We had a sharp reminder last week of how merciless nature can be.For several weeks my wife and I had been watching a pair of California quail that had taken up residence somewhere nearby and spent much of their time on our property.
It’s unusual to see quail in an urban environment (we live in the middle of town) and we assumed they were living in the reserve beyond our back fence.They were very welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home. California quail strike me as benign interlopers. They don’t seem to compete directly with native species for food, they don’t (unlike magpies) harass other birds and they don’t (unlike another Australian immigrant, the spur-winged plover) disturb the peace with raucous calls.
As time went by the quail, which are extremely wary birds, seemed to get used to our presence. For our part, we felt oddly flattered that they felt at home at our place. We hoped that in due course they would appear with a clutch of chicks.We still assumed they were domiciled somewhere else. Then, a couple of weekends ago, my wife came across their nest as she was clearing undergrowth around the base of a gleditsia tree in the middle of our lawn.
All this time they had been under our noses. Remarkably, they hadn’t been deterred by the roar of the motor mower passing only a metre away.We fretted that the birds might abandon the nest once their cover was blown, but no; the female resolutely stayed put. The male remained close by, keeping a vigilant eye out for predators.
About a week ago, we were rewarded with the sight we’d been hoping for. Mr and Mrs Quail appeared on the lawn leading seven balls of fluff so tiny that initially it was hard to see them.We took an irrational pleasure in seeing these comical creatures scrambling to keep up with their parents as they explored the garden, but now we had a new reason to be anxious.
Being ground nesters, quail are highly susceptible to predators. I imagine that’s the reason they typically produce quite large clutches of chicks – sometimes 20 or more. The more chicks, the better the chance that at least some will survive.Quail chicks also develop very quickly. They can leave the nest with their parents within 24 hours of hatching and can fly (well, as much as quails ever fly) within 10 days. But those 10 days were going to be critical.
We don’t own a cat but some of our neighbours do, and we regularly see them on our section. I’ll sometimes come up across a telltale scattering of feathers indicating one of these hunters has made a kill. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)We quickly became accustomed to the sight of the quail family roaming our section, the chicks growing visibly bigger by the day. We felt like proud proxy parents.
But when there was no sighting for 24 hours, I went looking. It didn’t take long. On the lawn, just a metre from our deck, I saw what I’d hoped not to see: two mangled, bloodied corpses, neatly laid almost on top of each other.My first impression, from their long legs and surprisingly mature plumage, was that I was looking at the two adult birds. It was almost a relief to realise, on closer investigation, that they were chicks. It was amazing how quickly they had grown.
Of their parents and siblings, there was no sign. We could only hope they had escaped. Even if they had survived, we thought it unlikely that we would see them back. They would now regard our place as a danger zone.In fact the two adults briefly re-appeared after an absence of several days, but we haven't seen them since. There was no sign of their chicks. Perhaps they were being kept in hiding, but it’s more likely that cats got the whole lot.
We all know this is how nature operates, but it’s a brutal lesson when it strikes so close to home.Does it make me want to shoot the neighbours’ cats? No. Cats do what they’re biologically programmed to do, which is hunt and kill. But it has certainly made me more sympathetic to Gareth Morgan. I’ve been ambivalent about the presence of cats on our property in the past, but I’ll be observing a zero tolerance policy now.
Until a few days ago, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a last column before Christmas on the theme that while we don’t have a pear tree, still less a partridge, nature had given us a present in the form of that quail family. Unfortunately this is not that column.It’s hard to explain why the birds brought us such pleasure. They just did. We can only hope the adults will try again, and that this time some chicks will survive.