California Quail, and I look outside the kitchen window to see one of our cats stalking across the driveway. A male quail is sitting on top of the gate alarming loudly, and a female is cornered against the fencing. Instinctively I scream and run like a banshee out the front door, just as the cat pounces and grabs the female quail.
Feathers explode into the air, and the cat scrambles into the drainage ditch, bird in mouth, and I jump after her, scaring her into dropping her catch, and the wounded quail escapes and flies into the plum, oak and bramble patch. The male quail flies after her, alarming frantically.I snatch the cat and lock her indoors, and then rush back to see the damage. Feathers are everywhere. Too many. Some are clumped with blood and there are tail and wing primaries. It doesn’t look good. I feel terrible.
At this point, most of the birds in the neighbourhood have come to rubberneck. The local raven family (2 adults and their 2 juveniles) swoop in from nowhere, cawing like crazy and flying in big excited circles right over my head. The Scrub Jay family arrives too, making an unbelievable racket. They seem upset but also interested in a possible easy quail meal.
I chase all of them away, flailing my arms and yelling: ”go away! there’s nothing to see here!” I’m the policeman at the scene of a bird crime. I’m glad they obey. I’m too upset to take any corvid nonsense.
I can hear the California Quail in the bushes. I reach out with my heart and mind, and speak softly to them, telling them how sorry I am that my cat did this. They are both alarmed and I don’t want to disturb them anymore, and so I offer my apology, and then stand still in silence, and listen.
And then I hear them. They stop alarming, and begin calling softly to each other, in the sweetest, quietest, most loving way. They are calling “chi-ca-go!” gently, back and forth. It is intimate and private. It touches me deeply. I can’t explain this, but somehow I know what they are saying, and as plain as day I hear them “don’t leave me” “I’m going now” “please stay” “I have to go” “I need you” “I’ll miss you”… They are saying goodbye to each other, and it is the saddest thing in the world. Gradually their calls slip into silence. I know that she’s gone, and my heart aches for the loss of life.
Six days later, I look outside the window, and see the male California Quail sitting where his mate was killed. I watch him out the window for a long time. He is perfectly still, his head held low. There are no other quails around. No other birds. Tufts of feathers from his mate are circled around him. He is sitting in the exact spot on the driveway where she is most present. I can’t explain this, but I know that he is grieving. It breaks my heart, but I also feel honoured to witness one bird’s connection to his mate, and to know that this is real. That birds remember. That birds have feelings. That birds know grief. That the truth is birds are not so different from ourselves.