A year has passed. The quail house is still empty. After a hard winter, the garden is frozen – a half-finished greenhouse now huddled under tarpaulin on what the wet summer has left of the lawn. But in the kitchen, in the warmth, cress is sprouting. The TV news may still be wall-to-wall snow drifts, but the vernal equinox has been passed. Beyond the french windows, a blue tit, two blackbirds, three wood pigeons and a jay are squabbling over a fatball. The fox has reappeared. Easter is only days away.
Spring is springing. The quail are calling.
The fox struck in the night. Perspex clawed off, pegs chewed up, brand new stiff sliding door shoved open by a muddy nose. Poor Emmet, trapped by the insulation put in to protect her against the cold – how long did it take? She had only just gone outside again yesterday morning after a restive week in the loft, pacing the cat basket while the freezing nights passed over.
There’s no sign of blood. Not even a feather, just a great, triumphant dollop of smelly fox poo by the gaping doorway.
And now I am no longer a keeper of quail. I never thought the adventure would end like this… Sorry Emmet
The sixth quail died this week: Tom – last of the Tom, Dick and Harrys – popped off peacefully in the catbasket in the sickbay, aged three and a half. Ripe old age for a coturnix.
Now, only Emmet is left, ribbetting mournfully in her retirement bungalow by the back door. On very cold nights a microwavable petbed offers small comfort, but otherwise she huddles alone in the extra straw, a princess-on-a-pea balanced on layers of cardboard, peering out at the wintry garden from behind her clear plastic windbreak and extra bubblewrap. There are sunsets, and moonlit nights, daily visits from the hand bringing food and clean water – even occasionally new dandelion leaves, but mainly emptiness. This is no life for a quail. She belongs in a flock, but a new flock would bully her.
Luckily, Bantam neighbour has offered temporary respite. When the weather gets warmer Emmet will move (winter palace and all) two gardens down, into the hen run, where she can lean on her zimmerframe and watch the antics of the six survivors there through her picture windows.
Poor old soul. It’s not as if I can park her in front of the telly and turn up the sound. Will she lay again this year? The days are getting longer already, 8 hours 35 minutes and counting. Will she live to see the spring equinox? Or will she die of boredom.
The quail are old, and cold. It is more than three years since the little flock moved into their first converted rabbit hutch in our weeny London garden.
There were seven of them in those days; seven indistinguishable little brown birds peeping coyly out from under an ankle-deep layer of straw. At dusk they would refuse to go to bed but huddled in a sleepy row at the wire in the run to watch the family soap opera playing out in glorious technicolor at full volume beyond the lighted french windows.
That first quail house and run was a thing of beauty – fox-proof, football-proof, quadruple insulated and weatherproofed in tasteful aquamarine bird-friendly low-emission paint. It had perspex glazing and a tailored tarp cover. It would have withstood a tank assault, never mind ping-pong balls and visiting hordes of teenagers high on their own hormones. The quail loved it. Sadly, it lasted barely a season before being put out on the street. Animal husbandry lesson number one: knee-high housing is hard on the knees.
Quail house Mark II rose in a patch of shade at the end of the garden, big enough to stand and sit in, easier to muck out – and it turned out, wildly popular with every damn mouse for miles around. When they weren’t tunnelling in, they were raising rodent nations in the lagging in the walls and roof, commuting up and down the water hopper rope for supplies. The quail didn’t mind. It staved off the boredom as the teens grew up, went ”out” and the kitchen sink drama became more Waiting for Godot.
But the main problem was the cold: dappled summer shade turned ice-box in winter. Despite (or possibly because of) lagging, double-glazing and mountains of straw and cardboard the temperature inside QII remained resolutely 6 degrees colder than the outside air, even in a blizzard. The quail were OK, but I was a nervous wreck watching the thermometer in their run plummet and the water freeze. “Quail like 16C-23C”, advised the book, pointedly. Hmm.
Heating was what was needed. (“They’re birds, for heavens sake,” hissed Himself, preparing to repel boarders from his nice warm kitchen. “Birds. As in outside.”) Pet shops don’t do heating, it transpires. And garden centres, which do, don’t do greenhouse heaters suitable for occupants that get out of their pots and fly about. Also, there was no power point. A solar lamp on the roof kept the cats amused briefly, but LED lights don’t give off enough heat to warm a mouseling much less five (by then) very cold quail. For a while I crunched across the frozen lawn with a hotwater bottle, which the quail quite liked – until junior teen plaintively demanded it back. And I never got the hang of the microwaveable cushion thing several readers recommended. Then there was the mini indoor compost heap constructed from stacked Celebrations tubs, which appeared to raise the mercury 3C (!triumph), until I twigged that the main heat generator was me – lugging in my daily bucket of kitchen scraps and lingering for a chat. The little heap itself never got going, even the worms needed mufflers.
So it was clanking home with a shopping bag full of empty coke tins for a DIY solar-powered hot air convector design found on the internet (don’t ask …) that commonsense finally struck.
QIII is now nearing completion – a bona fide solar-heated winter palace for the last two surviving quail. A retirement bungalow in the sun. Lagged, windproofed and portable enough to FOLLOW THE SUN ROUND THE GARDEN.
And the empty run? Well, if anyone knows of a couple of ex-battery hens looking for a home in south-east London, I might be in the market…
Today is the longest day, and yesterday two of the quail were found dead in their run. Harass and Oeuf. Harass was still warm, stretched out in a comfy hollow in the grit. Lost in eternal dust bathing. There was no blood.
Oeuf too lay at peace, further back, out of the sun. I don’t think her death was as easy – she was very thin, but then she had had two months beyond her span. Maybe I should have wrung her neck way back in April, when she first lost the use of one leg, but she seemed perfectly happy hopping about on one wing. The others didn’t bully her. She groomed the bits she could reach and I bathed her bum, which she couldn’t. Perhaps she wasn’t eating the dandelions and lettuce I threw in beside her. But she was drinking and calm. I let her be.
All the books say hen quail don’t live that long, two years is average. These were a month short of three years old. Geriatric. Between them they’ve laid me nearly 2,000 eggs. It is time to stop. (Even Katie Thear has died since I started this experiment armed only with her excellent guide. Thank you, Katie. I couldn’t have done it without you and all the other sage coturnixers.) Now there’s only Emmet and Tom left – calling sadly at the bottom of the garden.
The hutch looks horribly empty. “We are seven…” as the poet said.
Do I start again?
The bee man is charming, quite mad – but charming. He arrives with a water cooler bottle strapped to an extendable pole, a cardboard box and a bit of net, casually swatting bees off his ears without bothering to pull on his suit. Yup, a second swarm has turned up. Apparently it’s peak touring season for bees, (a bit like Parisians in August…) This lot have draped themselves around a branch over the quail house. The quail are in a row at the wire, on tiptoe, peering up; nosy but unperturbed.
The noise was deafening when the bees arrived. Bantam Neighbour away again, of course. Sputtering texts ping in from France. By the time I’ve nipped round to her house, checked they aren’t hers and plundered her addressbook for the bee buddies’ numbers the swarm has settled in the appletree and the quail have gone back to sleep – except Harass, still standing on her breeze block, determined not to miss a thing.
Good job someone was on the ball – by the time I’d opened the camera, the beeman had nonchalantly knocked the bees out of the tree and was sitting out of range of the angry cloud, quietly drinking coffee and picking strays off his knees. For the next hour or so he repeated the process, passing the time in the sunshine with tales of other London bees, including the ones in the various royal palaces and gardens. (Appropriately, the Queen has bees, but Charles isn’t keen, he says.)
Bees turn up on high rise balconies, down chimneys and even in the Tower of London. (“As we came down a ladder after hours smoking them out, two American tourists passed, saying ’Can’t you just smell that London smog?’…”)
On the upturned box in among the peonies, a row of bees are now aligned head down, bums up, signalling to the stragglers overhead that this is home. There are only about fifty diehards left in the tree. Some of the others have settled happily to work again, arriving back at the box with tiny saddlebags of pollen.
By teatime the beemen are gone, the box of peacefully seething bees now tied up with the net like some exotic party favour and shoved on the back seat with them. I hand over half a dozen quail eggs (52 so far, thank you for asking).
In the kitchen, a single lost bee buzzes crossly at the windows. The cat gets stung. Ho hum.
Bantam Neighbour’s bees have swarmed. There’s a deafening buzz in late afternoon and beyond the fence a twister rises up, a whirling vortex of tiny bodies and beating wings. It is all over in ten minutes. They don’t go far, just into an overhanging lime tree. But 12 hours and a thunderstorm later there they still are, a gently heaving brown poultice along a forked branch – 50ft up. Now what?
Bantam Neighbour, contacted by phone, is incredulous. ”I only split them two days ago… are you sure they’re mine?” She’s also slightly miffed to miss all the fun, again. However, there’s 40,000 bees on the loose and Mrs Nextdoor’s having conniptions, so er, will I just be a doll and pop round? With something large and white to lure them back down? There’s an empty hive handy, leaking honey by the compost bin, go and make a landing strip. Empty frames under the stairs. Crown board in the shed …
A what board? Where are the bee buddies when you need them? Gingerly, I zip myself into the pastel bee suit and stomp off trailing an old bedspread to see what can be done. I’ve never flown solo before.
In Bantam Neighbour’s garden all is quiet. The dog fawns, the hens jostle at the gate, the tortoise sneaks into the house for a wee the moment my back’s turned and the bees from the remaining hive pile out enthusiastically to promenade up and down the gleaming white sheet even before I’ve finished spreading it – but the swarm high overhead stays put.
And now we wait. This could take days. There is no plan B.