Saturday, November 21, 2015

Birdlore: The Fleet-footed Quail of North America

Among the popular game bird species, quail are characteristic for their ability to hide exceedingly well in clumps of grass and brush from predators and human hunters.

In North America, 5 species of quail (not including the Northern Bobwhite) are native to the west and southwest of the United States and parts of Mexico.  These 5 species of quail are the Montezuma Quail, the California Quail, the Mountain Quail, the Scaled Quail, and lastly, the Gambel’s Quail.  They gather together in small groups called coveys.

The Montezuma Quail lives mostly in Mexico and parts of Arizona and New Mexico (photo: wikipedia)
When faced with the presence of a predator, the quail will hunker close to the ground and become very still.  Their plumage blends them in seamlessly with their grassy and brush-filled habitat so well that you could almost step on them without realizing it.  By the time a predator would close in on the quail’s precise location, the quail would burst from their hiding spot with a short and explosive flight through the field to safety.

Quail play a fairly minor role in Native American cultures.  However, the Pima tribe from Arizona tell one amusing tale of how a family of quail managed to outwit their predator, a coyote.

In a time long ago, Coyote slept so deeply that when a covey of quail came upon him, they cut off pieces of fleshy meat from his body without Coyote awaking up. 

Later after the quail had moved on, set up camp, and took to cooking the meat, Coyote walked up the trail to their encampment.

 “Where did you get that fresh meat? Give me some.”  He demanded.

Without protest, the quail gave it all to him.  After he had left and gone a ways down the trail, the quail called out to him, “Coyote, you were eating your own flesh.”

“What did you say?”  He questioned.

“Nothing, we heard something calling from behind the mountain.”

Coyote moved further down the trail, when the quail called again, “Coyote, you ate your own meat.”

“What did you say?” Coyote repeated.

“Nothing, we only heard somebody pounding his grinding stone.”  They replied.

Coyote left the quail, going further down the trail.  He then felt the places where the quail had cut him and understood what the quail had been saying.  He turned around and gave chase to the quail saying he would eat them.  The quail flew through the air with Coyote running beneath.  Finally, the quail could no longer fly because of exhaustion, but Coyote kept up the pursuit.  He was too angry.

When the quail came to a hole in the ground the cleverest of the quail picked up a piece of prickly cactus.  Pushing the cactus first into the hole, the rest followed in after it.  Coyote caught up to them and began digging up the hole to reach them.  He grabbed the  first quail and asked, “Was it you who told me I ate my own flesh?”

“No, I did not,” said the quail.

So Coyote released him and the quail flew away.  He then grabbed quail, one at a time, and asked the same question.  Each quail said “No,” and Coyote would release them to fly away until the last quail was gone.  When he finally came to the piece of cactus, Coyote mistook it for another quail as it was covered in feathers.  He asked the same question, but the cactus branch did not reply.

“I know it was you, because you do not answer”, he said at last.

So Coyote bit down hard onto the prickly cactus branch, and it killed him.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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