The Story of Peeper

John and Bernardine Higinbotham lived at 14275 Saratoga Avenue during the 1930’s. Saratoga Creek was located behind the property and is a home to many varieties of wild life including California quail. The Higinbotham’s rescued an abandoned quail hatchling whom they named Peeper, a little fellow who became something of a local celebrity. The little bird lived with them for eight and a half years, traveling around the Western United States, receiving visitors and visiting the local elementary school. Peeper was born May 12, 1932 and died November 22, 1940.

This story of Peeper was published in 1936 by the Wright-Eley Press in San Jose, CA. We have transcribed this story to share with Saratoga bird lovers.


The Story of Peeper
by Bernardine Higinbotham

Part I

My name is Peeper. I am a California Valley Quail, and was born May 12, 1932 in Saratoga, California.

My foster mother says I am the most intelligent bird she has ever known; and that, I feel, is a complement for she places food under our oak tree and many wild birds come there to feed, so she has a splendid chance to judge birds.

This allusion to my intelligence gives me an idea. I have had many varied and interesting experiences for a quail who was born wild. Why not write my autobiography? I shall try somehow.

I was literally left on a door-step (maybe in the interest of truth, I should say, a little to one side of the step) one May morning.

California Valley Quail

The very first thing I remember was my real mother’s voice, soft and muffled, calling,” Hurry up, baby, and come out,” and it was my turn to roll out from under my mother’s warm feathers and begin to peck my way around the inside of my shell. While giving little taps here and there I could hear mother’s voice encouraging me gently.

I persistently worked until finally one half of the shell slid back off the half I was in, and I saw my mother, with some of my brothers and sisters who had arrived earlier, peeking from her feathers.

There was still the difficulty of freeing myself from my half shell, but I struggled valiantly and finally the deed was done, and I stepped forth in my little brown and tan fuzziness feeling a trifle weak, but extremely glad to be separated from the case in which I had been imprisoned for the last twenty-one days.

Next morning when I awoke we were still behind the geranium at the side of the door-step, and peeking out, I saw father pacing up and down the walk nearby, and heard for the first time his deep kindly voice. “It is high time we were leaving for the woods,” he was saying, “People will soon be astir and we must be away before any one comes out here.” Mother answered, “Yes dear, “ then rose and called to us children. “Come right along, come right along,” and started away from the nest with her seventeen youngsters tumbling about her feet.

Father led the way at a quick pace. I had scarcely taken three steps when I realized the trip was going to be dreadfully hard for me. My legs wobbled and I grew dizzy. I called to mother to please not go so fast, but in the confusion and chatter she evidently did not hear me. I called again faintly, but to no purpose for the family was out of sight.

I sat down exhausted and lonely. What a plight! Numbed with cold and grief-stricken at their desertion, what could I do?

All of a sudden something loomed above me, and I was gently lifted up and carried into a dark place, and a voice said, “Oh you poor little thing. Did your family desert you?” I began to wonder what happened, but soon fell asleep in a comfortable warmth.

Later I awoke to find myself among warm feathers, different from my mother’s yet very pleasing. I then found I was not poor little Orphan Annie any longer, but had a foster mother and father who were caring for me.

During the first three days of my life I ate nothing. After hatching, we babies do not eat for that length of time. My foster parents were much concerned, thinking I might starve. Three days passed and I began to feel hungry, and tried some of the soft stuff which had been placed in my box. It really tasted quite good. Then there was a small tin lid filled with water, which I also sampled. I then and there adopted my new parents.

The first time my mother took me out of my box, which was furnished with a featherduster and an electric light bulb for warmth, I felt so strong that I gave a jump from her hands and landed heavily on the floor. Live and learn! I should have waited until my wing feathers grew out to form a parachute for high jumps. Indeed it’s no fun to land on one’s nose from such a height. Just try it once. Thus ended my first week.

I was next placed on a table in the kitchen with a wire screen about eighteen inches high surrounding me and my sleeping quarters. I tried many times to jump over it and after a few days succeeded, only to find a screen placed over the top. That ended my fun.

However, from then on I had more freedom, and would run around the house at mother’s heels. It was rather dangerous. I had my toes stepped on several times, and once I very narrowly escaped complete annihilation under foot, but still lived to tell my tale.

One night I became entangled in the feather-duster, and by morning feathers were wrapped around my neck in such a way that mother had to use scissors to cut me loose. Instead of the duster, I was given a soft piece of wool for a bed. I must be born to trouble for I picked a long raveling from the wool, and began to chew it up. Mother screamed, “He’s swallowing it, “ and before she could snatch it away, I had gobbled it down. My parents were sure that would be my end, but I bobbed up serenely with no ill effects.

Who knows, maybe that piece of wool helped my feathers along, for soon after I felt wing feathers pinching through. Have you ever had that prickly sensation of coming feathers? Well, it’s terribly disagreeable. I used to try to assist their arrival by picking the itchy places, but every time I reached for my wing I would tumble over backwards, causing my parents much amusement. I reminded myself of one of those Mexican jumping beans.

I celebrated when two weeks old by receiving callers out on the lawn. I proudly pranced around with mother, while listening to the exclamations of praise for me.

One morning I looked over my shoulder and lo and behold! Two little feathers were visible on the part of my anatomy that is supposed to go over the fence last. I think mother was trying to tease me when she said the feathers were henna-colored. (I’m no female.) Anyhow the tail was on its way, and I hoped it would have a pleasant ending. Vain hopes! It was worse and much farther away than my wings. Many a tumble I had while trying to make both ends meet. I laugh now as I write about those early days, but they were no laughing matter then.

Mother always took me out several mornings a week when she worked in the garden, I was very fond of the lippia which formed the garden paths, but unfortunately the old honey bees liked its flowers, so my pleasure was somewhat spoiled, for the bees always seem to prefer the blossoms nearest my feeding place, and kept me dodging about.

Another thing which annoyed me greatly was the way birds inconsiderately flew over my unprotected head. I would jump under a tree or bush, if possible, but when caught in the open there was nothing to do but put my head way down and stick my tail straight up in the air, fondly hoping that the birds would think me a stick and do me no harm.

Mother and I sometimes had interesting games on the porch. She would crinkle up a small piece of paper, and I would seize it and run away, she trying to catch me, but I was always too quick for her.

I was one month old when I attained the dignity of a large white wire cage all my own, which still serves as my sleeping and eating quarters. It is fitted with cups for food and water and perches upon which to roost, although at first I was too little to sleep on the perch and had a soft pad of wool in one corner of the cage to lie on. Of course, I have long since discarded the pad in favor of the perch at night.

The cage now hangs most of the time in the kitchen window, where I can watch the birds feed and play under the oak tree. I do not spend many waking hours in the cage if mother is at home. I am always with her around the house or garden.

My baby feathers were at this time gradually being replaced by dark brown ones, with here and there a suggestion of white. I was delighted to be rid of those babyish brown and tan jumpers. My crest or top-knot feathers were on their way, too. I could feel them starting. One morning mother said, “ I do believe Peeper is going to have a top-knot and sure enough, little black feathers were visible and in the course of a few weeks, there it was! Alas, I crowed too soon; that one fell out, another took its place, which also shared the fate of the first; the third, however, had come to stay, and, as the children say was the best of all the game. At least it stayed until my moulting season arrived that fall.

One day a month or two later, I surprised my parents by giving our clan call of  “Come right home.” It was fun to see their astonishment. I have since learned that our eastern relatives have a call of “Bob White”. Some cousins or brothers or sisters maybe, call frequently out in the yard, and I see them often but I pay absolutely no attention to them or their cry. Why should I? They left me in the lurch. Besides, I have a much better time than they do. Three regular meals a day, and as much as I like between meals. No wet, stormy, cold days or nights in the woods, and then, too, there is the shooting season, when the poor wild quail cannot call their lives their own from one minute to the next.

Being a modest little bird, I think I shall draw my story to a close, and let mother tell something about me, and thus spare my blushes.

Part II

I Take Up The Story of Peeper

On a pleasant afternoon in May, 1932, my husband and I sat on our front porch and watched seventeen quail’s eggs hatch out in a nest at the corner of the steps.

I had been counting the days since lady quail had started covering her eggs, and this was the twenty-first day. Sure enough, true to form, about three o’clock thing started to happen. It was a curious and might interesting sight. The mother would begin to cluck softly, and out would roll a small egg; whether of its own volition or propelled by Mrs. Quail’s feet, we could not determine; but there it was and it continued to roll around. We could hear a faint pecking inside the shell, while the mother continued her soft crooning. In a few minutes one half of the shell slid back of the other and there appeared to our vision a dark little curled up affair of fuzz. This began to move and finally struggled free from the shell and stood up, revealing to us in all its brown and tan glory – a baby quail! Looking for all the world like a large sized bumble-bee, the small rascal jumped upon it’s mothers back and disappeared among her feathers. Mother then pushed the shell outside the nest, and lo and behold, the same process began over again with the same results, until all of the eggs were hatched. The dear little mother must have drawn a long, tired but happy breath as she felt all her babies snuggling among her feathers.

It was then six-thirty and we went in to dinner. The family was still there after dinner, and was evidently going to remain until morning. What happened the next morning Peeper has already related. The tiny mite I picked up that morning is now one of the family – and quite an important member too.

We call him Peeper because, from babyhood, he has peeped or chattered when he is awake, most of the time, expressing his likes or dislikes. He always answers when he is talked to and is especially loquacious with visitors.

He has learned to ride with us in the automobile and sits on the back of the seat and makes comments on passing cars and pedestrians. When we leave the car, he perches on my wrist and keeps lookout for women and children, of whom he is very fond. When he spies a likely victim, he calls, “Come right here,” several times.

We found that Peeper also likes train travel, when we took him to Kansas and back last May – a journey of 4,000 miles. He enjoyed it all, especially going into the diner where he was the center of attention for both waiters and guests.

He fears no one. One day a bus load of thirty students from the San Jose State Teachers College crowded into our driveway to call on Peeper and the little fellow jumped from hand to hand, playing no favorites.

This small quail enjoys company. If in the house and the doorbell rings, he rushes away to the door to greet the visitor with his little call and friendly way. If out in the garden with me, and an auto stops at our place, he is off like a shot for the gate to investigate, and say, “Come right in, come right in,” for he is hospitality personified. He cares nothing for his own tribe – never calls or pays the slightest attention to them. He loves only humans. This curious little fellow eats when we do, three times a day, and scarcely anything between meals. He hops on the table and helps himself to what ever he wishes. Some favorite dishes are – boiled potatoes, hard-boiled egg, beans, bread, butter, cottage cheese, applesauce, plum jam, walnuts, cream of wheat, corn flakes, oranges and grapefruit. For greens he eats chickweed, grass, lippia and lettuce – besides several kinds of seed.

Of course he only takes small nips, and always knows when he has had enough, and cannot be tempted past that point. Many humans might learn a lesson from him in that respect.

Peeper’s siestas are usually taken on my lap. When I am knitting, sewing or reading, and he gets tired, he jumps up and scratches around with his little feet on my dress before settling down to sleep. The scratching is one of the instincts of wild life, I presume. Sometimes he tucks his head under his wing, but more often he lies on his side to sleep.

This bird is very sensitive to color and discriminates between my dresses. Some shades of blue he does not like, and registers his dislike in no uncertain terms by scolding and nipping my wrists. He is fond of browns, greens, yellows, and a few shades of pink. His preference is manifested by cooing and running around me.

If your shoes are brown and white he is fascinated by them and goes round and round them playing with the strings, if any, and pecking at the shoes.

While on the subject of diet, I forgot to say that Peeper is most certainly a milk fed quail. We take raw Jersey milk twice a day between meals and Peeper would feel neglected if he was not invited to take his three or four sips out of a glass. He has also an extreme fondness for cream. At breakfast and lunch he walks up to the cream pitcher and waits for a spoon to be dipped in, so he may take a sip or two.

This little bunch of feathers weighs only eight ounces and has been perfectly healthy except for one time. This is what happened then; out in the garden one day I stepped on a honey bee, and Peeper immediately gobbled it down. I thought, if he is so fond of them, why not give him another one or two? Four more were consumed. This was when he was a baby and evidently did not know when to stop. I went on working with the flowers and when next I looked around, Peeper was standing on one foot, feathers all puffed out and eyes closed. I picked him up and for two hours he sat on my lap and never moved. He recovered and was as well as ever but has never eaten one honey bee since.

There is scarcely a minute, when out of the cage, that he is not following me around the house or yard, if I go into the next room and close the door, shutting him out, he stands patiently at the door calling to me until I return.

Quail must be frolicsome in their wild state for Peeper is full of play. He runs from one side to another under a chair playing peek-a-boo, crouching with head down and tail straight up until I jump at him, them he goes to the other side.

There are many little tricks with which this pet of ours entertains us, but he really should be seen to be thoroughly appreciated  - “seen in person” as they say of movie stars.

He is not a trained quail, only a tame one, but such a dear, gentle trusting little thing that no one could help loving him – so, here’s to Peeper, prince of Quails. Long may he live!

Peeper was a born traveler and took many trips with his parents. Here is a list of his motor trips with the number of miles Peeper traveled.

1936 1937 1938
Kansas and back by train. 4000 mi. Death Valley 1860 mi. Bryce and Zion Canyons 2593 mi.
    Carmel 299 mi. Mt. Lassen 898 mi.
    Pinnacles 140 mi. Carmel (2nd trip) 260 mi.
    Yosemite 544 mi. Sonora Pass 508 mi.
    Santa Cruz 161 mi. California - Oregon - Nevada - Utah - Arizona - New Mexico - Texas  
    Crater Lake 1240 mi.    
    Tahoe 574 mi.    
    Ft. Bragg 524 mi.    
    Carlsbad Caverns 3083 mi.    
    Feather River 557 mi.    
    Yosemite (2nd trip) 430 mi.    

Higinbotham, Bernadine The Story of Peeper. 1936, Wright-Eley Printing, San Jose, CA.
News clippings from the Archives of the Saratoga Historical Foundation.
April Halberstadt, April 2006
All rights reserved.

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