My husband Eric was intensely fond of quail. His tattered copy of Margaret Stanger’s book That Quail, Robert sits on my shelf. Having spent many summers on Cape Cod, he was familiar with the northern bobwhite, the subject of the book. The male has a bright white and black head pattern which differs from its cousin the Gambel’s quail—a slightly smaller bird with a flurry of black feathers atop its gray, chestnut, and cream colored body. Eric’s delight at seeing a Gambel’s quail for the first time in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson prompted him to remark, “It’s a Robert with a hat.”
I first came to the Sonoran Desert in 1982. My parents had recently moved to Tucson, so Eric and I drove out from St. Louis to visit. I immediately fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. Eric—a native New Yorker—was not as enthralled, but was delighted with the quail. Over the years, we were frequently charmed by the “chubby pears with umbrella hats.” Eric looked at nature and animals with a sense of childlike wonder, an unusual trait for a fighter pilot.
Eric was in the air force during the first Gulf War (1991), in which General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf led the forces that liberated Kuwait. Eric gave up his F-15 shortly after and pursued a career as a civilian experimental test pilot. He was busy; we had a young family, and money was tight, so I occasionally took a quick trip alone to see my parents. Our two daughters became as fascinated as he with my quail stories. How many did I see? Were there babies?
Quail belong to the avian order Galliformes, which includes other chicken-like birds. Bobwhite and Gambel’s quail are referred to as new world quail and are in their own family. But Eric wasn’t interested in classification. He wanted to observe their wing shape, their flight, their antics. With their rounded wings, Gambel’s quail are not the best fliers and would rather run when startled, an often-comical sight. They are prey to many desert species such as Harris hawks and have an average life span of only about a year and a half. For one to make it to four years of age is unusual.
In June 2016, I moved to Tucson. Before the last box was unpacked I had filled out my application to volunteer at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a place that had captivated me my entire adult life. I jumped at the chance to care for the program animals. With western screech owls, barn owls, American kestrels, Harris hawks, a peregrine falcon, a black vulture, and an assortment of reptiles, I was delighted to put my long dormant bird keeper skills to use. I immediately fell completely in love with Stormin’ Norman.
Stormin’ Norman, a male Gambel’s quail, came to the desert museum in July of 2001 as an adult. Like his namesake, Norman’s personality loomed large. He had things to say and would chatter in my ear, atop my shoulder, as I cleaned his enclosure. Curious and aware, he was always engaged with the goings-on around him. Is there peanut butter in my dish today? Where are my greens? What is that speck on the ground? With his head feathers bobbing rapidly, sassy Norman was a bird on the move, strutting and showing off his black belly patch. I couldn’t help but laugh. Norman made me so happy that I wanted to spin around and shout, “I love this place!”
I found myself counting the days until my Wednesday shift. Stop number one: “Normie.” Was I imagining it or did he have a special vocalization just for me? One day I noticed his feathers were fluffed in an unusual way and he wasn’t his normal chatty self. I told a keeper. Yes, Norman had an infection. Yes, he was on meds. Yes, he was very old. As the weeks passed, Norman seemed to falter and then make an amazing recovery. I continued to tell myself that Norman had lived seven quail lifetimes. I remembered the hope I had felt 16 years ago, when I watched someone I loved falter, recover, falter again.
As the weather turned colder and Norman’s liver became enlarged, he was brought inside. When the temperature warmed up to 60 degrees he was allowed back in his spacious outdoor pen. I selfishly asked to be the one to clean after him and take him back out. I spoke to him gently every week when I left. “Be here next week, Normie,” I would whisper. The keepers gave me a framed picture of him for Christmas and I proudly put it on my desk, where I could see my little guy every time I wrote.
On Thursday morning January 5, I got a call. Norman had passed away in the night. At over 15 years old, he was probably the oldest Gambel’s quail ever in captivity. He lived a long, long life, so was I selfish to have wished for a few more weeks with him? General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf was 78 when he died, and I am sure his widow wished for more time.
My Eric was barely 43 when his test plane crashed on October 10, 2000. He died 36 days later. He never knew Norman, never moved to Tucson with me, never saw his daughters grow up. He never saw how the Sonoran Desert helped to heal my broken spirit, or how I eventually came to work at a place he had visited long ago. Every day I think of him. Every day I miss him. Every day I feel fortunate that, of all the girls on the planet, he loved me.
If I have learned anything in my long, long struggle with grief, it is that animals and nature can heal us, even if we lose the very animals we love. I wake up every morning and am glad to be in Tucson—a city of diversity, wild beauty, fascinating animals, and sunsets of pink and purple ribbons. When I look out into the desert behind my house and see a covey of gregarious quail, I think of my amazing husband and my dear little feathered friend.
For me, Gambel’s quail will always and forever be Normans.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carol Fiore lives in Tucson with her Moluccan cockatoo, Sydney. She is the author of two books and several magazine articles. Visit her website at www.carolfiore.com