2013 June Nature News – Hit the ground running (Or else)



They hatch fully feathered, and almost the moment they’re out of the shell, they need to be on the move. Mom and Dad run a perpetual wagon train of little birds all over the place in search of food, relying on numbers and each other to stay alive, rather than a hard-to-reach nest. While a helpless nest baby faces no sure road to survival, imagine what it’s like to have to make a run for it practically the second that your feet hit the ground.
While they can and do fly when needed, Gambel’s quail are usually found on terra firma, scurrying around with the whole family in tow, looking for food. A “nest” is less a place to raise babies and more a quiet and secluded hiding spot in which to lay eggs and incubate them until they hatch. Females can lay as many as twelve eggs in a single batch, a huge number considering that a traditional nest-dwelling species like the mourning dove typically lays only two. That staggering disparity is likely an adaptation for their ground-dwelling lifestyle; swifter on foot than on the wing, Gambel’s quail breed in high numbers because they’re that much more likely to lose offspring quickly. Numbers are a way of compensating for a high mortality rate: even if you lose several, as long as enough live to balance the statistics, the species endures.
One factor in their favor is that they are born ready to hit the road. Most birds hatch blind and naked, not feathered and able to walk. A train of Gambel’s quail is almost like seeing a mother duck and her ducklings: parents lead, and babies follow. Oftentimes, one parent will conspicuously perch off the ground, acting as a lookout for the rest of the clan; seeing one conspicuous quail out in the desert is a surefire sign that the others are nearby.
Baby quail are among the most common orphans we care for at Liberty Wildlife. On the plus side, they are largely self-sufficient. Given their ability to take care of themselves, we have only to provide them with a safe environment and watch them grow. The main difficulty comes from sheer numbers: we get a lot of them. Oftentimes, people will find eggs seemingly unattended on the ground and bring them to us, thinking that they’ve been abandoned. Quail eggs are quite easily recovered this way, but just because a clutch of eggs looks deserted doesn’t mean that no one is coming back for them. Female quail don’t have the luxury of perpetually occupying a nest as easily as a tree-dwelling bird does; it is entirely possible that those abandoned eggs are simply awaiting Mom’s return. There is even evidence that Dad will take over in a worst-case scenario, using his own body to shelter the eggs if his mate has been injured or killed. Preemptive observation of a single nest over a period of time can help determine whether the eggs within require human intervention, or if they are still getting care from their parents, which is always the best choice.
There might not be a more peculiar bird, at least in Arizona. But peculiar also means unique, and the Gambel’s quail, from hatchling on, is a bird like few others. Sooner to run across the road than to fly overhead, the next time you see one, remember that, from the moment he hatched until the second you spot him, he’s been ever on the move.


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