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Bird of a Feather

During a typical week, I receive a handful of e-mails from visitors to this site. The majority of these are seeking answers to questions, and I welcome this opportunity to help others who have an interest in quail and bird dogs. The remainder of the messages offer comments, both positive and negative, on the site and its content, and I welcome these as well. Every now and then, I receive a message that doesn't fall into either of the above categories but instead relays an interesting bit of information. Such was the case with an anecdote that showed up in my Inbox last week.

Joanne Cope, a reader from western Pennsylvania, wrote to tell me about an experience with a particular quail. I was intrigued with her story, and sent a reply asking for a few more details. She graciously answered all of my questions, and was even kind enough to send me a few pictures as visual evidence.

Joanne's husband, Neil, grew up on a farm and over the years he managed to hold on to an incubator from the operation. In the spring of 1999, the Copes, along with their son Matthew and daughter Erin, decided to dust off the incubator and hatch some quail eggs as an educational experience. When the quail matured, they would release the new covey into the wild.

The family purchased eggs through the mail and successfully incubated the lot. As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, the incubator broke on the day the quail were to hatch. Acting quickly, they transferred the eggs to a homemade brooder where the chicks emerged. Of the dozen or so eggs that hatched, only one chick survived.

Growing up with a family of four people and one golden retriever, the bird they named Bobbi (her name was Bob until she started laying eggs) developed quite an attachment to her odd covey. "She's very affectionate with us," Joanne says. "She'll hop on your lap and sit there, or walk around on you pecking away. But she does hurt when she pecks. The kids will sit on the couch and watch TV and just hold her and she's very content to stay still just being held for long periods of time." Bobbi will even occasionally follow Matthew up the street to a friend's house.

Bobbi and Sam

Sam, the golden retriever, and Bobbi have become very close. When Bobbi was young, she was shy of the family, but from the start has never been afraid of Sam. "As you can see, Bobbi is very affectionate with Sam," Joanne continues. "She is not afraid of him in the least. She jumps up on his back and pecks at him. Sometimes he gets tired of her and will nudge her and sometimes when she's pecking at his face, he'll open his mouth and half of her will be inside. When they're outside on our deck, he'll nudge her off and she'll have to fly to the ground." Bobbi often eats the crumbs that Sam drops. Apparently, the only thing that Sam isn't crazy about is allowing Bobbi to hitch a ride on his back.

Bobbi and Sam

According to Joanne, Bobbi's flying abilities are less than stellar. Sometimes Bobbi gets spooked and flies up to the porch roof. The problem is that she doesn't seem to know how to fly back down, so Matthew has to rescue her through an upstairs window. The family did contact a local wildlife center about releasing Bobbi, but was told that the bird was too tame to stand a chance on her own. Lacking two essential survival mechanisms of wild bobwhites- superb flying skills and the safety of a covey- Bobbi probably would not have survived more than a few days in the forest, so the Copes raised her as part of the family. Bobbi seems to be doing her best to fit in. Joanne says that when Bobbi was young, she would lay on her side with her legs stretched out, just like Sam does. When Sam barks outside, Bobbi has a special call that she uses to accompany him. "The best call," Joanne says, "is when Matthew and Erin come home from school. She calls so loud and so long it hurts your ears."

At times, Joanne feels that they have tampered with nature by keeping Bobbi, but I applaud them for their efforts. Domesticating entire coveys probably qualifies as interfering with God's plan, but they certainly did not intend to do such a thing. A solitary quail would stand no chance in the wild, and I feel that keeping Bobbi was truly a humane choice. Their educational incubation experiment turned into much more, opening windows into just how intelligent these birds really are and providing clues to how and why quail learn their survival and communication skills. Many thanks to Joanne and her family for sharing their story, and best wishes to Bobbi.

Editor's note: Joanne recommends a book called That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stranger which tells a similar tale.

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