Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

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Quail diary – 108. The End

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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

 

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Quail diary – 107. And then there was one …

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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.

Quail diary – 106. Solar heating for bird brains

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Quail huddled in straw

Quail - the survivors, Tom and Emmet

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.

Quail house mark I - down and dirty, serious design flaw

Quail house mark I - down and dirty, serious design flaw

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 - big enough to stand in, nicely shaded

Quail house mark II - big enough to stand in, nicely shaded

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.

Quail house III - clear plastic (mouse-deterrent) lift up roof, triple insulated

Quail house III - clear plastic (mouse-deterrent) lift up roof, triple insulated, made of bits of kitchen floor, boiler lagging, shed felt and broken wardrobe

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.

Simples …

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…

Quail diary – 104. The swarm II

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Quail house and overhanging swarm of bees

Quail house and overhanging swarm of bees - see arrow

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?’…”)

Signalling bees close up

Bees - signalling.

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.

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 – 99. Green shoots of something

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quail in straw

Quail, surfing the straw

Marooned at the bottom of the garden, the quail are quiet. For weeks I haven’t bothered mucking them out, just throwing down new cardboard and fresh bedding against the cold until they are now left bobbing about on the thick straw floor like plastic ducks in a bath, sometimes on top, sometimes underneath. You have to watch where you put your wellies. From under the mounds, a row of beady eyes peeps out. The quail don’t budge, but they seem genteelly pleased to have a visitor.

Dear little old toughs. They are two and a half now, borderline geriatric for quail apparently, and the big question is: will they lay again? And what to do if they don’t? Although if they survive till Easter in this weather it’s probably only their hot flushes keeping them warm.

Cold quail (two, actually) resorting reluctantly to hutch

Cold quail (two, actually) resorting reluctantly to lagged hutch inside lagged, roofed run

After all my frenzied lagging, it is actually colder inside the run than out; the shiny silver radiator foil is dull with condensation, perforated here and there by tiny beaks sipping the runoff. But my visits send the thermometer soaring at least 3 degrees (urgh), and Harass is always curious to know what I’m up to.

Life has been rather passing the quail by since the snow. The thick double layers of greenhouse plastic across their windows block out the drafts but reduce the view beyond to wire to a Plato’esque blur. There is a mouse, which climbed down the tinsel and baubles put up by Junior Teen. But I’ve offered only token pursuit. Heck, it was Christmas. Time to redirect those murderous impulses…

Quail in straw

Quail, on watch

But now it is January and in the floor by the quail’s water hopper scattered seeds are sprouting again, the first signs of spring in the whole dead garden.  Green shoots of millet poke valiantly through the cacky bedding, stretching to the growing light. (Memo to self: next year try planting the bulbs inside the run – out of reach of foraging squirrels. Our garden borders are a quarried wasteland of little spoil heaps, where the tulips and daffs used to be, and even the iris rhizomes have toothmarks.) Still, the longest night was three weeks ago. Days are getting longer again: eight hours, 14 minutes and counting.

Garden centres beckon.

Quail diary – 98. Cold comforts

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Quail in winter, London 2010

Quail in winter, London 2010

The quail have a hot water bottle. (“Not mine?” wails Junior Teen. Err, yes. The other one is under a snow drift in Aberdeen.) After weeks fiddling about with empty coke cans and plans for DIY solar hot air convectors found on the internet, snow has stopped all further play at heating the unwired quail house. The quail peer reproachfully out at me from the knee-high haystack that is now their home, snuggled confidingly against the silver foil walls behind the plastic double-glazing. The book says they like 16C. Hmm. Not.

Discouragingly, after all my lagging, the thermometer reveals it is now three degrees colder inside the quail house than out. Shurely shome mishtake? The solar panel is a white blob on the roof. And still they huddle behind the hutch, rather than in it. Quail really, really don’t like a lid.

So back I go across the crunchy grass with another hot water bottle. They’re on three a day. A row of little black eyes blinks happily. I imagine them rolling about on it like a heated waterbed, shrieking and waving their skinny legs about.

Quail hutch in snow

Quail hutch in snow, insulated and double glazed

“You could wrap them individually in baco foil and I’ll find somewhere snug to warm them up…” pipes Chris P Byrd, hopefully. Gerroff my quail. Poor little old toughs, this is probably their last winter. They are two and a half now. On the plus side, the mice have given up and moved out. Too damn cold. Roll on April.