Loving the World: A Quail Story

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Several weeks ago, a pair of Quail arrived to our yard, foraging and dust bathing from dawn until dusk. They moved through our yard every day for a week until one afternoon, they arrived with a brood of chicks. We counted thirteen and each was no larger than a ping-pong ball. Their small size and golden downy feathers told me they couldn't be more than a day or two old. We watched as the Quail Family foraged through our yard, the Papa always perched a bit higher to keep watch as the babies and Mama pecked about. The tiny babies were learning on the go, never meandering too far off.

By the fourth day, I counted only nine babies and my heart ached for the losses. I wondered if the remaining Quail knew some were missing and if so, did they grieve?

Later that evening we discovered Mama Quail resting in our basement window well. The base of the well sits four feet below ground, with some succulents growing inside. A trumpet vine has grown over one edge, offering some shade. The Mama was nestled in the shaded corner and at first we thought she might just be resting. But the Papa Quail was pacing above, chattering his assembly call. Upon a closer look, we realized several of the babies were tucked under the Mama Quail’s wings. We watched as two more dropped down from the garden above. Their tiny bodies fit too easily through the chicken wire at the perimeter. As they landed, they scurried under their Mama’s protection. Papa Quail remained above, three littles still in his care. He foraged with them awhile longer. As the sun dropped lower in the Western sky, he disappeared with the three chicks into the thick layers of nearby plants.

At less than 11 days old and without their flight feathers, we knew the babes were too young to fly. We guessed that one had fallen into the window well and the Mama had gone down to protect her. The other chicks followed. As dusk arrived, we knew they were stuck in the window well for the night and there was nothing we could do but wait until morning.

My beloved and I couldn’t sleep, each of us worrying about this little Quail family. We woke early, knowing we needed to rescue the quail babies. We waited until we saw Papa Quail. He arrived as the sun was beginning to warm the day and began calling. He was alone, so we wondered and worried about the three chicks that had been with him. Hoping they were with the Mama, we made a plan to flush the Mama up and out of the window well and then gather the babies into a box to release back to the parents.

As we opened the basement window, the Mama panicked and tried to fly up and out. But she missed clearing the chicken wire edging and dropped back down into the window well. Her babies scattered and frantically ran in circles, trying to hide in the foliage that covered the base of the well. The Mama tried again and finally made it out. We turned our attention towards gathering the chicks. All the while, the parents chatted and called and paced above.

My beloved stood gingerly in the window well, cautious to not step on a precious babe. They blended into their environment, making it hard to distinguish them from the soil and plants. As I corralled the babies towards the box with my hands, my beloved carefully gathered a few at a time and released them. First three. Then two and one other. The Mama and Papa called to them and the babies scurried off towards the parents. But there were still three remaining in the window well, one of which we discovered had died in the night. We gently picked up the lifeless body and placed it under a thicket of plants in the garden before returning to help the remaining two. They were hiding. We found them tucked into a small crevice in the dirt, laying perfectly still and trying to be invisible. We carefully lifted them into the box and released them. But their family had already left. So we watched these two littles scurry off and disappear into a shrub.

We waited and watched.

We worried about these two babes, uncertain if the parents would return for them. How long should we wait? How long could these wee ones survive on their own? With only a 15% survival rate, the odds were already against them. I began researching what to do but my instincts told me to be patient.

Ten, twenty, thirty minutes went by and then we heard the familiar chatter and “Chic-a-go” as the Papa called for his little ones. I watched from the window as the two babies scampered out of the shrubs and raced to their Papa. One of the babies was struggling to keep up, stumbling a bit and falling over as if injured. But, both chicks eventually making it to the edge of the yard where they disappeared into a jumble of weeds with the others.

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Then, I wept and wept. I couldn’t stop crying. I wept for the miracle of watching Papa Quail return, realizing the parents must know how many babies they have. I wept for their nurturing instincts, for the gift of witnessing their devotion to each other and their offspring. I wept with joy for their courageous resilience, for their capacity to thrive despite the dangers. I wept for the loss of one of the babes and the potential loss of another. Later, when this Quail Family came out of hiding and began to forage once again through the yard, I wept as I counted only 7 babies, knowing one was missing and must have died. And I cheered for the ones who survived the night and made it through the traumatic rescue from the window well.

Several hours later, I can hear the tapping of my beloved’s hammer as he installs a new barrier around the window well. We understand what a gift it is to have life move through our yard. And though we can’t protect them all from the predators and dangers, we can do our best to not create any more harm. We’ve created a yard that invites life in so we feel a responsibility to help keep those lives safe.

I grieve for the sweet lives that were lost in the process of trying to save them. It is never easy to witness the impermanence of life. I feel gratitude for every visitor that I get to witness and for the gift of hosting these beautiful birds. I hope they will continue to find refuge in our yard and trust us to do our best as their stewards.

Choosing to love the world isn’t easy. It is heart work and with that expansion comes the tenderness of grief. But I wouldn’t want to live any other way. I will continue to pay attention, love deeply and weep.