Territorial Rights


Richard Shelton

The Gambel quail looks like a medieval knight
in a plumed russet helmet with lowered visor
outlined in white. Every morning in early spring
he fies to the top of a cholla, where he can see
his mate and the boundaries of his territory.
They are monogamous, but at dawn he crows
as proud as any barnyard rooster with a harem.
And she is a lovely thing, plump and demure
in gray and a smooth brown cloche with a plume
which bobs above her head as she gathers her chicks,
nodding to each in turn, always counting them.

Once I saw a pair of Gambels attack
a roadrunner who was threatening their chicks.
Quail seldom fly, but these came in like two
jet planes, low and fast and side by side.
The roadrunner was three times their size. They struck
at exactly the same moment, a manuever requiring
absolute precision. The stunned roadrunner
fell down. They landed quickly and ushered the chicks
away, calling hurry now, hurry now. Tiny shadows
ran after them. By the time the carniverous
giant had regained his breath, his feet,
and his dignity, the quail were gone.

The pair I know best live in the acacia thicket
at the bottom of the arroyo. They have a nest
on the ground, hidden by cactus and rabbit brush.
If I come too near, he sounds the alarm and they
take cover. If I stay, he comes out to harangue me
and do battle. He threatens me with death or, at best,
banishment from his territory. I hold my ground.

It's my land and my arroyo, I shout at him.
I will not abandon it to a crazy quail.
He tries to lead me away from the nest. I know
he will sacrifice himself if he must. This is
the desert. It has always been his home.
I give up and return to the house where I belong,
learning from my neighbors in the arroyo to claim
no more territory than I am willing to defend.

From Selected Poems 1969 - 1981 by Richard Shelton, © 1982 Richard Shelton. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
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