Rustle. Rustle. Cluck. Cluck. Cluck. Whooosh! Ten? Fifteen? More? Who can tell? The plump birds explode from the shrubs along the driveway and sail off into the neighbor's yard.
OK heart, you can start beating again. The morning walk for the newspaper just became a little more interesting.
A covey of California quail has moved into the neighborhood. After 20-some years in the valley, we now have quail. They are native to Southern Oregon, but not the Willamette Valley or Central or Eastern Oregon. California quail, like many gamebirds, have been widely introduced across the West and other countries, as well. To see them scurrying along the edges of sheep pastures in New Zealand was a surprise. Their distinctive "chi-ca-go" call can also be heard in Chile, Hawaii and Europe.
There is another quail native to the area, the mountain quail. This quail lives higher up off the valley floor. They are most often seen running along the sides of narrow logging roads before diving into the brush. I refer to these two as the punctuation quail. The male California quail wears a comma on its head, while the male mountain quail wears an exclamation mark. Females of both are less brightly colored, and their topknots are much smaller.
While you either have to be lucky or dedicated to catch a glimpse of the secretive mountain quail, male California quail are often seen atop a fencepost or other perch along country roads. The male perches high, watching for predators, while the female incubates or forages. Unlike a great many of the chicken-like, or gallinaceous birds, California quail are monogamous. Coveys break up into pairs with the onset of the breeding season.
And they have very large clutches ranging from 12 to 16 eggs. This helps compensate for the high mortality they suffer. Being both ground nesters and ground foragers, they are vulnerable to a wide range of predators, especially mammals, including opossums, foxes, coyotes, weasels, raccoons, dogs and cats.
Flight at a very young age is another adaptation that helps them offset high predation rates.
Years ago, I surprised a family of quail. The young were little more than tiny balls of fluff. Yet the male, female and the entire family of little ones all launched into the air and disappeared into the blackberries. That was the day I learned that young quail can fly at the tender age of two weeks. In contrast, young mallards don't take their first flight until they are seven weeks old.
I have suspected the reason we had no quail in the neighborhood over the years was because of the large number of dogs and cats, in addition to native predators. Distemper is a disease that is periodically common in the valley, reducing fox and raccoon populations. Both predators have been at population lows for the last couple of years in our area and may explain the appearance of quail. When predator populations recover, I may lose my heart-stopping friends. For now, I will enjoy my somewhat tenser morning walks and the calls of "chi-ca-go" on a sunny morning.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at email@example.com.