Quail are small ground-dwelling birds of the family Phasianidae (which includes pheasants, partridges, peafowl and the domesticated chicken). South Asia is home to as many as four genera – Coturnix, Excalfactoria, Perdicula and Ophrysia. Several species of quail are to be found in the subcontinent – the Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix), the Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica), the Rain Quail (Coturnix coromandelica), the King Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis), the Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica), the Rock Bush Quail (Perdicula argoondah), the Painted Bush Quail (Perdicula erythrorhyncha), the Manipur Bush Quail (Perdicula manipurensis) and the now extinct Himalayan Quail (Ophrysia superciliosa). Quail have been very popular as gamebirds in South Asia, being caught by hunters for millennia. Quail meat and eggs have been considered a delicacy since ancient times. This popularity can be attested by the birds being mentioned in one of the Buddhist Jatakas (the Sammodamana Jataka), a cautionary tale about the outcome of disunity and internal strife. It was narrated by the Buddha when his tribe, the Shakyas clashed with another closely related group, the Koliyas.
Sammodamana Jataka (The Fowler and The Quails)
Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a quail, and lived in the forest at the head of many thousands of quails. In those days a fowler who caught quails came to that place ; and he used to imitate the note of a quail till he saw that the birds had been drawn together, when he flung his net over them, and whipped the sides of the net together, so as to get them all huddled up in a heap. Then he crammed them into his basket, and going home sold his prey for a living.
Now one day the Bodhisatta said to those quails, “This fowler is making havoc among our kinsfolk. I have a device whereby he will be unable to catch us. Henceforth, the very moment he throws the net over you, let each one put his head through a mesh and then all of you together must fly away with the net to such place as you please, and there let it down on a thorn-brake; this done, we will all escape from our several meshes.” “Very good,” said they all in ready agreement.
On the morrow, when the net was cast over them, they did just as the Bodhisatta had told them: they lifted up the net, and let it down on a thorn-brake, escaping themselves from underneath. While the fowler was still disentangling his net, evening came on ; and he went away empty-handed. On the morrow and following days the quails played the same trick. So that it became the regular thing for the fowler to be engaged till sunset disentangling his net, and then to betake himself home empty-handed. Accordingly his wife grew angry and said, “Day by day you return empty-handed; I suppose you’ve got a second establishment to keep up elsewhere.”
“No, my dear,” said the fowler; “I’ve no second establishment to keep up. The fact is those quails have come to work together now. The moment my net is over them, off they fly with it and escape, leaving it on a thorn-brake. Still, they won’t live in unity always. Don’t you bother yourself; as soon as they start bickering among themselves, I shall bag the lot, and that will bring a smile to your face to see.” And so saying, he repeated this stanza to his wife :
While concord reigns, the birds bear off the net.
When quarrels rise, they’ll fall a prey to me.
Not long after this, one of the quails, in alighting on their feeding-ground, trod by accident on another’s head. ” Who trod on my head ? ” angrily cried this latter. ” I did ; but I didn’t mean to. Don’t be angry,” said the first quail. But notwithstanding this answer, the other remained as angry as before. Continuing to answer one another, they began to bandy taunts, saying, “I suppose it is you single-handed who lift up the net.” As they wrangled thus with one another, the Bodhisatta thought to himself, ” There’s no safety with one who is quarrelsome. The time has come when they will no longer lift up the net, and thereby they will come to great destruction. The fowler will get his opportunity. I can stay here no longer.” And thereupon he with his following went elsewhere.
Sure enough the fowler came back again a few days later, and first collecting them together by imitating the note of a quail, flung his net over them. Then said one quail, ” They say when you were at work lifting the net, the hair of your head fell off. Now’s your time; lift away.” The other rejoined, “When you were lifting the net, they say both your wings moulted. Now’s your time; lift away.” But whilst they were each inviting the other to lift the net, the fowler himself lifted the net for them and crammed them in a heap into his basket and bore them off’ home, so that his wife’s face was wreathed with smiles.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and shows an illustration of the Jungle Bush Quail from ‘The Birds of Asia (John Gould), Volume 7’ (published between 1850 and 1883). The book was produced by the famous ornithologist John Gould in collaboration with illustrator Henry Constantine Richter (both Englishmen).