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The Tactical Brilliance of Quail

On my property, I currently have some cut branches piled on either side of my driveway waiting to be chipped; part of a fire fuel reduction project. The California quail love this habitat. It’s thick and tangled, and provides them with plenty of cover and high vantage points to keep watch while they forage.

This evening, I watched a small covey forage along my driveway. An adult quail was perched on my gate, keeping watch, while a couple other adults on the ground corralled this year’s chicks.

Suddenly, the lookout flew off his perch into the branches, and the rest of the covey ran off with him. A red-shouldered hawk slammed into the ground where the covey had just been, narrowly missing its dinner. For the next minute or so, it stalked around in the grass, looking for a way to reach the covey of quail. Frustrated and hungry, it eventually gave up and flew away.

By this time, I was outside with my camera, hoping for more action. Or, to be close enough to get better pictures of the chicks when they came back out. I’d been trying to get good pictures of quail for the past several months, and found them to be incredibly difficult subjects. Extremely skittish; the slightest sound or movement would send the running. I hoped, that if I was very still and quiet, the quail would come back out, and I could get my pictures.

Instead, over the next hour, I gained a new respect for quail. They may be skittish, but they’re not stupid. Instead, they’re amazingly organized.

The first quail to emerge was an adult. It climbed towards the top of the branches where the rest of the covey was hiding and nesting. It began chirping, presumably telling the rest of the covey what it saw. Another quail joined it, climbing a little bit higher, and facing the other direction. Together, they watched each other’s backs.

After a few minutes of receiving reports from this new lookout, a second adult quail emerged from the branches and tall grass. It took a quick look around to make sure the coast was clear, and then ran to the piles of branches on the other side of the driveway. It hopped up towards the top, and became the second lookout. Soon, it and the first lookout were exchanging chirps, and I could hear more chirps from other adults. Faint peeps could be heard too, presumably the chicks trying to participate in the adults’ conversation.

After a few minutes of both lookouts keeping watch, two more adults emerged from the branches. They ran across the driveway, too. One hopped up on my gate, while other took its post on a fallen log. Soon, their chirps joined the others. These quail had set up a perimeter around the area the covey and chicks wanted to forage, and had lookouts covering every angle. But still, the covey and chicks didn’t come back out to forage.

A few more minutes passed. I began looking at my watch, trying to remember what time I had put my dinner in the oven. How long was it going to take the lookouts to decide it was safe for the rest of the covey to come out? Then, one of the lookouts, either the one on the gate or the log, flew off! It perched up in a tree about 30 feet away from the driveway, and became a lookout who had a view of the entire area. It began chirping, too, communicating with the other lookouts.

Another adult emerged from the branches, and took its place on the log. The lookout on my gate flew off in an opposite direction than the one in the tree. Another long-range scout. It landed on a large boulder in a field, and began chirping with the others. After a while, I heard more chirps in the distance, as other coveys of quail began sharing information with each other. Other adults emerged around my driveway, tightening their perimeter. Another adult above the covey.

One walked further down the driveway, and took up position on another boulder.

The covey I was watching, and the chicks, never came back out. Maybe the hawk had rattled them. Maybe I was too close. As the sun set, the quail retreated, and my driveway was empty again. I gave up on getting anymore pictures for the day, and went to rescue my dinner. But I left the driveway with a newfound respect for quail. I’d seen them use a lookout before. I’d never seen them deliberately and methodically deploy a group of lookouts though, or listened to them communicate so much with each other and other coveys. Quail may be skittish, but they are tactically brilliant.

If you enjoy this photo essay, or learned something about California quail, please hit the Donate button at the bottom of the page to make a one-time or recurring donation through PayPal. Every little bit helps, and the greater of either 20% of Oso Strategics' profits or 1% of total revenue are donated to wildlife conservation efforts throughout the world.

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