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Quail Whisperer

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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One day, I got to eavesdrop on the private conversation of a pair of quail.

I was hunting deer in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Georgia. And by "hunting deer," I mean more like "sitting on the near-frozen ground for hours watching all manner of wildlife except deer."

I had chosen one of my favorite places. A steep, brushy hillside rose beside an overgrown dirt road. I could sit on this hillside, practically invisible, and have a clear view for a good hundred yards in either direction up and down the road, and a short distance into the clearing to the east. This clearing, which was actually the footprint of a tornado that had smashed the trees flat a few years earlier, was a favorite destination for the local deer. According to the tracks, deer and many other animals used this abandoned road to get through the greenbrier-choked forest as they moved from the river to the clearing.

This particular day, though I had watched from an hour before sunrise until mid-morning, not a single deer had traveled that way. Still, I enjoyed my visit to the woods, listening to the morning chorus of the neighborhood birds.

There was a small covey of bobwhite quail feeding in the road. Every once in a while, they would stab the silence with their whistled, "bob-WHITE!" "ah-bob-WHITE!"

I don't remember exactly why I didn't try to take a shot at the quail. Was quail season closed? Was I simply not loaded for quail, having only deer slugs or buckshot with me? Don't recall, but for whatever reason, quail were not in my sights that day. I just listened.

I happened to look up the road just in time to see a red fox come up the hill. He trotted along the road, apparently with some destination in mind and not hunting. Nevertheless, the quail were completely unaware of the fox until he was right among them.

Birds exploded into the air and scattered in all directions. The fox seemed equally surprised, and he jumped back a step or two, but he quickly resumed his travels.

A few of the quail managed to stay together. They flew in a wide arc around the corner of the woods and settled into the clearing, just out of my view. Most of them, however, separated into small groups of two or three and landed at various places up and down the road.

One pair of quail took a curving retreat from the fox that led them straight toward me! They landed in a tiny clearing in the brush just two feet away from my head.

I was astonished to find myself so close to this wary gamebird. I congratulated myself that, if the quail didn't even know I was there within arm's reach, I was surely invisible to any deer in the neighborhood. And what an opportunity to observe the natural, undisturbed behavior of a bird that I usually only see flying away from me as fast as it can go.

So, I kept most of my body absolutely motionless, while I slowly turned my head to get a better look at my two unsuspecting companions.

The quail, a male and a female, slowly settled in. They bobbed their heads and looked around nervously for a minute or so, then began to feed on grass seeds. As soon as they began feeding, they also began conversing.

This quiet conversation between quail was something I had never heard before. Of course, bobwhites and other species of quail have been raised in captivity for a long time, so there is certainly nothing new to science about their private behavior. But it was new to me, and I was delighted to hear as much of it as I could.

And even though I'd never heard it before, it was instantly familiar.

The bobwhite has two main calls that you can hear from a distance. One is the common "bob-WHITE!" or "ah-bob-WHITE!" that probably serves as a territorial call. The other is heard only after a covey has been scattered, and it is sometimes called the "regrouping call." It consists of the same two notes as the common call, in the same timbre, but without the pause between notes, and perhaps a little shorter on each note. It's a quick, "baWHITE!" "baWHITE!"

This regrouping call is exactly what the two quail beside me were saying to each other, but ever so quietly. They took turns asking and answering in whispers:

baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?

Then they would fall quiet for fifteen or twenty seconds before resuming:

baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?
baWHITE?

Once in a while, during their quiet lulls, the male would give out the regrouping call for real:

baWHITE!

This was another new experience for me. Hundreds of times before, I'd heard the call of a bobwhite from across a field. Never had I heard it from two feet away. It is piercing! It's not loud enough to be painful, and it doesn't leave an aftershock in the ears that prevents you from hearing anything else for a while, but coming so sudden and so shrill out of the silence, ... "Piercing" is the right word.

And so the next half-hour or so went by. Moments of quiet conversation, "baWHITE?" "baWHITE?" punctuated by the occasional piercing

baWHITE!

Each time the male called out, he was answered by other quail. There were several small groups, probably two or three together, up and down the road and its embankment. And there was the larger group out in the tornado clearing.

I figure the quail were able to tell, as I was myself, where the largest grouping of the scattered covey was, just by listening to where the greatest concentration of calls was coming from. Eventually, they flew off, rounded the corner of the forest, and rejoined their covey out in the clearing.

Nothing else going on, I called it a day and headed home myself.




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