Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Archive for the ‘composting’ Category

Quail diary – 100. Rites of spring III

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Quail standing on her own toes

Quail standing on her own toes - Harass inspects the spring cleaning

No eggs. Five days before the equinox and still only 7C in the quail house. Spring. Hmm. The garden is grey, except for a handful of hardy daffs huddled together for warmth, and the quail are back in their woolly vests. They stare balefully up out of the thick straw as the boots arrive each morning and sneer as as the cacky bedding is prodded hopefully. Nope, no eggs.

Sometimes it is hard to tell. Quail don’t do nests, but they do do hiding. Their eggs turn up in the oddest places – even, it transpires, in the compost bin.

When gardening resumed last week (well, napalming and muckspreading so far), there it was, small and perfectly preserved in the chocolately new loam: our very own thousand-year-old egg, gently pickled in sawdust, quail poo and kitchen waste. Heaven only knows when it was laid and lost. Possibly two years ago. Certainly more than the recommended 100 days. They are supposed to be a delicacy – “rich, pungent and cheese-like” with green yolk and the creamy texture of a ripe avocado … Errr. I resisted the temptation. Sorry, Oeuf.

Quail dustbathing

Quail dustbathing - vigorously, in oyster grit

Meanwhile, the quail house floor briefly reemerged from under three months’ sediment of damp cardboard and crusty straw. (“Ah, the deep litter system,” nods Bantam Neighbour, sagely. Really? It’s a system? I thought it was just squalid animal husbandry – piling clean straw on old in the name of insulation. Can I pass off the rest of my housekeeping as deep litter too?)

The quail were delighted to see the earth again, hurling themselves into their fresh oystershell grit in a blur of joyous dustbathing, tossing the new season’s dandelions around. But it didn’t last, and the straw went down again. Too cold.

Daylight is up to 11 hours 52 minutes – but the quail aren’t fooled. They laid on the 14th in their first year, but not until 30th March last year. They peer pityingly through the perspex at the blackbird, beak Belisha orange with hormones, rushing about the lawn dragging up worms. “Whatevers”.

Easter is late this year, and after three months surfing on straw the quail have overlong pooey claws they can barely walk on. Time for a trim. Don’t tell Himself but I’ve got my eyes on his nail clippers. Perfect. Oh, the joys of spring. And the mice are back…


Quail diary – 96. Honey, you’re home

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It’s nearly autumn, the garden is groaning with fruit, the quail are starting to put their feet up, and the house is full of “thank you” gifts after a busy summer: flowers and biscuits, books, and honey – rich, delicious clear golden honey, redolent of foxgloves and lavender. Oh, yes. Bantam Neighbour’s weeny bees have come up trumps. Slurp.

And only £100 a pot, she reckons. After two years and £3,000. Even her runner beans cost £500, in gap-year grandson labour and squirrel-proofing. Our stack cost a packet of twine and an afternoon digging a trench for the mountains of uncomposted quail bedding and kitchen waste. The surplus (veg, rather than assorted whiffy crap) has been going out on the garden wall, by the armful. Unfortunately, however, the rocket-fuelled beans strangled the tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines, the lettuces bolted into the raspberries, and unripe windfall apples flattened the potato tyre so we only got nine puny apologies for spuds.

It’s self-sufficiency, Jim, but not as we know it. Have a £5 quail egg…

Quail diary – 71. Lay, lady, lay

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The quail in winter - view from inside the plastic yurt

The quail in winter - view from inside the plastic yurt

The baby mice under the quail hutch have grown up and vanished. Probably into the roof. The last one, slower than the rest when Junior Teen cautiously lifted the hutch for a peek, allowed himself to be scooped up and gently warmed in the hollow of her hand. He liked it so much he began to wash his face, eventually transferring to her shoulder for a better view.  Ahhh. No camera handy, of course.

She was quite put out two days later, when her finger was nipped as she stuck it into a small tunnel in the earth floor. So much for the entente cordiale. The snow’s melted. It’s now every man (and mouse) for himself again. Let the daily stamping down of the holes re-commence.

Gammy cat, stir-crazy after three months confined to the kitchen with a steel pin up one leg, is spending his rehab pressed to the quail house door – nose glued to perspex, twitching. It is noticeable that he doesn’t climb on the roof any more, but he wants his mouse. At least, I hope it’s the mice he’s after. Accidentally let the wire flop open yesterday, and turned to find a pair of manic yellow eyes in the doorway, fixed on the quail.

So, £700 invested in vet bills and he a) kills one of the quail, or b) kills the baby mice we saved from a fate worse than … Hmm. I can see I may not have thought this one through quite rigorously enough.

Still no quail eggs. Daylight: 8 hours 54 mins, and counting. Temperature in run: 0C. Temperature in mini anaerobic digester – taken with rectal thermometer strapped to wooden spoon: 34C (shurely shome mistake?). Oeuf still has a dung ball on one toe and Glenda’s looking bedraggled, but millet seedlings are sprouting round the water hopper again and the urge to get out and dig the garden is mounting. Hark, the compost heaps are calling. Spring, here we come.

Quail diary – 66. In the bleak midwinter

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Quail in winter. Oeuf in straw and cylinder jacket

Quail in winter. Oeuf in straw and cylinder jacket

8am sunrise and it’s 5C inside and outside the quail house – though another icy blast is forecast for New Year’s eve. The quail are in good feather, plump and calm inside their plastic yurt; a stack of bright eyes peeping round their compost bin, ribbeting conversationally, occasionally even dustbathing.

Five days it’s taken, during the coldest winter week London has had for 25 years; hour after hour, squatting inside the wire behind a rampart of ice stilettoes, pinning up perspex and plastic bags, fiddling about in the straw for dropped screws and drawing pins, all the while radiating bodyheat. The quail love me. Fluffed out like pom-poms against the cold, they chirped and chuntered at my feet – leaning confidingly against the warm rubber whenever the wellies stood still long enough.

Once, the wellies stood still for so long that a mouse popped up between them. A straw twitched under the hutch, and a tiny nose appeared, followed by outsize pink ears and a sleek little body no longer than a child’s finger. The infant – for it clearly was a very young mouse indeed – leaped for the exit up the wire (designed to keep interlopers out) only to ricochet off the new internal sheet glazing. Baffled, it tried again, resulting in a dizzying backflip, before reeling back under the hutch, stunned. The boots never budged. (“What? You didn’t stamp on it?” said Toothless Granny, who was over for Christmas.) No. What a wuss…

However, no good deed goes unpunished. Each day the drafts were driven back, and each day the first sound of wellies crunching across the frozen grass had the quail queuing to snuggle up, until finally the job was done: lagged, double-glazed, sheeted. The cold was shut out.

And like the MR James ghost story, as I pinned in the last pin, a “thin voice from among the bed curtains said ‘Now we’re shut in for the night’ …” Yup, I’ve only gone and trapped the mouse on the inside.

Quail diary – 62. A short tail

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The quail's mouse - bypassing all my fortifications by trotting up the wire and in through the roof.

The mouse - calmly bypassing all my brick fortifications, under the plastic lagging

Pesky mouse. The quail run is like a construction site. Think Tailor of Gloucester with shovels. Every morning I stomp down the garden like the slippered legs from Tom & Jerry, chuck a few frying pans about and stamp shut the holes – and within hours the little beast is back, tucked up under the hutch again and the millet treats have vanished, stalk and all.

Actually, the quail don’t seem that bothered. Hungry, but not bovvered. They’re laying three eggs a week – despite the cold and the dark and the lack of dandelions. Perhaps they enjoy the action.  Outside, the rain pours down.

Under the eaves, dry inside the plastic, the growing mouse family trots along the joists and dangles from the organic seaweed mix weighing down the roof against the gales. They leave jeering little calling cards Houdini-like in tins and tubs. I looked up to find one watching me the other morning. A very young, very stupid one, admittedly, with big feet and tiny open bottom – pooping all over the wire when he realised he couldn’t remember the way out. Did I kill him? Don’t be silly.

Junior Teen feels a proprietorial interest. She reckons the mouse is the great-great-great (forty greats) grandson of the big eared, bug-eyed baby mouse she caught in our living room two years ago and released where the quail run now stands. “I feel responsible,” she says. She’s calling him Fred.

Drop dead, Fred.

Quail diary – 60. Either a Borrower or a mender be*

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The birds, the birds ... starlings gather to head south

The birds, the birds ... starlings gather to head south

The starlings have flown, thousands of them together. It was all very Hitchcock. One minute the great old London limes behind the gardens were black with twittering, fluttering bodies, as if all the leaves had grown back, and the next – silence – and they’d lifted off en masse into a dense thumb smear across the sky. Playtime at the school in the next street was suddenly audible again.

The quail and I just watched them go. Quail are migratory birds, too, though it’s hard to imagine this bunch soaring across Asia. Flight for Harass, Glenda, Emmet et al seems to involve an explosion of feathers and head over heels impact into the nearest hard object, whether roof (now padded) or garden fence, on the rare occasions  when one of them has got out. Only Nugget ever showed signs of wanderlust, skulking by the door as I stepped in and out. Or maybe they’ve been biding their time, plotting their breakout like prisoners in Colditz, and one day I’ll be found laid out cold in the guano, gagged with feathers, beside a trail of muddy quail prints heading south.

Poor little quail. Doomed to incarceration, and winter.

Still, they now have their own potential heat source, a mini compost heap made of stacked red plastic Celebrations tubs with the bottoms knocked out – left over from the tide of Hallowe’en trick-or-treaters. It stands in the corner like the iron pipe stoves you used to see on narrowboats, with space for the birds to huddle round when the weather gets really cold (and a stout wire base to stop the mice tunnelling in). At last, we can compost the kitchen scraps again.

As I carry my creation out to the garden, Senior Teen appears, in a trail of lights and left-on electrical appliances, to wash her hands under a running tap and overfill the kettle. She casts a pitying glance at the hacked plastic debris, hugs me and wanders off back to her parallel universe muttering something about “Borrowers“.

Actually, I see myself more as a Baldrick. This is a cunning plan. Just add worms and retire.


*With apologies to William Shakespeare

Quail diary – 59. Hot stuff

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Quail in a huddle against their duvet walls

Quail in a huddle against their duvet walls

It’s cold. The quail are permanently fluffed up, huddled against their duvet jacket walls like a pile of brown pom-poms. The temperature in the run is 7C just after sunrise, well outside their comfort zone, even under two layers of plastic, but someone is still laying. Three eggs last week – 769, 770 and 771, even though daylight is down to eight and a half hours. Glenda has taken up residence in the terracotta pot.  Time to put in some more pots.

The mice are firmly in residence too, notwithstanding my best efforts. A muck out yesterday revealed two sets of holes, a snug nest and a whole crop of stolen seed that’s sprouted in the dark under the hutch. If it’s hemp we could be in trouble from the drugs squad. Meanwhile, where the mice can get in, the rats will follow. Already the ground behind the run is going soft. I stamp daily, but something is tunnelling closer…

So much for the kittens’  killer instincts. Feral, my foot. Nine months and not a single corpse. The expensive new cat flap extrudes them into the garden like toothpaste – but they ooze back at the sound of a kettle and spend their days playing dead on the sofa, growing ever bigger. To cap it all three weeks ago one of them fell off the quail hutch and broke a leg. Multiple fracture. Steel pin. Two operations. Cage in the kitchen for three months. Six hundred and fifty quid and counting, and no, we don’t have pet insurance. Thanks for asking.

With Gammy stuck in the kitchen, yowling in protest, the only quiet spot in the house is the hutch. It may be cold, but it’s quiet. Oh, so soothingly quiet. Just the rustle of small 6oz birds, sitting on my wellies to keep their feet warm. They quite like my visits – my bulk (400 times theirs…) raises the ambient temperature. Really, the thermometer cannot lie. Five foot nothing and I’ve never felt so fat in my life.

Winter is coming. Bantam neighbour’s cute Italian bees are silent, the tortoise has gone to bed. The fox cub has grown up and learned the wisdom of remaining out of camera shot – though it still shrieks at night and leaves dollops of smelly poo and chewed ping-pong balls on the grass. The robin is single again.

Out in the quail run an idea has pushed its way up through the dung and damp straw and crawled out from under the hutch like one of the mice’s leggy seedlings. How about building the quail their own compost heap, inside the fortifications? Never mind the solar lighting, with its chilly LED bulbs. Fermenting compost generates heat. Even a degree or two of warmth at night would make the quail happier. I can flatten the current rat refuge. And I wouldn’t have to dig out and trundle round the resulting compost – it can be spread around the run. Genius.

Quick. Has anyone out there tried this? Please advise.

Oh, and would whoever is googling us on the search term “black teen dick” please stop. The quail appreciate the hits (nearly 5,000), but you, my friend, are doomed to disappointment…