfied toss, and returned to his post. I believe it is only a matter of time before he does the same to Arrow.
I wonder why he is all alone? Did he find a mate and she meet a tragic end? Or was he fated this year to be a bachelor, with not enough females to go around? Did he willingly strike out on his own, eager for a big adventure? Or get the boot? I will never know his story, only that I am now part of it.
I probably shouldn’t be encouraging wild birds to stick around, they carry disease as all wild things do. But my flock free ranges all day anyway, I couldn’t keep them insulated from wild birds unless I fenced the sky. Strong healthy birds fend off disease, so I will focus on good husbandry, and give my birds their freedom, and enjoy my little solitary sentry. I wonder how long he’ll stay?