May 25, 2013: I awoke this morning bleary-eyed and yawning. I pull back the drapes to see what birds are in my yard. From the backyard I hear quail calling. I look out to see two pairs walking the wall and hopping down into my yard. From behind the bushes and trees I hear another pair calling. A wide smile spreads across my face.
I like quail, but I never thought I would see any in this yard since I live at the center of a suburban neighborhood surrounded by houses and block walled yards. I only started seeing quail here earlier this spring. Lately I have had a male quail hanging around on a regular basis. So, it was a surprise to me to see this many pairs here all at once. I quickly dress and make the bed, all the while keeping an eye on the birds out the window. I am almost done when I look out to see a 20 pound fat gray cat sitting on the corner of the block wall watching my birds. He has one paw dangling down into my yard and his pupils are fixed and dilated. I can tell he is deciding which bird to pounce on. I jump towards the door in alarm. My quail are down there! I rush out onto the balcony yelling and hissing and clapping my hands hoping to scare the cat away. The birds fly off in all directions, so I guess I saved them anyways, but this cat is not dumb. He looks up at me on the second floor balcony wildly flailing my arms and yelling and gives me a look that says, “Really? What do you think you can do about it from up there?” What can I do? I yell down to Gus to chase the cat away from downstairs. I tell him frantically that I have quail out there! He quickly opens the patio door and steps out. The cat bolts away.
The rest of the afternoon passes peacefully. Gus and I watch a little TV, eat lunch and relax. Eventually we both get on our respective computers. It is a sunny and windy afternoon and I watch the wind gusting in the backyard while I am sitting at my computer processing photos once again. I’ve been watching birds on and off out my backyard windows all day. Mostly I have seen the usual finches and doves. Now I spot a Rock Pigeon in the yard and grumble to Gus about it being here. I want the birds to come to my feeders, just not this species! So, as I am sitting here cropping and enhancing photos I hear the quail calling again. I cannot resist and so I turn to look out the window. Suddenly I am struck dumb and my mouth gapes open. I cannot believe my eyes for there in the backyard are a momma quail and four newly hatched babies! They are not much bigger than gumballs running around on tiny little legs and following momma everywhere!
As I am watching the quail family and smiling I see the hen hop up on the brick retaining wall to where the feeders are. Papa quail is standing guard high up on the block walls that surround our yard like fences. It is his job to keep a look out and sound the alarm in case he sees trouble. As I am watching these cute little fluff balls I am wondering how they even got into my backyard since they are far too small to fly like the adults when suddenly I see my own bit of trouble. The tiny little birds cannot even hop up the retaining wall to join their momma. The momma keeps on calling and searching for food and the chicks keep throwing themselves against the cement blocks trying to follow her. They can make it up one level of the three brick high wall, but they cannot go any higher. After watching this for a few minutes I know I need to do something. I do not want the babies to exhaust themselves with the effort. The only thing I can think to do is to build them a ramp, so, off I go.
I grab my sunglasses and my yard gloves and head outside. I see the mother quail has moved to the west side of the yard near an old doghouse and a pile of wood stacked there for campfires. I work my way slowly up the east wall so as not to alarm the birds. While the male quail flew off from his perch the instant I stepped out, all the other birds stayed around, including the doves underneath the feeders that are partially blocked from where I am standing by rose bushes and a tall tree. I grab some cement pavers that were left in the yard and start to build my little ramp. I am engrossed in stacking it to the right level with a staggered effect so the chicks can hop up them like stairs. Out of the corner of my eye I watch the little chicks clambering over the wood pile and running behind the old plastic dog house. All is going well and I am almost done when suddenly I hear the explosion of wings around me. I quickly turn and straighten up to see what is going on. I did not think I made any sudden movements to scare the birds. And that’s when I see it.
There on the west wall is a Cooper’s Hawk. Its talon is closed around a tiny fluff ball. Before I can react or do anything, the accipiter takes to the air on powerful wings and flies over my rooftop with one of the chicks clutched in its claw!
All my yard is silent now and I am standing there in disbelief! That hawk swooped down with me in the yard not more than 25 feet from where it landed. There is not a bird in sight. I stand there limp armed and sad. I was thinking I would have to defend these little birds from the big fat gray cat I saw here this morning. I knew that hawks were a danger from above, that is why I wanted the babies to be able to follow their mother up onto the upper level. There is a thick desert broom growing up against the back wall where I suspect she may have been nesting all this time for I have seen the male hanging around my yard for the last two weeks. I thought he was a bachelor. I guess not. I was out here trying to help this little family. Now I find myself part of an even bigger drama. Broken-hearted I go back inside to sit and wait. It isn’t long before the finches and doves return to the feeders. Then, I see the male quail back on his post calling. Next, the mother quail emerges from inside the dog house which has its opening turned to the wall so my grandson will not play inside. There is just enough of a gap for the quail and her chicks to squeeze inside and now her three remaining babies follow her out into the yard.
Then, the momma quail starts gently calling. She wanders all over the yard looking for her lost chick. I watch from inside as she hops up onto the retaining wall and walks beneath the feeders. The male flies down and joins her. Together they wandered the backyard with the little chicks following. Now that they have the ramp they easily make it up onto the upper garden. Up and down the parents go with the babies following, but their sibling is not to be found. Finally they nestle against the east wall catching the last bit of warmth from the setting sun. The chicks are so tiny and so perfectly camouflaged that they blend right into the stones and disappear before my eyes. It is only when I look through my bins that I can distinguish their shapes and see their downy fluff.
I am starting to relax and think that all is well for the night. In spite of everything I am proud of myself for making the little stairway for them to climb up. Then, as I am sitting here at the computer typing up this story I look out the window to see an orange and white cat climbing down my block wall and into my garden. I quickly bolt for the door and chase it away doing my best and loudest cat hiss! Really! Twice in one day? I know I will not be able to protect these little chicks from all the dangers that can befall them. It’s a tough world out there. The hawk is one thing. I know the chick it killed will go to feed the hawk’s own little chick, but roaming cats are something else. They do not belong outside! They kill millions of songbirds, lizards, reptiles and mammals every year. While the hawk getting one of the baby quail made me sad, the cats just make me mad! Please, if you have cats, keep them indoors where they are safe as well as the wildlife outside that they hunt and kill! These little quail will have no chance against a cat. They are trapped in my yard until they are old enough to fly away. And while they can hide from the view of a hawk by hunkering down under a bush, there is no place for them to hide from a marauding cat! Darkness has fallen now. I do not know if the three remaining quail chicks will survive. I can only go to bed and wake up tomorrow to see what the new day brings. In all my love of nature, I know that I cannot control it, or make things turn out the way I want them to, but I will do my best to protect the baby quail if I can. Now if I could just teach the Cooper’s Hawk to hunt the cats!
Note: while I did not get photos of the hawk in action I was able to get pictures of the baby quail and will post them as soon as I can get them processed. All of the hawk and bird photos on today’s post are from shots I have taken over the past month. Cooper’s Hawks are hunting my feeders on a regular basis. On several occasions I have seen the Cooper’s fly down and just stand in the birdbath. On May 14 I saw one land there and stay. I think it was cooling its feet, for it stayed there so long that the birds started to relax and return. I saw a Mourning Dove land right beneath the hawk and the hawk just looked at the dove. Suddenly the dove realized the hawk was there and flew off again. The hawk never moved from the birdbath! Nature never ceases to surprise and amaze me.