In the backyard, they could have been a pack of politicians scratching and pecking at some sort of campaign aimed at filling their ballot bellies. They were birds of a feather, Francolinus pondicerianus.
At certain times of the year, flocks of gray francolins roam the pastures and lawns of Kula. They seem to like the area around the house, particularly the area where dry cat food is always available. The cats ignore them. The ground-grazing birds have sharp faces and can take wing in an instant.
This was a flock of seven working an area of dry grass within feet of the house. There was a boss bird and a bodyguard bird. The boss bird led the flock. The bodyguard bird stood on the fringe, carefully scanning the area for anything that might be a danger.
With the bodyguard on duty, the others worked head down, intent on finding seeds. A couple of the birds apparently detected something delectable under the top mat of cut grass. They would peck and then scratch furiously.
Usually, just showing up at a window is enough to send them off. All it takes is the bodyguard spotting a threat and taking wing. The others follow for short flights on rounded wings much like the British Spitfire fighters of World War II.
One morning, the flock was lined up on the crossbar of the clothesline. All faced in one direction. The array made a kind of family portrait, a charming photograph. It was not to be. Retreat to the interior of the house to get the camera. Return as quietly as possible. Raise the camera. The flock immediately took off.
This time, the window was above their line of sight. Stand still to watch. Forget the camera. Bodyguard bird ignored eating, swiveling its head and body 360 degrees. On the job. The boss bird decided to roam. He, maybe she, walked off toward a concrete pad in front of a shed.
The others followed in single file. The bodyguard stayed on duty while the others paraded. As usual, there was one tail-end Charlie, intent on grubbing out another beakful. There were five birds walking away. Charlie suddenly realized he was in danger of being left behind. He scrambled to catch up. Bodyguard bird watched and took up station in the rear as the flock disappeared behind the shed.
A characteristic of this 1958 immigrant from India is to raise a barrage of noise when it's alone. They are raucous enough to wake the uninitiated out of sound sleep. Heard often enough, the cacophony can be ignored.
Francolins appear to be family oriented. One afternoon, a pair of adults were tending a clutch of juveniles just barely beyond the fluff-balls-on-toothpicks stage. Baby Black was eyeing the chicks. The parent birds chuckled quietly and walked into the cat's line of vision and off to high grass beneath a peach tree. The chicks got the message and scampered off into tunnels under an overgrown field. Baby Black wandered back around the house. The parent birds chuckled. The chicks came out of their hiding places and resumed eating their way across the scrubby yard.
On rare occasions, a flock of francolins would march across the front lawn, working their way down to the cat-food station and plates of leftovers. They, along with a detail of doves, would clean the plates. The doves and a few mouthy mynahs are regulars. Sated cats will lie motionless while the birds surround them. A few weeks ago, you could see momma francolins leading chicks across the road.
Usually, most follow. A tail-end Charlie would act confused and bolt to the opposite side of the asphalt. A few days later, you might see a momma with one or two fewer chicks in tow.
The easiest way to identify francolins is by the noise. The adults are about a foot long with brown feathers arranged in vertical stripes. They have reddish brown legs. According to the Hawaii Audubon Society, Francolinus pondicerianus "favors dry, open grass and shrubby habitat and coastal kiawe forest."
Development in Kihei has driven the birds up the mountain. "You used to hear them all the time," said an old-timer living on Halama Street. "Not so much since they built the Kihei Library."
Francolins - and politicians - tend to avoid hubbub as much as possible while making a great deal of noise. Too bad the politicos don't have wings. Or do they?
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.