It’s that time of year when I have the pleasure of sharing the adorable new quail chicks born recently in our backyard. Summer in northern California in a lucky year when the little puffballs make their debut.
This past spring, pairs of quails were seen frequently throughout the day in our yard. Then around June we didn’t see them anymore. This might have been alarming if we had not known it was nesting time, when they disappear for about a month to raise a family.
Then, as expected, they appeared with their new family.
It is an absolute thrill when one day the little ones scurry into our midst.
They are difficult to capture on camera as they are extremely skittish.
Parents typically produce 12 to 16 eggs in a clutch, and often about half of those are quickly preyed on. Precocial out of necessity, chicks usually leave the nest within a day after hatching.
We have watched five chicks growing up in the past two weeks, and we keep our fingers crossed that they will all survive.
Below is the first time we saw them, taken on July 23. They’re probably about one week old here. They appeared for less than one minute.
The cotoneaster shrub you see them next to is where we think their nest was.
Twelve days later their black head stripes had matured into more recognizable quail markings. In this photo (below) you can see a small black patch on each of their crowns. In a few days this will develop into their plume, also known as a topknot.
There are many species who prey on quail eggs and chicks, so the nest is well hidden under a shrub.
Fox, coyote, raccoons and outdoor cats are a few of the predators. The American Bird Conservancy estimates outdoor cats kill “an estimated 2.4 billion birds a year.”
More info: American Bird Conservancy
Somewhere under this shrub is their nest.
We’re in a drought and have severe water restrictions, so there is no green grass this time of year. But there are plenty of seeds on the ground, which is what the chicks eat.
Mature quail are often seen pecking and scratching at the ground, but the chicks just peck until they learn how to scratch.
More info: California Quail allaboutbirds.org
Their camouflage is an important factor in survival. You can hardly make it out that there are five chicks in the photo below: three chicks on the left, two in the center, and both parents on the right.
Still staying close to the cotoneaster.
When the chicks are this young, one or both parents are invariably accompanying the young. One usually stands sentinel and watches for predators, while the other parent eats and tends to the young.
Here the mother is standing sentinel and all five chicks are underneath the bench.
This photo, below, shows a chick with dad. You can see the chick’s topknot has grown a little.
This photo, below, is two days after the above photo. The topknot is a bit bigger, breast feathers and markings are becoming more prominent. This chick is learning what its wings are about.
At first the chicks only pecked on flat ground, then eventually they started climbing onto the rocks. And then one day they got to the top of the rocks and their mother (below, right) was encouraging them to use their wings to fly into the shrub. They were reluctant but successful.
We have a bird bath that is one of the few sources of water around, and all the bird species rely on it for drinking and bathing. Every day I wondered why the parents weren’t showing the chicks the water source. Precious resource on these hot, dry days.
What I learned was they weren’t ready yet. But this week we’re getting closer to that.
A few days ago the adult male stood sentinel on the bird bath, encouraging his offspring to try this handy resource. The parents murmur in low, almost imperceptible tones to their young.
An acorn woodpecker, however, was thirsty too, and they seem to rule higher in the backyard hierarchy. The male quail quickly acquiesced.
Yesterday morning I heard the quail fly in–that distinctive whir of their wings–and briefly saw their shadows in my periphery. When I went to the window, my heart skipped a beat when I counted only three chicks.
But happy day, the other two joined up.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.