Theirs is the call heard in the background of every Grade B western ever filmed, no matter the supposed location of the good guy vs. bad guy confrontation. It's still a surprise to me, though, when I hear the California quail below my house on a blustery day that passes for spring in Montana.
The birds dart Indian-file through the dry grass, seeking cover under the spruce trees, and then the covey leader flies gracefully to the top of a chokecherry bush to proclaim his dominance over all trespassers in his territory. His qui-CAW-caw is the sound I love.
One of my earliest memories is of the call of the California quail. My dad was a Department of Fish and Game manager in the Mojave Desert when I was a toddler, and he frequently trapped quail to study their diseases, parasites and habits. He and my mom handled them gently, drawing blood, banding them and sometimes keeping them overnight in the woodstove-heated kitchen, so they wouldn't become food for predators in the dangerous evening hours before they could find a safe roost after release. Some of the birds would come back time after time, loving the easy food in the trap and the warm, cozy place to spend the night.
My father found that one cause of fewer quail in our area was the lack of safe watering holes, especially during years of drought. During the 1950s, after experimenting with several solutions to the problem, he and his fellow biologists began installing mini-watering holes called Glading's Gallinaceous Guzzlers.
All of their work across the arid lands of California was done by hand, and the water sources were nearly invisible in the landscape. They were made by bolting together two clamshell-shaped fiberglass pieces made by a local boat manufacturer -- earlier designs made with concrete proved too cumbersome to install in remote canyons. The bottom clamshell had an extra apron that served to channel rare desert downpours into the reservoir. A metal grate in the guzzler's opening allowed only birds and small creatures to pass through, so the water was off-limits to predators. The whole assembly was buried to keep the water cool and slow down evaporation. The quail loved their new watering holes, and coveys thrived in the areas around them.
Nowadays, maps passed out to sojourners crossing the boundary between the Mexico and California boundary show some of these water sources in the desert, and travelers carry a cup on a stick so they can reach the life-giving water behind the steel bars.
But in Montana, we don't need guzzlers to keep quail alive. They were introduced to our area by a game-farm owning hunting-dog trainer. Both the game farm and the trainer are gone, but the quail spread out across the Bitterroot Valley. They’ve found plenty of cover in brushy draws, and because people love them so, the busy, foraging birds find trails of grain spread out for them on the ground in the winter months when their natural food is buried in the snow. I’ve frequently seen their tracks in fresh white powder -- proof that a covey has survived yet another frigid night.
The local coyotes sometimes yodel their excitement and have quail for dinner. Feathers on the snow tell that story. But in spite of depredation, the number of quail seems to be slowly increasing.
When dad neared the end of his life, he said his opinion about game management had changed, thanks to his years of experience. He no longer believed that biologists should "mess with" Mother Nature; he concluded that animals usually get along fine on their own. But he never regretted his quail waterhole project, nor did he object to the wintertime meddling that so many Montanans seem unable to resist.
As he lay quietly, preparing to let go of life here on earth, he listened to a CD of desert sounds that included the gentle calls of California quail. He closed his eyes and smiled.
Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.og). She lives at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana, and has assisted the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department by piloting a plane used in the annual aerial count of game animals.