When A New Family Settles in at Your Doorstep

It was mid-April several years ago when we first noticed a flurry of quail activity in our outside entryway. Often I'd surprise one or two of them - as well as myself - when I ventured out my front door. They would rise in an indignant rush of feathers from their scratching and nodding about under the thick growth of ivy that covers the brick wall adjacent to the door. I always felt apologetic for interrupting their urgent business.

Of course, evidence of new bursts of energy are everywhere each spring in the Sonoran Desert where we live. While shaking the dust from a rug over the railing of my back deck, I can watch the tiny ground squirrel collecting seeds in the arroyo; the pack rat secreting a gum wrapper in one of his hiding places. A pair of doves hangs out on the brick wall of our patio and entertains us with their elaborate mating dances.

The Gambel's quail are especially engaging with their tear-drop-shaped plumes bobbing about. Always in a hurry, they babble to each other in squeaky-toy sounds as they forage the desert floor in convivial groups.

But that April, we didn't give our front- door quail much thought until one day when we returned home from a long weekend trip. My in-laws had picked us up at the airport and delivered us to our front door. As I struggled with luggage and keys, I unlocked the front door and pushed it inward.

Whoosh! First in the house was Mrs. Quail in a frantic pitch and dart of wings about the living room. Equally frantic, my husband and my father-in-law leaped to unbolt and slide open the glass doors to free her. After a few frenzied moments she flew out to the desert behind the house.

"We'll never see that quail again," was someone's comment after her escape.

Upon examination we discovered she had built her nest on the ground right next to our front door. It was barely visible under the ivy - and in it were 10 speckled eggs.

The next morning I peered through the long narrow window next to the front door. There she was, sitting on the nest.

Now, because our back door is not very functional (leading to a desert arroyo and a maze of prickly pear cactus) we always leave the house by way of the front door. Could we chance a quail flying in again? Had she learned her lesson? And how long would this inconvenience go on?

Mrs. Quail and I developed a system. Before going out the door, I'd warn her by knocking on the window. She'd scoot off the nest just long enough to feel safe until the coast was clear. Upon returning home, I'd clap my hands or stamp my feet until she got out the way of the lady with her grocery bags.

After a week or so this exercise became perfunctory. She didn't scoot so far, and my "warnings" became cheerful greetings. From my window I observed that she often left the nest for several hours. Sometimes Mr. Quail filled in, sometimes not. Just as I would begin to get concerned about the clutch of 10 blue eggs, she would come back and settle down to the job once more.

In a few more weeks, we awakened one morning to hear Mr. Quail making an enormous racket out by the street, away from the house. "Ca Caw ca Caw. Ca Caw ca Caw" - over and over. Mrs. Quail was not on the nest or anywhere in sight.

Looking into the nest from my special viewing site, I watched the drama unfold. One by one the blue eggs cracked, and tiny birds wobbled out. They were scattering everywhere! I watched them trip over leaves and branches. Where was their mother? Why wasn't she there to help them up the cement ridge to the walkway? Six of them fell into another garden that was lower than the cement walkway and became trapped there. How could they ever get out?

Finally, I gave in to my own mothering urges and provided a cardboard ramp - a way for baby birds to escape.

Next time I looked, they were gone.

That spring we kept a special alert for a covey of quail in our neighborhood. When we heard the frantic "Ca Caw ca Caw" and witnessed the quail parents rounding up their brood, we were right there, too - counting the babies, admiring their growth, and watching them follow the leader to some important destination.

The nesting spot under the ivy by the front door is unoccupied this spring. The accommodations are ready.

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