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Darwin in the Back Yard

July 21, 2010

Watching Gambel’s Quail bring their young families to the backyard feeder and water feature is a graphic demonstration of survival of the fittest. In an average year, what begins as a procession of eight to ten ping-pong ball-sized hatchlings is winnowed down to six little pre-teens, then four gawky teenagers and eventually one or two young adult quail as the weeks progress. It seems like everything eats baby quail – from foxes, coyotes and hawks to gopher snakes, roadrunners and feral cats. Other hazards, like weather, separation from the parents and exhaustion also take a toll. Baby quail are precocial, following after their parents within a few minutes of hatching. They have to learn how to fend for themselves very quickly. That’s why quail start out with so many chicks. The strategy is to allow for the expected 90% mortality by laying a dozen eggs and hoping for the best. In fact, this is a great strategy for a boom-or-bust environment where a large brood can exploit a particularly good year and their populations can skyrocket.

This has been a good year for quail in southeastern Arizona, and the broods of young quail visiting our yard remain large. Winter rains are essential to the grasses that the spring nesting quail need to survive. Soon we will have an explosion of grasshoppers, another species that can quickly produce many young in a good year, and the quail and many other species will feast. Montezuma Quail wait until the summer rains to lay their eggs. Hopefully we will have a good monsoon season and they too will prosper.

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