The gigantic yellow lilies in the accompanying picture are only one of our outdoor bright spots these days. The hummingbirds are back, reveling in the flowers on our trumpet vines and desert willow. We’ve also had migrating orioles through. The males are nearly the same brilliant orange as the trumpet vine blossoms. Funny – one never thinks about super bright orange as providing camouflage.
I had an adventure last week, when I was out riding my bike early in the morning. I saw two adult quail hurrying across the street ahead of me, but it wasn’t until I was nearly on top of them that I realized that their newly hatched chicks were trailing after. The chicks were impossibly tiny, still in stripes and fluff. Although most of the babies jumped up onto the curb after their parents, one was scared by my bike and went racing along the edge of the street at speeds that I would have thought impossible for something that small.
Afraid the chick would get completely separated from its covey – which had taken refuge in the thread-leaf sage and four-wing saltbush in the nearby park – I tried to get ahead of it. To my astonishment, I found it was nearly pacing me. I was trying to figure out if I could somehow herd a fluffball without giving it a heart attack, when the chick turned around and went racing back the way it had come. I braked and swerved out so I could watch without interfering.
To my astonishment, the quail chick ran downhill, then stopped exactly where the majority of its family had jumped the curb and gone up into the park. Since there were no auditory signals (quail can be quite loud), I guess the chick was using scent to track. I’ve never really considered birds as scent trackers but, given how often they use camouflage, there’s a certain logic to it. Why hide the babies and then give away their location with loud noise?
I watched as the quail chick considered the curb, decided it was too high, then ran another nine feet to where the curb dipped to allow for baby carriages and suchlike to be pushed up onto the sidewalk. (Nine feet doesn’t seem like a great distance until you consider that this creature was maybe two inches from beak tip to rump.)
“Good,” I thought. “It’s going to be okay.”
As soon as the chick was up on the sidewalk, the little idiot started running full speed in the wrong direction. Keeping my distance, I glided my bike down to where I could try to block it if it went out into the street again. However, as suddenly as before, the chick stopped, spun around, and ran back. At last it dove into the park, presumably to rejoin its family.
I turned my bike around and resumed my interrupted ride. When I was parallel to where the chick had entered the park, I glanced over, wondering if I would see it. I don’t ask you to believe this next bit.
Sitting in the gap between the wall that borders the park and the nearest shrub was a cottontail rabbit. It looked for all the world as if it had been waiting to direct the chick into safety. I could almost imagine the scene in an illustrated children’s book.
“Little Quail ran up and then he ran down. He was scared and couldn’t remember how to get into the soft scented green where his family had vanished. Then he looked to the side. There was Mistress Cottontail, sitting with her ears high and her whiskers twitching.
“’Here is the path, Little Quail. Come here and I’ll show you where you can find your family.’ So Little Quail did. Mistress Cottontail nudged him to where Mother and Father sat under a four-wing salt bush, all the brother and sisters nestled close. He dove under Mother’s wing and soon was fast asleep.”
A nice way to start the morning…