The Quail Diaries, El Segundo, 6

Yesterday’s sunrise:


I am back in Seattle

From January 4 to January 6 (yesterday, Epiphany etc.) I did not see any quail.  January 4 am was the morning the Cooper’s hawk sat near the traps; January 5 am the wood chipper.  Yesterday, there was nothing except me.

I have considered the possible causes for the change in behavior of the quail.  (Of course I have…)  Here are the obvious ones:

1)They associated with the area in which I trapped with the trauma of trapping.  In this area, they do not just feed at the traps but in the field nearby.  They did not come any of these three mornings to feed in any part of the area, nor did I see signs of them nearby or hear them in the area.

I hope I did not cause the behavior change, of course.  There are some reasons to think I did not cause this one (they never seem, in my experience, to get trap shy–) but clearly, anytime a person even shows up they’ve changed the situation and thereby I’ve clearly perturbed my birds even if I did not cause them to change their daily pattern.  This is something I wrestle with constantly.  How far will I as a “scientist” go to answer questions about the birds I love?  What level of interference, suffering or even death with I countenance to get an answer?  How do I decide what is “important”–to whom?  If was making money from this would I feel differently?  If I was trying to get tenure or a job would I feel differently?   It is a luxury that I am able to work in science, albeit in the lab, without worrying about tenure.  (Of course, it also means I have given up my status, swallowed my pride, and reduced the research I love to a “side project” or “hobby”).

At any rate.  #1.  I might have caused the behavior change.

2)The presence of their arch enemy, the Cooper’s hawk, might have caused them to shift to another region to forage.  The Cooper’s hawk is, perhaps, the most successful quail predator on my field site–they love to eat the quail, they are crazy fast and they fly in twists and turns that allow them to hit the birds they prey upon in the air.  There is a reason that the quail go absolutely still and silent when a Cooper’s shows up.

3)Something else.  Fall/winter research with the quail has always been frustrating for this reason–they vanish.  They will spend day after day, week after week traversing the same path, as a covey or covey splinter groups, foraging in the same places and returning to roost in the same tree every night.  Then, suddenly, they are gone–to a different region, a different foraging ground and roosting tree.  And it takes a lot of wandering around to find them again.  I, of course, did not have time to find them.  I did wander a lot, spending hours bisecting the open space, but I never found them.

They are quieter in the fall and winter.  In the spring and summer they are noisy with talk.  Of course, spring and summer give rise to their own set of quail-research issues–I will not go on about these right now.

It frustrated me not to find them.  But that is what they do.

I miss little R K/K, who showed up daily:

I am considering radio-tracking them next time, so I at least have a sense of where they are going.  But I am also wondering about the site.  I am torn about the site.  It is insanely convenient, being outside the back door of my parents’ house.  I can bring the kids and they can stay with my parents when they tire of being in the field with me.  It seems to me, at this point, the only way I can really do field research is to do it on the site.  It is also the place of my birds–I followed this population for years for my dissertation.  I know the history.

But the site has changed dramatically–it is cut by 2 roads, bordered by houses and a shopping center, cut through by public paths and traversed by numerous folks during the day.  It is much harder both for me to get around on it and to find a place to sit and watch the birds.  When we moved to Riverside, I spent several months trying to find a new site, one less bounded–I had several candidates, including the islands off the California coast (San Clemente, Catalina).  Then things changed.  We moved to Seattle with our newborn son.

There are quail up here.  Not a lot in the city, but more on the islands and in the east.  I could, perhaps, work on the island birds…perhaps.

At any rate.  I will post a few final El Segundo entries for this field session–to finish up–and then turn my sights to other things.


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