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From the Farmhouse to the White House: Never Too Old To Stop Learning About Quail Habitats

I was feeding Sammy, my Brit, one recent evening when I heard it.  I knew what it was, even though I didn’t know what it was. The same strange noise emanated from my quail meadow at twilight last year about this time … and the year before that. The high-pitched, descending raspy screech lasts about one second, and is repeated irregularly until well after dark. It emanates from different spots in the meadow; are there multiple sources, or one source moving around? The noise is loud, abrasive … and it’s a mystery.

For the record, I’m pretty skilled at identifying animal sounds. Even as a game bird guy, I can hold my own with most of the hardcore birders when identifying bird songs and calls, plus I know the frog and toad calls. But this sound has stumped me for years. I couldn’t even determine mammal or bird. Of course, I’ve tried finding it in the past, but the sounds always seem to stop only to start up again in a different place.  Plus, they seem to have a ventriloquist-like property, making them difficult to locate, like trying to pinpoint a spring peeper, even when bent right over it.

I had compiled an array of possibilities in my mind:  

  • barn owl?  (never confirmed them on our property)
  • short-eared owls migrating through?  (never seen them here)
  • gray foxes?  (never seen them here, either)
  • raccoons?
  • the Fouck Monster? (look it up).

Admittedly, the better I know and understand wildlife and habitats, the more highly I value the remaining unknowns … the mysteries. This mysterious animal noise has added years of intrigue to our restored native grassland.

Enough was enough, this evening. I walked through the meadow toward the sound. As before, it stopped, and started coming from a different direction. I turned and walked that way, but it quit, and started from yet another direction … yet I saw nothing move. I needed reinforcements.  I walked to the house and commandeered my wife and both our binoculars. 

Two people was the secret. After a short while of slow stalking, we triangulated upon one of the shrieking spots in the grass. To me, it still sounded 100 yards out, but Sheryl insisted it was close, very close. Finally, she spotted a dark blob hobbling through the grass right in front of us, not 10 yards away. It got hung up on a briar and hunkered down, offering us a perfect view.  The lenses of our binoculars were filled with a soccer ball-sized lump of gray fuzz, with two huge yellow eyes… a great horned owl fledgling! At that moment we finally noticed the agitated parents in the nearby tall pines, clacking their beaks and grunting alarm calls at the chicks… or at us.  We were enjoying a new life experience, in our quail meadow, of all places.

We listened to the young shrieking owls—at least 3 of them, maybe 4—every evening from our deck, for the next two or three weeks.  The shrieking has stopped now, presumably as their voices are changing and they are growing up to become effective house cat predators.  This mystery is finally solved.  But its intrigue is replaced with a better understanding and appreciation of the diverse values of a quail meadow.

Don McKenzie

Former NBCI Director, Don McKenzie is a product of the deep South, steeped in its cultures of hunting, fried catfish, barbeque and SEC football. He survived an abrupt transition from hip boots in South Carolina to dark suits in Washington, DC as a professional wildlife advocate specializing in agriculture conservation policy.

During 6 ½ years in DC, he engaged the community of southeastern bobwhite quail biologists, and soon became their most active representative on federal conservation policy issues. McKenzie eventually arose as a national leader for what now is recognized as arguably the largest and most difficult wildlife conservation challenge of this era—restoring huntable and sustainable populations of wild bobwhites across much of their range. He was a facilitator and editor of the original “Northern (now “National”) Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,” published in 2002, and has been the national leader for implementing the initiative since 2004.