Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Talking with the Quail about Escape Routes

I’m a huge fan of Radiolab. The episode that got me hooked was the one where they decoded the languages of prairie dogs and Diana monkeys.

Everyone knows by now, about the Diana monkeys who have different alarms calls for “leopard” and “eagle” and “snake”. If a monkey spots an eagle flying over, he’ll scream “eagle!!” and all the other monkeys will take cover. If a monkey sees a leopard, he’ll scream “leopard” and the other monkeys will run higher up the tree. Their words are not actully “leopard” and “eagle” of course. They are more like “eeeeeuuuugh! ooh oh ooh!” and “ooouuugh ooouuughoo”.

The segment on the Diana monkeys ends with the spine-tingling tale of how the researcher, while walking through the jungle, heard troop after troop of Diana monkeys screaming “eeeeeuuuugh ooh oh ooh! eeeeeuuuugh ooh oh ooh!” and he thought “silly monkeys! They think I am a leopard!”

I won’t spoil the ending. Go listen to it yourself so your spine can tingle too. Then listen to the one about america’s heroes or the one about animals showing empathy to humans and get hooked right along with me. Each show is a zany mix of interviews intercut with sounds effects and voice overs and they are mostly about some new aspect of science or psychology or philosophy that you previously did not know. Marvellous stuff.

That wasn’t even my favourite bit of the show. In another segment, a researcher analyzed prairie dog calls and discovered that they used different “words” when different men walked though their territory. The researcher was able to figure out that the prairie dogs had words for tall and short and blue and red. When someone walked by, they would say things like “here comes the tall man wearing blue!”.

“Here comes the tall man in blue.”

The researcher rigged a pulley system so that he could drag coloured shapes across their territory and recorded the prairie dogs saying “big, blue triangle” or “small, red circle”. How cool is that? He learned the language of another species! Humanity has dreamed of this moment since Doctor Doolittle!

I felt a touch of the  Doolittle myself on Monday when The Quail Family stopped by for a visit.

We get quail in our garden nearly every day but on Monday, Ma and Pa Quail introduced us to their new chicks. All eight of them.

When we saw them through the window, they seemed to be on a mission. Ma and Pa did a superb job of keeping their little chickies in line — better than Mr and Mrs Clown anyway — and hustling towards their destination, at least until they reached the corner by the fence.

Ma and Pa hopped up the twelve inches of our retaining wall and called “pipipipip” to encourage the littl’uns to hop up with them. But, either through obstinacy or the fact that there was no freaking way that those tiny bundles of fluff could jump that high, the baby quails stayed firmly where they were.

Ma and Pa got more and more impatient – “PIPIpipiPIP!” – and even tried to demonstrate the technique for jumping up onto a foot-high wall…you just hop… hop up… you hop…hop..you….dammit you little buggers! Get up here!

The fluff bundles looked up at their parents like they were eedjits. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! How are we supposed to jump all the way up there?? What are we? SuperQuail?”

That was the point where we – the non-quail residents of Quail Creek Circle – decided to intervene.

You may remember the unfortunate affair of Mr and Mr Robin — the last time we tried to interfere in the lives of our feathered friends — and suspect that our intervention was not fated to end well. We suspected the same thing.

My first idea was to build a little quail staircase out of leftover pavers – the kind you might build if you had a salmon trapped in your pond – but I was scared that I’d freak Ma and Pa Quail into abandoning their offspring. Besides, once they cleared the retaining wall they still had an even bigger hop ahead of them to clear the fence.

Mrs Clown suggested picking up the fluff bundles in my hand one by one but, having recently witnessed the Twilight Temptation of Edward, I wasn’t sure I could overcome my carnivorous instincts with such a tasty avian snack in my hand.

Eventually, I decided to open the gate and let them walk out of the garden. To get to the gate, I had to walk quite close to the little chicks and this naturally caused their parents a good deal of consternation. This is where my Doolittle instincts kicked in.

I noticed that Ma and Pa had pretty solid control over the movements of their tiny wards. Like shepherds in an avian edition of One Man and his Dog, they had the little chicks running hither and thither at their every peep.

I figured out that



Hurry along my little ones!




Huddle together in a little fluffy bundle!

Another command told them to spread out and forage. Still another had them scurrying for cover behind a huge rock when the big, bad human – and potential quail-eater – walked by.

Eventually, I opened the gate and the grateful parents hurried out calling for the younglings to follow. We bade The Quail Family a fond farewell for the day but my curiosity was piqued and I went to consult the literature on quail calls.

Sure enough, I found a paper, VOCAL BEHAVIOR OF ADULT CALIFORNIA QUAIL by H.Warrington Williams [1969].

THIS paper describes the calls of adult California Quail (Lophortyx californicus) in terms of their form, causation,and function. A later paper will report on the derivation of adult calls from the repertoire of the chick.
Previous studies of this species concerned with life history, habitat, food habits, and social behavior, placed little emphasis on vocal communication (Emlen and Lorenz, 1942; Howard and Emlen, 1942; Genelly, 1955; Raitt, 1960). Sumner(1935) provides the most complete listing of calls and the contexts in which they are given.

I learned a ton about quails and their vocalizations.

The adult California Quail has at least 14 calls. I have divided these into four categories modified from Collias (1960):  social contact, alarm, reproductive including agonistic and sexual, and parental. The causation and function of several calls vary with season and social context and are described under separate categories. I initially named each call by ortho-graphic description to avoid implications of function.

H. Warrington has tables and tables of data showing duration and frequencies of the calls as well as frequency plots of all 14. O! If only I hadn’t run away to sea, I could’ve spent my life recording quail calls (or Diana monkeys!) instead of writing software!

The calls were all right there in the paper.

Adults confined in adjacent individual cages and not in visual contact gave the call during active periods or after a disturbance. Birds that had been separated from a group or mate called ut ut loudly immediately following separation. This grades to the cu ca notes and finally to the complete cu ca cow sequence (Figure 2C). The ut note and the cu note of the cu ca cow call are similar in configuration (Figures 1 and 2).
Adults give a similar call sounding more like a mo mo mo to their chicks. The ut ut grades to the food call with the discovery of new food or movement of the group to the food hopper.

He covered alarm calls too.

The alarm notes of the California Quail are associated with the presence of aerial and ground predators, freezing following alarm, running away, and severe distress.
The pit pit call (alarm note).–Next to the cu ca cow, the pit pit call, a series of metallic-sounding pits (Figure 3A), is the most frequent call of the California Quail. Both male and female birds give the call at all seasons of the year with little variation among individuals or sexes.

Fortunately, although I frittered away my life writing software, I still have two offspring on which to project my frustrated hopes and dreams. I hope you like quails, little clowns!

pit pit pit!

Photo Credits

Quail photos: Mrs R. Clown
Diana monkeys photos: cburnett c/o wikipedia
Prairie dog photos: Baldur c/o wikipedia