Though likely few notice, quails are remarkably prevalent among the pantheon of creatures in classical art and myth. The layers of many eggs from up to three broods during one breeding season, quails are aptly portrayed in the hands of Diana, the Roman goddess of fertility, as symbols of abundance and security. Other representations include courage (fighting birds of Russian czars), lust (given their frenzied, occasionally polygamous, courtships), and fear (“to cower, or quail, in fright”). Native Americans believe to dream of hunting quail foretells a happy surprise, and it is said that hearing a quail’s call within two weeks of giving birth means a correct choice of baby name.
The only quail native to the east coast is the Northern Bobwhite. These tubby, pear-shaped birds prefer a fleet footrace over winged flight 9 times out of 10, strolling or sprinting in familial coveys between the cover of low shrubs and grasses. The bobwhite’s eponymous call, “bob-bob-WHITE“, rises a full octave from beginning to end. Their pitchy whistle is, to me, among the east coast’s, and our backyard’s, loveliest harbingers of autumn. Because bobwhites typically return to the same nesting area year after year, and come September, I patiently wait.
This year, silence. For the last half-century, numbers of Northern bobwhite have been on a sharp decline, largely owing to habitat loss. Of human origin or not, it is the single greatest threat to all birds, as we already witnessed with our ospreys following the hurricanes, and to most wildlife in general. But as it goes, “The ‘environment’ is not, and never has been, a neutral, fixed backdrop; it is in fact alive, changing all the time in response to innumerable contingencies.” — words from my book du jour that are true, but nonetheless provide little comfort for the losses.