Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 1

January, 1941

cartoon sketch of quail


By Earl Jackson,
Montezuma Castle National Monument.

Quintus looked approvingly at his reflection in the clear pool where he was taking his after sunrise drink of water. He bobbed his head pertly as he saw the handsome black-helmeted face under its jet plume as it gazed back, brighteyed, at him.

"Indeed I am quite a fellow." a mind reader might have registered. "Here I am, eight months' old, full grown and in the prime of young quailhood, able to lick any other saucy cock in the covey - except maybe Papa --" as he looked discreetly over his shoulder at the grizzled veteran who led the covey and fathered a good part of it. "And I could lick Papa - if I wanted to badly enough. Ho hum. Glorious day! Say, I like the looks of that girl --- !"

And so came the springtime of the year to Quintus, scion of an honored family in the Southwest. He was related to almost everybody of any consequence, it seemed. First were the other members of his own species, Gambel's Quail (Lophortyx gambeli gambeli Gambel), then the various other quail cousins, then the Bob Whites. A little farther along the family tree came the wily partridges and grouse, and finally the lordly turkeys. He wouldn't have cared much for the turkeys, had he known of the relationship, for they would have struck him as being high hat.

Of all these distinguished groups, however, Quintus' people came first in importance in Arizona and many other parts of the Southwest. For one thing they were the most numerous, and were found widely distributed in Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico, Southeastern California, parts of Utah and Nevada, and all the way south into Sinaloa, Mexico. One reason they were so numerous was that they just naturally were family loving folks (Quintus was from just an ordinary sized family of 14 children). They were widely distributed because they could thrive in the hottest desert region and clear up into the pine country at a mile and more above sea level.

But why worry about the family tree on a spring day. Unless to make it grow some more! Quintus had just seen a girl who looked awfully nice to him. He hurried over to make her acquaintance, but it wasn't until the covey had left the water hole and was back up the bank under the shelter of the gaunt looking mesquite bushes, scratching for seed under some damp humus, that he was able to locate her again.

She was one of the children of that family which had joined the covey only yesterday. That was why he hadn't spied her before. For that matter, a week ago he wouldn't have noticed her anyway. That was February, and now it was March, the month in which quail of Central Arizona's valleys begin sending love notes. It was a warm day, so the covey remained active until nearly noon before taking a siesta, in a spot where the wind wouldn't ruffle their feathers, and where they could soak up the welcome sunshine and still be safe from marauders. During the morning Quintus dexterously edged around until he was in reach of the girl.

cartoon sketch of quail

To you or me Quintessa would have looked just about like any other feminine quail. She was a plain little thing, very sombre hued by contrast with her admirer. But she had neat trim feet and legs, a compactly feathered and sturdily built body, and carried her prim, little head very alertly atop that gracefully slender neck.

Quintus approached to her side and offered her a particularly nice looking mesquite bean he had found. She shyly ran away a few steps, scarcely looking at him, and went on leisurely eating. He came close again, neck carefully arched to just the right degree, plume drooping a bit closer to the ground. She gazed at him with slight interest, but seemed unworried about escape from his company. And so they came together often during the next few weeks.

On a day early in April Quintus decided he couldn't get along without Quintessa, and that if he didn't lay permanent claim to her company, somebody else would. For instance, he didn't like the way that fellow Braggar had been looking at her. His formal offer of marriage had none of the knee bending of Victorian romances, nor of the conciseness and brevity of modern swains, but was rather the stately gesture of a proud gentleman who offers what he knows is an honorable role to an equal. His sideward semi-circular prancing step in front of her said, "Lady of my heart, will you be my wife?" and when he spread the feathers of both wings and dragged the wing tips in the dust it said, "You couldn't make a better choice."

Quintessa looked gravely at him, and was about to answer, when she heard a flurry of motion a few feet away. And who should rapidly stride to her, right in front of the infuriated Quintus, but Braggar, that swaggering fellow who was never very far away! Quintus launched himself plummet-like at the intruder, and Braggar met him head on in a flutter of beating wings. There followed a battle royal, in which each contestant grimly strove to knock the other over, and make him retreat. Time and again they lunged at each other to stand chest to chest, each with his head over the other's shoulders. A casual glance might have misled an onlooker into thinking here was an exhibition of brotherly love, but a closer look would have revealed that those exhausted game cocks were trying, each on his own, to gouge with his sharp beak a hole in the other's back. Feathers flew, and blood stains spread onto their faces. Completely spent, they would rest a few seconds at a time, then withdraw to lunge again into that terrible test of nerve and strength.

Quintessa thought all this highly interesting, and she stood at ease, head half cocked to one side, admiring the proceedings, although from time to time she would lower her head to eat some pleasing tidbit. Although she had been Quintus' girl friend for several weeks, she placidly accepted the thought that she would be the wife of the winner, whichever it was. And if Quintus lost, he might not find a wife at all that season.

The battle raged, between rest periods, for nearly half an hour, but at the end of that time, Braggar decided he had enough, so he beat a rapid retreat, leaving some of his back feathers. And Quintus sick, bloody, and weak, nearer dead than alive, returned to Quintessa. There was no question now about her. For as soon as he had rested she indicated, "Hadn't we better start looking for a house?"

They spent part of that day, and several more days of honeymoon, hunting about for a suitable nesting site, returning between times to visit with other members of the covey. After a few days, however, their friends were practically forgotten in the intensity of their search for a desirable location. At last they found the perfect spot. There was soft earth, surrounded on three sides by tall grass, underneath a spreading algerita bush which sent its upper branches into a huge mesquite.

Quintessa busily scratched away in the loose earth until she had dug a hollow about an inch and a half deep, six or seven inches across. Then began the task of nest building, a job which was to spread over several days. Quintus, while giving lots of moral support and occasionally carrying a twig, was about as useful on this job as a bull in a china closet. Quintessa did most of the work of selecting leaves, stems of grass, pieces of dried weeds and small sticks, and laid them into the loosely knit nest.

Finally the nest was finished, so that it slightly overlapped the edges of the hollow, and she patiently settled herself one day to prepare for motherhood. Quintus now knew what his job was to be. He set himself up as a committee of one to guard that nest, and spent the waiting hours in patrolling and feeding within a radius of 25 to 75 feet of the spot.

cartoon sketch of quail

The eggs were of a buffy white color, spotted with irregular splotches of dark reddish brown markings, so perfectly camouflaged as to be almost invisible. Quintessa laid an egg a day for six days, and then evidently decided it was the Sabbath, for she rested one day. Then back to work she went for a five-day shift, a day of rest, and one final laying period which brought the egg total to sixteen.

One day a lean and wicked looking house cat came slinking toward the nest. Quintus' keen eyes caught sight of the intruder before it saw him, and he didn't waste any time. He darted to within about four feet of the enemy, so it would notice him, and then began edging away from the direction of the nest. The cat looked at him for a split second, made as if to pounce at him, but on seeing the bird move away, prepared to stalk its prey. Then Quintus went into an act. While moving away from the vicinity of the nest he staggered drunkenly along, one leg buckling under him every few steps, as though it was injured, while his wings did a dramatic and helpless sort of fluttering. For a hundred feet and more he forced himself to hobble in this manner, just barely out of reach of the cat. Then he took to his wings and flew out of danger in a circular route. Two minutes later he was quietly walking back toward the nest from the opposite direction.

He arrived within calling distance just in time to hear Quintossa's low call informing him she was ready for her mid-morning rest and feeding period. He waited some distance from the nest while she stretched and fluffed her feathers before joining him. They fed together for over an hour before she returned to her eggs. That afternoon her feeding period lasted for nearly two hours for the day was warm, and the eggs held enough heat to prevent chilling.

While Quintessa was absent one afternoon, a large rat stole from his nearby burrow and carried off an egg to his den. He enjoyed his meal so much that he returned on the following day. Quintessa caught him halfway to his hole, and her furious beating wings and sharp beak caused him to drop his burden and flee. The egg was cracked, and she didn't know how to move it back to the nest, so while she returned to setting on the other eggs, the ants proceeded to enter the cracked egg and thoroughly clean out its contents. They were such voracious creatures that sometimes they were known to invade a nest, especially when chicks were beginning to hatch, killing then and occasionally even the mother.

Of the fourteen remaining eggs, the first one pipped on the morning of the 22nd day. And while we leave Papa to his lonesome sentry duty, and while Mama is half dozing, let's take a look at that first chick. He is in a tight spot, and he knows it. Squirm and wiggle as he will, he can make no headway in any direction. The place is as black as the inside of the proverbial black cat, and the air is not fit to breathe.

He begins with desperate violence to force the rough spot on the upper tip of his bill against the smooth hard wall around him. Soon the wall breaks through in a tiny spot. The younster rests a few seconds, but he has the characteristic vigor of his kind, and soon gets busy forcing his way again, gradually turning his head and body around as he does so. When he has cut a circle almost completely around the inside of the shell at its large end he shoves upward, and the top swings open like a door, still hinged by the soft inner membrane at one place. A few minutes later he sticks his head out. It is still quite dark, but now he can breathe easily, and so he loses no time clambering out of the shell. He scrambles restlessly over the other thirteen eggs until he approaches the edge of the nest, where he pokes his head through two of his mother's feathers for the first look at the light of day.

Thus a blessed event came to be. And others were not long in following. Things were happening thick and fast, for brothers and sisters were pipping shells rapidly now and popping their heads out in all directions, like popcorn in a skillet. Within two hours a dozen youngsters were hatched and were seething with energy. The other two eggs were pipped, but not hatched.

If a scientist had then happened by with a friend, and could have seen these newly hatched youngsters, thickly covered with down, with wings nearly feathered, he might have embarrassed Quintessa with his comment. He perhaps would have said to his friend, "Now here's an example of wh t I was talking about. Birds that are higher in the scale of evolution such as crows, thrushes, and the like, are hatched nearly naked and almost entirely helpless. These lower in the scale, such as quail, are ready to run as soon as they come out of the egg, and within a few days they start flapping their wings.

Quintessa however, didn't hear any such comments and so she peacefully took permanent leave of her nest, the twelve youngsters following. The two pipped eggs were left behind. A heartless proceeding, you think? But Nature's children must do that to survive. Even if she had waited for the two unhatched youngsters, they would have been weak and handicapped from the beginning, and would have fallen prey to enemies, besides hapering the progress of the others.

Quintus, like most fathers, had been more or less left out of the proceedings; but now he proudly followed the last of the toddlers. When Quintessa stopped to give the children a rest, he withdrew a short distance and perched in a bush where he could watch for possible enemies. His responsibilties were only started. His wife was the hub of a little universe now, and it took all her thoughts to teach and discipline the young. He was the guardian of them all. On familiar ground he would let Quintessa lead the way with the babies, but in strange or dangerous spots, he led the way himself.

cartoon sketch of quail

Within two days the chicks were hungrily chasing insects, living almost entirely on a meat diet, although a little later they would expand their bill of fare to include green weed shoots and buds, parts of flowers, seeds, and tender leaves. The family moved around a lot, but never went any great distance. It was unlikely that any of them in a lifetime would move more than a mile or two away from the place of birth, unless disturbed by hunters.

Midsummer came, and the chicks were now easily able to fly to roost with their parents in the low thick hackberry trees along the creek bank. In the daytime they investigated everything. One became the victim of a wary rattlesnake which had missed the alert eyes of Quintus. And a Cooper Hawk darted from a low hiding spot one day as they went down to get water at the creek edge. Thus another youngster that was not quick enough to hide, lost his life.

While Quintus on many occasions saved the lives of members of his family, it was impossible to keep them all out of harm's way. This family was meeting the typical fate of the quail tribe. That's why so many youngsters were born. One night when the family was at roost in a hackberry, a house cat got into the tree. Quintus couldn't see a thing in the darkness, but as the cat grabbed him he awoke and let out his warning call, at the same time twisting loose from the tearing claws to fall to the ground, minus some feathers and some blood from torn flesh. The others scattered to earth in confusion, but not before the cat had one bird.

Late July found Quintus and Quintessa with nine husky adolescents on their hands, youngsters half grown and practically able to fend for themselves, except that they had a lot to learn. By now Quintus had as big a part in educating and discipliing them as had their mother.

cartoon sketch of quail

It was about this time that one day they heard the plaintive crying of three little fellows who belonged to a neighbor's family. Some disaster had scattered the rest of their family, and they were lost. With characteristic generosity, Quintus and his wife adopted these waifs as their own, and they shared all the privileges of the other children. This generosity among quail has for many years caused people to have the mistaken belief that the birds raise two broods of young each year, simply because they had young of two different ages.

Through August the family lived in luxury. There were plenty of grasshoppers, and if there is anything a quail likes more than a few grasshoppers it is a larger supply of them. They ate more of these insects than any other, although a large variety of bugs fell prey to their appetites. Mosquite beans were also a highly desirable food item. The pods were too tough to tear open, but after animals had eaten them and the undigested beans had passed on, the quail found them to their taste.

In mid September it would have required close study to figure out which were the parents and which the children, for the youngsters were full grown, and they thought they knew more than their parents. This opinion was not shared by the elders, and stern disciplinary action was often necessary. Quintus was determined that he should wear the pants in his family as long as he was around. Yet, on the whole, they all get along pretty well together, and did a great deal of peaceful talking among themselves.

Quintus still stood guard a good part of the time while the family fed, and if a shadow of a hawk soared overhead he would issue his warning call, the extent of warning depending on the proximity of the menace. If he wasn't much alarmed, a few of the children would flutter or fly clumsily to protection, and the others would slowly straggle after them. But if there was real danger they didn't lose time in taking to wing.

You never saw more sociable folks than these quail. While they fed, there would appear to be no end of petty squabbling and bickering. But it was no more than the interchange usually noted in some feminine gatherings among the human species. And in the evenings, after they had leisurely made their way to roost, they would sometimes engage in exchanging comments, half of them talking at once, for a long time after dusk. You could never imagine how they found so many interesting things to discuss in those low voiced conversations, but anybody who has ever passed a quail roost in late evening is familiar with the sounds.

October faded into late autumn. The grasshoppers began dying off, and there was a lull between growing seasons. The family now had to feed largely on seeds that had been left over from the summer, and so they did a great deal of scratching around in the litter under bushes, as chickens do. Life was very tranquil until suddenly one day quail season opened. A terror-filled two weeks followed. Quintus and Quintessa had been unable to inform the children of how to take care of themselves when confronted with the thunder of big shotguns, and the only recourse was added watchfulness. On several occasions, however, they were surprised, and two of the children fell with their bodies riddled with shot. A third bird, with a broken wing, was eaten by a coyote.

cartoon sketch of quail

Quintus learned what it felt like to have a round ball of hot lead bury itself in his chest, and the fevered agony of tortured muscles around that irritation bothered him for many days. Finally, however, his body healed, although he would carry that lead shot as a reminder for the rest of his life.

Ultimately the hunting season was over. The cold dry weather of early December made it a hard job to find sufficient food at times, so the covey had to cover more and more ground each day to get enough to eat. In coldest weather the birds didn't spend as many hours feeding as they had earlier in the season, but they were also a little less active, hence used somewhat less body energy.

The end of the year brought rains and moisture-filled soil. Winter plants began popping their tender stems above the soil in the open sunshiny spots. When Quintus led his covey into the open spaces to feed on these delicious green shoots, he found other coveys had taken to the same idea. So there began a flocking of coveys, and a great deal of squabbling arose between heads of different families, for each cock wanted to rule the roost.

Quintus had to defend his prestige against other fathers on various occasions, so the result was he ran around with a sore back a good part of the time. As January and February rolled into early March the fifty odd birds, representing a half dozen coveys, began feeling the impulses that come with Spring. Rivalry started between the cocks.

Quintus didn't know he was a back number with the younger generation until one day, shortly before the time for the flock to begin breaking up as birds began pairing off to hunt for nesting sites, he was feeding near to a young lady who was designated to cause heart palpitation among young swains. A sturdy young fellow, spying the two, decided Quintus was being too friendly to the apple of his eye, and came hurriedly over to discourage the acquaintance.

Quintus, out of habit, administered a disciplinary peck at the head of the young cock, expecting the youngster to back away. He did - about two steps, and then launched himself headlong at Quintus. And Quintus, startled, recognized one of his own boys! He was almost completely bowled over by that first rush, but then recovered his equilibrium and parental wrath at such disrespect, and dived into the fray. It didn't take him more than a minute to realize that here was a foeman worthy of his mettle. He would not have gambled on the outcome, although he had never been beaten. Possible embarrassment was saved for him by the timely shadow of a circling raven, which caused a general retreat to the shelter of the bushes and an end to the hostilities.

A few moments later Quintus saw the impetuous youngster happily showing some choice seeds to the young lady who had been the subject of the argument. Somehow he felt a little old, as he perched on a rock to survey the flock. He thought, "I must be getting old, when my own boys decide to put the old man on the shelf. Guess I'm a has been." That was a terrible thought. "No, by heck! I'll show 'em! I'll raise another family, I will! Bigger than the last one!"

He dashed off at once to find Quintessa. She was never far away. She was so used to being bossed by him that she just naturally stayed fairly close. He burst out without delay into rapid talk. "Come, Quintessa, it is time for us to look for a nest. Hurry!" She cocked her head to one side and looked at him. "Dear Me, Quintus. Must it be so soon? Haven't you forgotten something?" He was taken aback. "Forgotten what?" She was very demure. Quintus realized he had almost forgotten how attractive she was. "Well---I ---- there was a time ----. You know, I just love a nice fat mesquite bean once in a while, or a choice beetle --. You must give a girl a chance to make up her mind."

Quintus was dumfounded. But it didn't take him long to get the point. And so he dashed off into the bushes to hunt for the tenderest, juiciest morsel he could find, with which to tempt the lady fair.

cartoon sketch of quail

map of Region III park units
National Park Service Areas in Region III.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Date: 17-Nov-2005