[I’m sure we’ve all seen prey birds freeze and flatten; attract as little attention as possible when faced with a threat. When a man walked through the trailhead parking lot I was bedding down in, sighting his rifle in ways that contradict firearm safety and peering in the windows of other parked cars, my response was quite the same. In this passage I’m sharing with you, I write mostly about noun-form quail. However, quail in verb form means to feel or show fear or apprehension, and quail-the-feeling is largely responsible for the leg of the 2021 journey that drove me up into the Siskiyous from California Coastal Sketch. In the Siskiyous, I discovered this road called the G-O Road. It’s a paved road, but it’s festooned with toaster-oven sized boulders, and knee-high grass grows down the centerline. And the G-O Road is what spawned a conflict between the religion of the U.S. Forest Service (profit from resource extraction) and the religion of the Yurok tribe (which involved earth renewal ceremonies in the lands that would be cut by the G-O Road.) The conflict eventually went to the Supreme Court: Profit from extraction vs earth renewal. Mountain Quail are one of the species I encountered most frequently along the G-O Road; their feet and behavior (a proclivity for walking uphill–and kicking rocks down into the roadbed) a primary contributor to the reclamation effort.
The G-O Road is this perfect nexus of a charismatic, enigmatic, and range-limited species + the cultural tensions between land stewardship and land ownership + my travels becoming shaped by flight instinct/feeling vulnerable/quailing. And I only found it (and learned about it) because I needed a less-sketchy place to camp. I try to avoid partiality with my project, but… the G-O Road so far is an easy favorite.
I think he is the very handsomest and most interesting of all the American partridges, larger and handsomer than the famous Bob White, or even the fine California valley quail, or the Massena partridge of Arizona and Mexico. That he is not so regarded, is because as a lonely mountaineer he is not half known.” – John Muir, 1898.
What we know with the most certainty about mountain quail are attributes summoned through the infliction of stress—even by the infliction of death. We’re quite confident about things like morphological details; we know that that the species runs, very proficiently, uphill to elude threats; we’ve observed a great deal about the nuances with which alarm is communicated. But the behavioral and the social dynamics remain nebulous. Territoriality: “unknown.” Mating system and sex ratio: “few data;” “not understood;” “complex mating system possible.” Covey breakup: “poorly documented.”
Perhaps, it’s that way for many species. Considerable stress and considerable death accompany many scientific probings, so it shouldn’t be surprising that much of the knowledge gleaned relates to measurement; escape; alarm:
“Among quail collected in Joshua Tree National Monument, CA, mass=233.6 g…” (where n=23)
“Becomes airborne before maximum heart rate reached by running.”
“Primary alarm call is Cree-auk…speed, intensity, and volume appear to correspond to state of alarm, especially fear.”
“Cree-auk alarm call is reflexive and produced bronchially. Decapitated bodies of mountain quail humanely sacrificed for scientific study emit Cree-auk vocalization for several seconds following decapitation.”
Other than that, they’re not half known.
In July of 2021, my range and mountain quail range overlaps. I’m in northern California; there, not being half-known seems a worthy aspiration. Ease isn’t easy: too many people; too much pot. Growing for the black market dominates the economy and the culture, and paranoia hangs in a thick haze over the hollows, hamlets, and interactions I travel through. No one seems particularly trustworthy—nor trusting, either. So I move quietly; say little.
Even halfway through the year, I’m still working out the exact formula for finding a good campsite. Most simply translated, it’s something like “several miles and a few turns past sketched out.” Distances vary.