On Wednesday a couple of special moments reminded me why we do it. My first duty of the day was feeding an orphan baby screech owl. The fuzzy tomato sized nestling huddled at the back of the heated brooder and did not respond when I offered a bit of mouse. In fact, as I tried to tempt him, he shrank away. Luckily Jan came to our rescue. She reached in and lifted the nestling out and helped me get the little mouse haunch into the petite curved beak. Then she set the owl back in the brooder. Away from our ugly human mugs he immediately and eagerly gulped the food down. We got a couple of mice in him that way.
Later, after I’d gutted plenty more mice for our more eager raptor patients, Susie appeared with two speckled quail eggs in her palm. They were hatching. Each quail had already perforated a crack half way around the egg, breaking through the membrane inside with a single egg tooth. I could see the tooth barely piercing the shell, a tiny white incisor.
“Hear the peeping?” Susie asked.
When I lowered my head to listen I saw one egg was rocking slightly. Then it cracked open with a pop. The quail’s head, which had been lying tight against its breast, thrust out of the shell. I could see the might of his tiny wings as he elbowed those free too. He lay flat on Susie’s hand, his lower half still encased in the egg, his shiny black eye blinking at us.
She pointed out a speck of blood in the cup of the empty shell. “In the wild the blood in the egg sac attracts predators. That’s why he’s peeping. He’s urging the other baby to get a move on and hatch too.”
Gambel’s quail generally lay 10-12 eggs in shallow nests on the ground. The eggs hatch within hours of each other and the downy babies are able to follow their parents away from the nest site soon after birth.
This orphan hatchling raised its head and began to struggle again, kicking hard at the clinging shell. Both feet came free. Already it seems impossible that all the legs and feet could have fit into the egg. The quail scrambled upright. Susie closed her hand gently around his damp downy form. She put him into a brooder right away as quail babies need temperatures in excess of 95 degrees. Despite their precocious ways, the littlest quail are extremely vulnerable and their mortality rate is high. Thankfully, plenty of them are getting help at Liberty Wildlife.