In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2007
Regional Report

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This male Gambel's quail patrols the wall above his foraging offspring.

Baby Quail

For a "grown up," I am deriving considerable child-like glee watching Gambel's quail babies visit the water source I refresh each morning. It's a very shallow ceramic saucer filled with pea gravel so they won't drown. I hid the saucer beneath a chair that sits amongst globe mallow and brittlebush. The unpruned plants obscure the chair legs to create a shady little grotto for the quail. If I tilt my head and peer out the bottom of my living room window, I can catch a glimpse of quail through the foliage.

This spring, I was again pleasantly surprised to see a family of these charming native birds foraging in my enclosed backyard: Mom, Dad and 13 newborns. Unfortunately, their timing couldn't have been worse. My heat pump self-destructed and needed replacement, just as temperatures reached the 100s. Despite its name, an outdoor heat pump, coupled with an indoor air handler, provides both cooling and heating, so it's tough to go long without one in the low desert. Homes aren't designed with sleeping porches to catch the breeze anymore! All day long, there were three workers coming and going to replace the unit. My yard is narrow, with only one route to the equipment. I was worried the quail parents would freak out and leave the babies behind because there's no exit without going over the wall, and of course, the babies couldn't scale it.

Where Did They Go?
Mom disappeared completely. I saw her fly over the wall to the neighbor's early in the process. I hoped she was just startled and would reappear, but no such luck. Dad hung in there but by the end of the day, there were just five babies. I can't explain what happened to the others. Perhaps they died of heart attacks from all the commotion, which included a crane to hoist the heavy units up and over the wall. I know it was stressing me out! Their survival rate to adulthood in the wild is very low, but it's still disappointing when they are so up close and personal and don't survive.

As I write this, the babies are 12 days old, and Dad is an impressive protector. There are more globe mallows growing in a corner against the wall, and the babies congregate in that area much of the day, for shelter and foraging for seeds. Dad is usually on the wall above them, chasing off collared lizards and other birds that land on the wall. I had recently transplanted a purple orchid vine where the babies hang out, but I'll be lucky if it survives. It's not on a drip emitter and I can't get through the foliage to water it without disturbing everyone. Wherever the quail might be foraging, they immediately zip to that "safe" location when I venture outside to water, no matter how unobtrusive I try to be. Perhaps when they are a little older, they will hide elsewhere and I can water the vine. If not, a plant replacement is a small price to pay for the pleasure of their company.


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