On both ends of the upper back deck of the house where we live in north Tucson, my wife has placed large clay pots with spider plants. The deck faces an arroyo, a local reference, although some ranchers call it a wash, a natural pathway for rain and snowmelt from the Catalina mountains. It is a few hundred yards wide, with half as much depth. Although there are a variety of birds in the area, none have seemed particularly noteworthy until recently, and even now, I don’t know if I am writing about the birds or the bird people.
A few weeks ago I was sitting on the deck in the dark when my wife decided to water the spider plants. As she approached the planter, there was an abrupt flutter of wings. She jumped back quickly thinking she had disturbed a bat.
The next morning we inspected the plant and discovered seven eggs. Each was a light tan color with brown splotches. At first I thought these might be deposits from errant doves, since there are so many in the area.
What we had under the long thin leaves of the spider plant were Gambel quail eggs.
For the remaining three weeks—the gestation period of Gambel quail—we
watered the plant by crawling out on the deck and filling the tray below the pot so the moisture would be absorbed upward. This way we would avoid disturbing the parents. In the afternoons we often saw the mother leave the nest to forage out in the wash, and occasionally, viewed the male guarding the
clutch, strutting back and forth with his black top-knot tassel that wobbled when he moved like an overly decorated official presiding over a valuable domain.
Early one morning the discordant sounds of bird stress mixed with small chirpings brought us to the window. The female quail was hopping from the deck to planter and back again summoning her brood to come follow her
while the male patrolled the rail on the wrought iron fence ten feet below, ready to fend off any possible intruders. The parents continued on until mid-afternoon when the rest of the covey came to visit. Quail belong to coveys of twenty, to two hundred birds, only leaving the group for the purpose of finding a birthing nest. The covey, the quail’s extended family, gathered under the deck while one male waited in the wash.
Within seconds, one new chick, the down dry from the desert air, fluttered down to join the father. The female made a few more attempts to encourage the remainder of her brood to join the group, and when none of the chicks took the offer, and remained in the planter instead of jumping out, the family of three joined the covey, and left the yard, following the male posted outside the gate. They wandered off down the wash.
They never returned.
Six baby quail were left chirping, too new or weak or too afraid to have jumped out at their mother’s command. We told ourselves the parents would come back. They would not have gone through all that trouble to leave their hatchlings for good. By the second day, the brood, left to their own devices, the June Arizona sun, an insufficient amount of nutrients left in the little gel from their shells, were moving less, and the once healthy chirping began to diminish to a soft, irregular peeping.
In the telephone directory I found an avian rescue group but they only worked with parrots and some other tropical birds. My number was turned over to the Tucson Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility. Within a half hour of my inquiry, I received a call from “Lou.” He said he had sixty-five baby quail, all abandoned. They too had failed to keep tempo with nature’s quail program, and did not join their larger covey groups at the appointed time. His voice was coarse and unapologetic. Nature was nature. Things like this happen. Before I knew it, I was volunteering to drive them down to the Tucson Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility, which turned out to be Lou Miller’s house.
I’m not above complaining from time to time, and I recall saying something about the cost of gas to my wife and in addition I suspected a contribution: “This is going to cost me, I know it.”
Enter the bird people.
When I knock on the door of the house—a structure that has somehow escaped demolition—and I am greeted by Lou, who is frail, with a raspy voice, bent over from osteoporosis, and shake his hand, which has unexpected bumps and depressions from arthritis, I realize I have entered another world
connected to mine only by some strange, invisible filament I cannot understand.
The place is spotted with white bird droppings. They are on the front porch, splattered on the side of the house, and inside, down the hall and into the two rooms filled with cages and perches, the white splotches are everywhere.
Lou thanks me. He thanks me for bringing the birds. It is, somehow, a cause for joy. There are several volunteers about and they gather to see the new arrivals. Everyone smiles. It is as if these baby quail have been
rescued from predators, the four or five years of their natural life span—should they be able to live it out unlike eighty percent of their kind—the accidents of the world, the suffering they will endure, disease, hunger, loss, exposure to desert temperatures that often have wild ranges, the hardship of life itself. Everyone is grateful. Even moreso when one of the volunteers takes each newborn and offers a drop or two from a formula dispensed from an eye dropper. After each of the six birds takes the nutritional supplement, there
A young volunteer places sandy litter preparation in a glass terrarium and we are told that the birds will stay there for a period of time, then join the others to pattern after some older quail on the grounds, then later, removed with siblings to a wilderness area inhabited by their species.
The volunteers don’t say much. There are certificates on the wall attesting to their training in wildlife rehabilitation, yet they seem themselves somehow in need of repair. They appear fundamentally disheveled, and if they weren’t in this rehabilitation facility, and out on the street, might be questioned for vagrancy. They too have found a family, among themselves, and the wild things they serve. We must ask questions: will the quail survive? Do you accept donations? A volunteer points to a box in a corner. It’s like one of the glass terrariums, except it is smaller with dollar bills inside. My wife is thrilled that the baby birds have found a home.
Everyone seems busy but us, and it becomes apparent it is time to leave. Lou, still thanking us, holds the door. He is holding the door, leaning into it, as if he is relying on the door to support him.
I’m halfway to the car, passing the terra cotta statue of St. Francis in the front yard with his hands outstretched, perches for his birds, beloved and damned, when I feel compelled to return, slip inside, and make another contribution to the glass box.
So I leave for good this time. I leave with the image of the bird people quietly working on their assigned tasks and on a something more, something they know and share with the failed creatures in their care. And I leave Lou with his pants that are too big for him, and his worn belt that is too long as if it alone is keeping the halves of him together, a ruined body in a ruin of a house long given over to the vagaries of nature with the dumb animals they are trying to save against all odds—the predators, drought, hunters, their own short life spans that will claim them soon enough—and the birdshit all over the place, on the driveway, on the old man’s shoes, and I realize walking to the car that it is all impossible and vital at the same time and that’s enough to cause a strange constriction in my throat.