When Baby Animals Go Missing

Baby Gambel's quail with Mom | Chris Clarke photo

On May 6, early in the morning, a mated pair of Gambel's quail brought their new brood of four absurdly tiny chicks into my yard. For the next two days I watched as the family explored the yard, scratched near our patio for bird seed and insects, and ran for cover whenever anything startled them. On May 8 I took a last few blurry photos of the chicks. I haven't seen them since.

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The parents have been back, or at least I'm pretty sure they have. Each morning I have a routine. I drag myself out of bed. I put on a robe. I clean out the French press and add new coffee. I put the kettle on. I give the cat, loudly complaining by now, a handful of treats. I walk to the back door. There, assembled and waiting not all that patiently, will be a representative sampling of my Joshua Tree neighborhood's wildlife. There are little red house finches, scrub jays, black-chinned sparrows, and mourning doves, sometimes a nonchalant rabbit or two.

But mostly it's the quail that mass there, knowing that the big hairy human brings food but still too skittish not to flee when the door opens and said human emerges with the black oil sunflower seed in overflowing handsful. There are usually five or six pairs of quail these days. Two weeks ago one of those pairs had a family. Now none of them do.

The chicks were almost ridiculously vulnerable. They were small enough that first day I saw them that they could walk beneath their mother's belly without touching her, even with their tiny topknots fully extended. They were quick, as fast to run away as their parents, and they were alert, and those were really their only defenses. Beneath their fluffy plumage were tiny bodies about the size of chickpeas.

They were hatched into a desert full of hungry mouths. By the time they'd hatched, in fact, they'd already been on the menu for some time. Quail eggs aren't just a delicacy for urban foodies. By the time I met them, the chicks had already passed through the period in their lives in which they'd been the most vulnerable. Out of the egg, they could at least run away.

Which doesn't seem to have done them any good.

The only mystery is how. There are a dozen persons of interest. The scrub jays that show up every day, often going so far as to perch on the screen door and holler into the house when the food is late, are avid consumers of baby birds. So are the ravens that lurk hereabouts, and the roadrunners that occasionally saunter through the yard. One appeared at the patio yesterday looking especially furtive. It might have been a snake, or a bobcat, or one of the neighbors' outdoor cats, or a coyote that was for some reason not eating one of the neighbors' outdoor cats. Plenty of suspects in the vicinity.

The culprit might not have been a hungry meat-eater. There are cars on the road, and they don't slow down for baby quail unless I'm driving them. We had a brief, unseasonable hot spell that might have been too much for chicks so young. But whether elements or accident, predator or pathogen, the chicks would seem to be gone.

It's to be expected. Quail do dote on their progeny, to the point where I watched a bunch of males actually tree a roadrunner in our yard a year ago. But there are more baby quail in a brood than there are parents for a reason. That reason is that most of them die. A brood usually starts with a dozen eggs or so. The family in my yard had likely already suffered a devastating setback by the time their parents brought them out to meet me.

You're not supposed to get attached to the animals you study when you're a serious wildlife biologist. The squee reflex must be squelched. You risk sentimentality, romanticism, anthropomorphism. You must remain detached. Jane Goodall was famously criticized for naming the chimps she studied at Gombe; a serious scientist would have assigned the apes dispassionate and uninteresting serial numbers.

That's the story, anyway. I've never met a scientist that really believed it. Living things are not foreign to us. They are worthy of our affection. You have to be careful that sentiment doesn't blind you to what the animal is actually doing: It's easy to read human emotions into animals to whom those emotions would be wholly alien.

But fondness? Sentiment? All scientists I've ever met feel them, at least some of the time, for the animals they study. Whether mammalogist, ornithologist, or herpetologist, biologists pursue their field of study because they love the critters they want to chase. Even entomologists feel this way. Even botanists do.

And that sentiment can hurt, especially when you lose a study subject needlessly. I have seen botanists shaking in anger when an ancient plant is sacrificed needlessly for one more strip mall.

But everything eats, and everything is eaten, and this sets up an internal conflict when you set out to become fond of individual wildlife. If I'd seen the roadrunner take up after the quail chicks, would I have intervened? Unlikely. I like roadrunners, too. I am glad when they get enough to eat.

We are who we are, in the end, because our ancestors ate and were eaten. The mothers who defended their children well, the children who grew up bright and fast and lucky passed their genes down through the ages. Evolution is the story of those who happened to survive just long enough.

It is the way things work. Still, I would have liked to watch those baby quail a few weeks more.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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