In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
September, 2005
Regional Report

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Shrubs with low branches, such as this pink fairy duster, can provide shelter for wildlife, and the seed pods provide food, as well.

Quail on Parade

A family of Gambel's quail (Callipepla gambelii) have been cruising my neighborhood this summer. I usually spy them in my yard at least once daily from my window as I type. This reduces productivity as all work stops while my cat and I run from one window to the next to catch sight of their activities.

The quail seek protection in shrubbery in front of my house, creating little safe havens amongst the old gnarly stems at ground level. The dad ventures out first to do recon, then babies and mom scurry out. He marches back and forth on the low wall surrounding my courtyard, vigilant while his family forages for seeds.

Yesterday, I was a bit nervous because mom and dad were in the usual spot but no babies. Then I realized mom was sitting on the babies right beneath the window. They blend into the ground so well, that they're difficult to see unless they move. I startled them in my front courtyard a few days ago because I didn't notice they were hunkered down.

I've enjoyed observing the lessons that the parents teach their young, like how to take a dust bath or get yourself out of a jam. One day the babies were on the ground in the courtyard, and dad was on top of the wall calling them to come up. They made many fluttering attempts but were too small to reach the top, which is about 3 feet high. Dad flew down to the ground and then hopped up on some dried saguaro ribs and over to a prickly pear cactus, using them as a ladder to reach the top. The babies followed lickety split. About a week later, I spotted the mom and babies in my backyard, which is surrounded by a 6-foot wall. Mom flew to the top and the babies followed her flapping vigorously. I felt vicarious pride.

A week ago, a woman visiting from another part of the country was transfixed by a covey of quail scurrying along the sidewalk headed towards the swimming pool. Quail congregate at dusk and sleep together. In my neighborhood they roost in the shrubs and trees surrounding the pool, where they start to gather at the end of day. (I like to think they are heading for cocktails at the pool before turning in.)

"What ARE those birds?" she asked me. "I've never seen anything like them." They are indeed distinct creatures, with the funny little topknots that arch over their heads. The colorful male has a red head, with a black face and throat outlined with white. He's really a handsome fellow, and he bobs his little plume about self-importantly.

Keeping a Welcoming Landscape
We're lucky that these and other unique desert birds and wildife will live in our landscapes, even in the midst of urban sprawl. It doesn't take much effort to provide sheltering spots in the form of plants with low branches. Don't shear plants into cubes and balls that provide no coverage or nesting sites; let them grow naturally.

If you have a landscape maintenance service or an HOA that handles common areas, speak to them about this. The constant pruning and shearing that typically takes place eliminates flowering, which is the reason most of us choose a plant. If they are unmoved by either creatures or flowers, try the pocketbook angle. Less pruning means less time and expense. Desert-adapted plants look more attractive when allowed to grow naturally, and the resulting flowers and seeds will provide plenty of meals for birds. You, too, can then ignore your work and run from window to window to catch a glimpse!


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