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Sometimes You Take Sides in Nature Whether It's a Good Idea or Not

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Baby quails at an earlier stage | Chris Clarke photo

Observers of nature are supposed to be dispassionate, to try to refrain from getting attached to individual animals. We all eat, and die, and are eaten in turn, and that's how life is supposed to work. No sense taking sides.

That's not what happened this morning.

We've had a few families of Gambel's quail at our place in Joshua Tree so far this year, and though we've watched some of those families dwindle it's still been a pretty good year. One family with two surviving chicks have been persistent visitors to our feeder, and its been a treat to watch the babies grow.

This morning I hear a series of increasingly insistent, increasingly loud peeps -- "pewee, pewee, pewee" -- from the yard. I go out to investigate.

We have a covered porch out back that's open at one end, and those two baby quail, now about half grown, have wandered in and gotten disoriented. They've been calling for their parents with mounting urgency. They see me. Fear heightens their disorientation. One of the two scoots past me in a panic, finds the open end of the porch and escapes.

The other flies headlong into a windowpane. With only a foot or so of headstart I hope for a minor, glancing blow, but the baby drops down to the ground beneath the window, falls on its back with legs pointed at the ceiling, and is still. My heart sinks.

I go over, gently pick the baby up and cradle it in my cupped hand. It's still alive, looking at me through dazed eyes that nonetheless seem to show a frank mix of curiosity and fear. I study it for a moment. Body about two and a half inches from head to butt, that quail topknot starting to become prominent, an imbricated pattern of light and dark feathers on its breast, and yet it weighs less than your standard-issue marshmallow. So delicate and fragile a thing, lying in my hand just breathing me, and watching.

And then it comes to itself, leaps from my hand and flutters down to the ground. It staggers off the porch, reaches the spot where I throw sunflower seed to its parents each morning, stands there on tiny still-wobbling legs, and calls for its parents again. "Pewee, pewee, pewee." Mission accomplished, I think, and turn to go back inside.

That's when the scrub jay shows up.

Scrub jays, like many of their relatives in the crow family, are opportunistic eaters that will chow down on a wide range of food, including the sunflower seeds I set out for the quail, which means I have a couple of regulars here. They're smart and aggressive. The two that show up here will yell through the screen door if I'm late with their breakfast.

They also eat baby birds. The jay lands a foot from the still-shaken quail and hops in for the kill.

I scream at it.

I surprise myself. I love jays. That jay has every right to eat the quail. Over the years it's become obvious to me that sentiment steers you wrong, at least when it comes to making decisions about interacting with wildlife. Lion captures wildebeest and we watch, and depending on our proclivities we may root for the cat or its dinner, but we don't intervene.

I intervene. I yell, I wave my arms, I take three or four steps toward the jay and menace it as best I could. It looks at me with surprise. Has the breakfast ape gone nuts? Can't I see it's trying to eat? But it retreats, for a few seconds. And then advances again, and I wave my arms and yell again, and it flies off to the electrical wires strung between our house and the power pole.

The baby quail looks at me somewhat blankly. The jay is joined by its mate on the wire, and they look at me too from their perch fifteen feet above the quail.

What do I do now?

Complicating the inevitable ill effects of sentimentalizing wildlife, for me, is the fact that I am a gigantic quivering pile of goopy sentiment. It's a switch that's hard to turn off. I've done so. I've found desperately vulnerable baby animals in the wild, felt such empathy for them that I almost lost any sense of my own distinct existence, and then turned my heel and walked away. It's the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it any easier.

On the other hand, this isn't some wild nature drama. This quail flew into a window pane I haven't yet gotten around to hiding with bird tape. That goes on the list of chores for the week. The jays are here because they're used to seeing me bring out delicious things to eat. Usually those delicious things are sunflower seeds, but how are they to know I didn't bring the baby quail out just for them? I'm already a part of this, and I was before I stepped outside to see what all the infernal peeping was.

A realization comes. I'm not depriving the jays of a meal. If I shooed a baby rabbit off the porch and a bobcat suddenly appeared, my chasing it off might mean a litter of bobkittens going hungry. But these jays are well fed. I already fed them this morning. They won't suffer as a result of my bodyguarding the quail.

I sit down four feet from the baby. The jays begin to holler at me.

This weekend I was involved in a video conference panel about skepticism, science, and environmental protection. You can watch that panel here, if you're interested. For a while we panelists talked about the folly of perceiving people as outside the environment somehow, as separate and distinct from wild nature. It gets us into trouble.

I have been making that mistake here, but I'm not the one that's in trouble. The baby quail keeps a close eye on me. It's a little less wobbly now. It starts scratching for food a little, eating red and black ants in between distress calls. The jays on the wire quiver like cats, anxious to pounce. If the adult quail were here they'd make short work of driving the jays away, but they won't come until I go back inside. If I take a step away, the baby dies.

It is an intolerable moment. I relish it despite myself, stuck in this ecological interaction like a fly in amber.

It takes a few minutes, but the quail realizes Mom and Dad aren't going to show up. It will have to defend itself, a lesson it's probably learned a few times already. It slowly toddles off toward the cover of a hedge of Texas sage 20 feet away. Wary, I grab a small stone to lob toward the jays if they try anything, but they don't. The baby makes it to the thick cover of leaves beneath the sage and disappears from my sight.

It's now out of my jurisdiction. The jays are less likely to rummage under the sage to get the chick, because there are occasionally things in there that might well eat them. I hear the chick calling for its parents from its shelter. Its sibling is doing the same thing from the yard's far corner. I grab a couple handfuls of sunflower seeds and pile them on the ground beneath the jays. Is it a distraction? A subsidy? A bribe? It's an act I take as part of the role I've been playing in the local ecosystem. I feed the quail. The quail feed the jays and ravens and bobcats and coyotes, which feed the organisms in the soil, as I will myself someday.

The baby quail might escape that fate we all share for some time, or it might yet succumb quietly to shock from its collision. It might recover for a few days to be picked off in an unwary moment. But for now, it's made it to cover. I've helped it do the one thing it needed to do to raise its chances of survival above zero.

I try to find some satisfaction in that, but it doesn't come. It just is.

An hour passes as I write this piece. I take a break and head out to the kitchen. Outside are the quail parents, scratching at the pile of sunflower seeds I'd put out, a single chick by their sides.

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