The baby Gambel’s quail hatched out of the flower pot by the front gate a week ago. We have been watching the clutch of eggs in the pot by the kitchen door for almost 3 weeks and wondering if they would hatch, too. We had our doubts; the daily watering and the failure of the hen to sit tight when we came near made us wonder if this batch of eggs was viable. At what point do we declare the clutch a dud?
On Thursday afternoon, I checked on the hen and I was surprised and pleased to see 3 little striped fluff balls snuggled next to her breast. Great! I really didn’t want to be the one to decide how long to give an egg to hatch. I checked on the pot every half hour, noting the progress of the hatching as measured by additional tiny fluffy striped bodies; perfect in every quail way. Life is a miracle in all its forms.
When the hen left the nest, I had a chance to check on the chicks. All but one egg had hatched and there they were; 10 tiny little fluff balls staring back at me. At this point in life, their only cool move was to freeze so they did. I backed off and 2 leaped out of the pot. OMG! The parents, eager to get the chicks out of the nest, had been squawking and pacing below the pot, above the pot, and around the pot for several minutes. When the 2 escapees landed, the hen, in her excitement, immediately stepped on both of them and took off for the asparagus fern at the edge of the patio. The chicks recovered and followed mom in hot pursuit. NO! You can’t go yet; you have 9 other chicks still in the pot. Is this her first clutch? Doesn’t she know she has to wait for the rest of them? Well, of course, I was a threatening monster on her horizon; better to save 2…
How many times can you say OMG? The chicks were going crazy, cheeping frantically and running around inside the pot. About this time, the drip system kicked in and sprayed the chicks. They reacted with more hysterical cheeping and scrambled to get out of the way of the water. Wet is not a good condition for newly hatched chicks; they don’t have enough insulation. That newborn down mats to their skin when wet and the chicks easily succumb to hypothermia, even in summer heat. They needed to get out of the pot. They needed Mom. However, Mom, Dad, and the 2 boldest siblings were nowhere in sight. I could hear the hen fretting from the cover of the ferns. I could see the male pacing and displaying on the wall, keeping an eye on the proceedings and offering encouragement to the hen. Or, maybe, he was threatening the monster; maybe both.
If left alone, the chicks might eventually get out of the pot and all would be well. However, I don’t have that kind of patience and there were too many possible negative consequences of doing nothing; not the least of which was a pot full of wet, dead chicks. I will leave wild creatures alone in the wild and, reluctantly, let nature take its course for both predator and prey. However, flower pots and drip systems are human creations, unnatural in the desert and outside the genetic programming of quail DNA. Human intrusion into their habitat had endangered them so leaving them to their own devices was not an option. I began to scoop up the chicks and deposit them on the ground headed in the general direction of mom. Had we had video, this operation probably looked like complete chaos. I emptied the pot, checked for stragglers, and chased down the chick that had taken off in the wrong direction. Thank goodness it went into defense freeze mode and it was easy to catch. I had a moment when my brain registered soft, fragile, vulnerable, and…weightless. Utterly amazing; only an hour or two old, this newborn chick was perfectly suited to finding its own food. Right now, though, it was stressed and it needed a little assistance finding its mom, who was still making fretting noises. I don’t know if she can count but I was still the threatening monster and I had one of her chicks. I placed it on the ground and gave it a little nudge toward the ferns. When the last chick disappeared into the safety of the asparagus fern, the fretting switched to soft comforting clucks. I sighed in relief and, hoping that the watering system in that bed wouldn’t come on until the quail had left the ferns, I retreated to the house. Darn! They are so small; I hope they make it. Even as the wish escaped my lips, I knew the reality. Most of them would not. As we learned last year from watching a clutch of 15 shrink to 7, quail attrition is high. Well, they are in their element now and on their own. Nature is a tough mother; we’ll see how they do.
In the days that followed, we have caught sight of the new family, all chicks still accounted for, scratching and pecking in various parts of the yard. Most of the time, the male stands alert on the wall, the rock, the bench, any high place watching over his new family. Sometimes, he joins them as they cruise the cactus garden, the rocks, and the flower beds looking for food. I watch the chicks getting bigger and stronger and I think about what I am witnessing. According to my biologist daughter, the hen will lay one egg each day for approximately 2 weeks. Then, she and the male take turns sitting for 21 to 24 days. The chicks, even the last laid; hatch all on the same day within the space of an hour or two. How does that work?
Do all quail hatch simultaneously? Is there a cosmic clock set to HATCH? I have no idea but as I walk and drive through the neighborhood, I see only a few quail pairs without chicks. There appears to be hundreds of chicks running around the desert. Our critter cam is catching large numbers of baby quail as well. Running through the snap shots of critters at the water dish, it is clear that one clutch after another is coming to drink. Family units don’t seem to share the dish; they come in turn, one group at a time, and leave together. We know we are looking at different clutches because of the differences in number and size of chicks in each clutch. If the activity at this one little water dish is any indication, the desert is awash in baby quail. Such is the nature of spring in the desert; this magical, glorious season when everything is working hard to renew itself and to continue the cycle of life.