A Visit from a Covey

Scaled Quail_ChicoBasinRanch-CO_LAH_3016I have a new yard bird! Having only lived in this house since May, adding a new species to my yard list isn’t normally that big a deal. In fact, the previous entry (last week) was Eurasian Collared-dove. Big whoopee. But this new species got me so excited I went running around the house, texting all my birding friends. (Can you tell I haven’t been out birding in far too long?)

Yes, I glanced out at the feeder late one afternoon and spotted a small covey of Scaled Quail! In my yard! They were happily pecking through the shredded bark mulch looking for millet seeds that had fallen from the feeder overhead.

I realize that finding Scaled Quail in this part of Colorado isn’t that rare (according to the maps, we’re right on the edge of their range), but I was still surprised to see them this far into town. There is a lot of suburbia between me and the short-grass prairies to the east. There are also at least eight houses being built within a block of ours, with loud, rumbling trucks, radios blaring, and an unceasing percussion of loud hammering. It amazes me that there’s any wildlife at all in our neighborhood.

Scaled Quail prints_SE-CO_20100414_LAH_2244Yet, here they were. They didn’t stay long, but they were back the next afternoon, same time, same place. I had moved a platform feeder to the ground and filled it with new seed, and they seemed to appreciate the gesture. Then, since I’d like them to stick around permanently, I did a bit of research to discover their preferences.

I already knew they were an arid grassland species. They’re found mainly in southern Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Our area isn’t exactly arid grassland—scraped-bare-for-development is more descriptive—but apparently the birds thought the grassy hillside next door provided enough food and cover.

Knowing what they like to eat is essential to providing a lasting welcome. I learned that they’re omnivores, dining on sunflowers, cactus, green leaves, seeds, and insects such as beetles and grasshoppers. I’m not sure about the cactus, but I think I can offer them a well-balanced diet. They’re certainly welcome to all the grasshoppers they can catch!

Scaled Quail_BitterLakeNWR-NM_LAH_9050Like other quail species, Scaled Quail usually hang out in large groups (called coveys) but pair off in the spring to breed. Nests are on the ground, tucked under bushes to hide them from predators. We’ve seen at least one coyote prowling the streets in the evening, so I hope the quail pick a safe place—maybe in our yard?

The females lay a lot of eggs—a dozen or more—and the young grow up quickly. That makes sense for bird that sticks to the ground, running away from danger more often than flying. They’re speedy, too, reaching speeds of 15 mph!

Since I don’t seem to encounter nearly as many quail as I’d like, in spite of repeated trips to look for them, I wondered if their populations are decreasing. While listed as a “species of least concern,” it turns out that yes, their numbers are plummeting.* The primary threat is overgrazing, resulting in habitat destruction.

Well, I’ll be more than pleased to offer habitat, at least as best I can on my little city lot. The small open space next to our property will help, as it’s supposed to stay wild. Hopefully, with a little encouragement, these adorable birds will be bobbing around our backyard for years to come.

*According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Scaled Quail populations declined by 2.4 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 66 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 5 million, with 52 percent in Mexico , and 48 percent in the U.S. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. They rate a 9 out of 20 on Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score and are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species.”

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