The Solace of a Whistle

3dd42135-3d69-425f-84df-aec15a51d960 Story and photos by Chad Love

I’m not generally a superstitious person who ascribes higher meaning to coincidence, or sees signs in whatever form is taken by the metaphorical tea leaves of the moment, but I make exceptions for quail, of course, because quail are magical birds.
And to be quite honest, the sign, when it appeared, couldn’t have come at a better time. I don’t know about you, but the past few days, weeks, and months have, quite frankly, beaten the hell out of me; mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically. It’s been an uncertain (are we all tired of that word yet?), emotionally draining time, and to cope with it all I’ve turned to finding my solace in little things of a natural bent, things with no knowledge, no connection, and no concern with the self-absorbed affairs of us humans.

That search for solace is what found me recently creeping my truck down a rutted, overgrown two-track in desperate need of a dozer blade. I wasn’t looking for a sign, of course. I was just looking for some solitude and a place to run a long-legged pup in need of some energy expenditure. 

I was simultaneously trying to avoid high-centering the truck while absent-mindedly pondering Deep Stuff (as I am wont to do) when I caught movement out in front of me, just a quick blur of something moving through the sparse grass and weeds growing between the tracks. I stopped, got out, and began looking.

And there he was: Phrynosoma cornutum, the Texas horned lizard, colloquially known ‘round these here parts as the horny toad, a formerly ubiquitous plains species that, much like the bobwhite quail, has seen significant loss of habitat, and subsequently numbers, across much of its range.

Which makes perfect – if tragic and frustrating – sense, because the habitat requirements of the Texas horned lizard and the bobwhite quail, at least on the southern plains, are remarkably similar. And to actually see the former on a piece of ground where I was desperately hoping to see the latter completely made my day.
I am, and always will be, a critter-obsessed child at heart, so with the memories of countless horny toad captures from a wild, misspent youth dancing through my head, I made like a kid – albeit a fat, 49-year-old kid – and gave chase. Well, if I’m honest perhaps chase isn’t the right word. More like, “slowly bent over and picked him up.” Horny toads are not exactly speedsters.
He’d been gorging on red harvester ants in the middle of the trail, a perfect little southern plains dinosaur in miniature; small, yes, but as iconic to and essentially of this region as the largest bison. He was spectacular.
I admired him for a few moments, took a photograph of his tiny body in my large hand, and then gently shooed him away from the path of my tires.

Buoyed by this unexpected but delightful discovery, I got back in the truck and continued bouncing down the trail.
Not fifty yards later, a pair of bobwhites suddenly appeared quite literally from nowhere and began running –  as I’ve noticed bobwhites are curiously prone to do on pasture two-tracks – directly in front of the truck straight down the middle of the trail; not swerving into the grass on either side of the road, not flushing, just casually doing their best Usain Bolt impersonation as the giant red monster behind them kept pace and the strange creature piloting said monster frantically tried to take video without wrecking his truck.

Eventually the pair got bored with the game and took flight, peeling off into the draw on my left. I killed the truck, rolled down the windows, and sat there in the wind and silence, waiting for that inevitable call that has enthralled, beguiled, informed, and shaped so much of my life.

And when it came, I knew it was telling me something. It was giving me a sign.

Now you can say it’s not a sign, that I was simply in an area of good habitat for both species, and it’s completely natural to see them in close proximity. After all, that’s just science, logic, reason. And trust me, I am a big believer in all three of those things. 

But I also know that quail are magic. Horny toads, too, for that matter. Yes, I know that other, much more normal folks than I choose fearsome charismatic megafauna as their totemic spirit animals, whereas mine is an eight-ounce bird that’s on the lunch menu of pretty much everything with canine teeth. So it goes. I still choose to believe it was a sign from my spirit animal.  

I’ll admit, I still haven’t figured out what, exactly, that sign actually meant or signified. But I also don’t think that’s the point. Sometimes the purpose of receiving a sign isn’t the revelation of some grand truth, but merely to change the way you feel at a point in time when you desperately need it. 

Sometimes it really is as simple as that. 

And nothing changes how I feel more, or more powerfully, than the sound of a quail’s plaintive whistle ringing out into the air of a troubled world.

Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal