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Are California quail conscious when they run out in front of cars?
"Hey! A car's coming!" "Great! Let's all run across the road in front of it!" "That's a wonderful idea!" "Yes!" "Genius!" "A good plan!" "Go! Go! Go!"
That is what my wife Ann Marie claims goes on in our local covey of California quail. You see, it happens about one in every three times that we turn our cars into the one-lane road that leads to our house, and nose them down the hill. About one time in three, as we head down, suddenly California quail burst out from the side of the road and run straight across it, right in front of the car, at a distance of between three and ten yards. We slam on the brakes, not wanting mashed quail on our tires. Children squawk, "Dad!" "Ow!" And then they are gone--having passed from one side of the road to the other, and disappeared under the thorny blackberry bushes. Last time there were about twenty of them: six adults and fourteen chicks in two clutches, each clutch led by its mother and trailed by its father as they ran pell-mell willy-nilly across the road.
They ought to win a Darwin Award or something. They seem to be the most unfit animals to deal with suburbia I have ever seen.
Why do they court death by running across the road in front of cars? Because they are stupid birds, that's why! Because they are programmed to run--not fly: running takes less energy, and they can run pretty damn fast--at any sign of disturbance. And a car is a big disturbance to a covey of quail pecking by the side of the road.
Sooner or later evolution is going to swing into action, and I'm going to wind up with mashed quail on my tires. Or perhaps I should just get a net: they're probably very tasty...