I’m walking my blue heeler, Bodhi, through the serene grass and pavement matrix of our Salt Lake City suburb, when some creature issues a short, high cry from up above. It’s a mysterious call that could well have come from some denizen of a distant, cacophonous rainforest, but here it is a lone, wild voice against the ticking and hissing of sprinklers and the lawnmower’s drone.
I’ve heard this vocalization before and know what it means. I scan my surroundings and within seconds I spot them: a family of California quail, teardrop shaped puffs of grey strutting around in someone’s front yard, pecking the ground in search of seeds and shoots. My fiancée has given these beautiful birds, with their scale-patterned feathers, rust-brown caps, and white-limned black faces, the name “doodangly” birds, after their flapper-era black head plumes that wiggle with every step. It’s now the only way I refer them in conversation, leading to much confusion.
The family — a mother and six chicks — putters onto the sidewalk just as their high lookout, perched on a roof peak a few houses down, detects my presence and issues his warning. They hasten into a single-file formation and hightail it away from me, legs swinging in a blur, road-runner style. Doodanglies almost never fly unless startled at close distance. They opt instead for more pedestrian means of locomotion and can move surprisingly fast over open terrain.
The family ducks into a driveway and behind a little rise of grass. I stand and watch, waiting to see if they’ll reemerge, and they do. I’ve noticed that these strange little terrestrial birds are seldom dissuaded from their course. They scramble whenever a human, cat, or car comes too close, but soon, with caution, pluck back towards their original course. Like pigeons and doves, they are well adapted to the grid-paved wilderness of the burbs.
Every spring, the doodanglies begin to show themselves in the Salt Lake valley. They are my favorite local nature sprites, embodiments of some ancient energy that humans have been endeavoring to bury in layers of concrete, glass, and metal for the past hundred-odd years. The doodanglies appear first in pairs, but soon in families. Their chicks are precocial, meaning they’re ready to roll straight out of the shell. Still, the parentals shepherd them closely when they’re on the move. It is common quail practice to have one scout posted up on a fencepost or tree branch, watching for threats like Bodhi and me. Of course, we’re not really a threat (or at least, I’m not), but they don’t give us the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t blame them.
If I’m lucky, I’ll make doodangly sightings every day, when I’m out walking my dog or running. Their simple, wild presence in the spaces between our houses and our cars, like that of the baroque, green-armored grasshopper or the flashing, iridescent hummingbird, reminds me of the way the world once was, and still is in our ever-shrinking preserves of natural places. It reminds me that no matter how far “above” nature we try to arrange ourselves, we are and always will be a part of it. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature,” “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” He could just as well have said “man and the birds.” It reminds me that we humans, the rich and the poor among us, must make a life for ourselves one day, one year at a time, just like the doodanglies, plucking towards the future powered by an innate stubbornness that I can only see as nature’s beautiful, irrational argument against the chaos of the universe.