Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

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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…

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Quail Diary – 89. Cherry ripe

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The cherry tree - a very good year

The cherry tree - a very good year

The cherry tree is crimson with lush ripe cherries, its spindly branches bowed by the plump bounty like a child proudly staggering under heavy shopping bags. The cherries are delicious, mouthwatering, and we’ve never had this many before. Usually the pigeons take them before I realise they’re ripe. So what’s made the difference this year? Was it the cats, finally earning their keep on the shed roof? Or the bees, humming busily in their hives beyond the fence? Or have I simply not noticed the little tree growing up? There’s a lot of it about. Even Weeny Teen now has a job, sitting other people’s babies.

Cherries, apples, raspberries, black currants, tomatoes, beans, olives: the tiny garden is bulging with goodies. The pollinators are being wiped out, the papers say. Well, not here, they’re not. From the slender foxgloves comes the puzzled buzz of fat bumblebees too broad to turn round inside the flower. In the tangle of creeper along the fence, every blossom has its own furry bottom. Bantam Neighbour’s little Italian jobs don’t bother with us, they’ve enough choice in their own garden. These are visiting bees.

In the hives, nectar and pollen are being banked for winter. Yup, yesterday was the longest day. Break out that toboggan. Only 185 shopping days till Christmas …

In the quail house, the worm has turned. After months politely ignoring the intrusion, looking the other way while generations of mice weaned on stolen layers’ pellets (?) swing from the rafters and scamper up and down sheer walls (how do they do that?) the quail are striking back. Those beaks are sharp, but the mice are shameless.

The cat - transfixed

The cat - transfixed

These days mucking out the quail house involves ploughing up the earth floor to find the spun straw balls of mouse nests in the network of tunnels beneath. Cute little black eyes watch as you dig, popping up at your feet and running round until they find a way out. It drives the cats demented. They hurl themselves at the wire and crash on and off the roof in pursuit. The quail look on with restrained interest.

The other day a very young mouse lost its grip on the ceiling and trapped itself in an upturned pot. I took it to the park, lugging the pot through the rain, and watched it scamper off along the river bank (mouse, not pot).

Two down.

The mouse - legging it

The mouse - legging it. (How do they do that?)

The quail - unimpressed

The quail - politely unimpressed

Quail diary – 85. Plan bee

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Bees swarming, lining the fence

Bees swarming, lining the fence

The bees swarmed just after 10am. The noise was deafening, even in the quail house. By the time the camera had been fetched, the air was black with tiny bodies and beating wings – thousands of them, spiralling out across the gardens, like a living tornado whirling round and round above our shed. “It’s centred on us,” said Himself, horrified. It was an amazing sight. I stood in the buzzing storm and clicked away, unmolested.

They began to settle after about half an hour, in heavy drifts across the honeysuckle and warm shed roof, bowing down the branches with their combined weight, lining the fence like a tiny straggling bus queue. And there they stayed. Hours later, little drunken bees were still wandering about, dazed – in the sieve (?), clinging to the white garden chairs. (They like white, apparently. White is reassuring. Brown or black could be a bear, but white says safe to a bee who’s never been to the North Pole …)

Bee swarm over the garden - the buzz was deafening

Bee swarm over the garden - the buzz was deafening

Meanwhile, the swarm had vanished. All was quiet again. Too quiet. Even the birds had been struck dumb.

“A swarm? Show me,” said Bantam Neighbour, her eyes lighting up behind her bee visor. Gingerly, we hauled ourselves up her fence for a view of the back of mine, and the quail house – where the quail were once more gormlessly tapping at the perspex for snacks on the other side, all previous excitement forgotten. And there were the bees, huddled together on the concrete shed base in a seething patch like animated mud.

For the next hour we knocked on doors and rang estate agents, trudging up and down the street like a couple of pastel-coloured Cybermen in our bee suits, trying to get access to the locked garden before the sated bees, gorged on three days’ worth of honey for the trip, got off their carpet bags and swarmed again.

She got in, in the end. Did you doubt it? With a cardboard box, a soft brush, and an agile neighbour with a three-year-old to worry about. No one called the police. No one got stung. (Or at least, only the eejit who zipped a bee into her bee suit.) But by then the swarm was too deep under the concrete to reach the queen, short of torching the shed. Still, Bantam Neighbour tried: laying out her white tea towel and sweet lures – but in vain. By morning the wild bees had flown, westwards in determined strings towards a better place.

I, meanwhile, was set to work sugar-coating Bantam Neighbour’s own bees. Against Varroa mite apparently. (Yum, say the cats). All that gritty wildlife in a small London garden. Quail eggs: 121

Bee hives - and an extra from Doctor Who

Urban bee hives - and an extra from Doctor Who

Quail diary – 84. Eggs: 96 – Mice: 2

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Quail ignoring cat watching mouse

Quail ignoring cat watching mouse

The sun is out, the beans are up, the lawn is cut. Time to muck out the quail house and dig up the earthen floor. Again.

(Big mistake: never, never, ever build a quail house without a concrete floor … ) From day to day the ground under the quail heaves and rolls as subterranean chambers are hacked out and the spoil thrust up under the straw. By now it takes a heavy-duty garden fork and long tines to reach the deepest of the mice levels. The quail are inclined to take umbrage at the disruption, huddling together in one corner, ribbetting peevishly. But they are nosy little bodies, and soon they are rooting in the turned loam for juicy tidbits, snapping up anything that wriggles, and muscling between the wellingtons to hurl themselves tail over tip into the freshly opening trenches. A small red worm causes a riot, as they leg it round the walls in a blur of feathers, trying to tug it away from each other. Poor worm. Only Harass has mastered the art of slurping them up in one go, like spaghetti. The others have to put the worm down to take a peck, at which point someone – usually Harass – nips in and bears it off again. Hours of fun. (Except for the worm. See above.)

Quail (Tom) helping with the digging - never have an earth floor in a quail house

Quail (Tom) helping with the digging - never have an earth floor in a quail house

In the middle of all the commotion, a new hole opens before my eyes and a mouse hurriedly pops up. For a while it runs around at my feet, jumping at the walls, desperately looking for a way out, until after several failed attempts that exhausted even me, watching, it hauls itself up a vertical surface and disappears into the roof. (How do they do that?) The cat outside, watching proceedings through the wire, stays put, nose glued to the perspex. He knows something I don’t. And sure enough, five minutes later another hole, and a second mouse.

That was yesterday. I carried on digging but didn’t turn up any plaited straw or other signs of nests. Hopefully, if I’ve buried any bodies, it was quick. Quicker than being caught by the cats, any how.

Those cats are getting good. Hover flies beware …

Quail diary – 83. Eggs and beans

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Quail egg

Quail egg

Four eggs this morning – bringing the tally to 80 since Easter. Well done those quail! Dandelions all round. The surviving four birds look quite lost these days in a run built for seven (plus wellies), particularly since the wellies walked off with the hutch they weren’t using. But they seem happy enough, pottering around in their shifting pool of mirrored sunlight throughout the day, bathing in the dust or leaping up and down by the wire, nibbling small knobbly things that fly through. Sometimes they have a bit of a flutter, because they can. It must be like living in a cathedral, particularly with the cats like gargoyles hanging off the roof, peering in.

Runner beans - awaiting last frost before planting out

Runner beans - awaiting last frost before planting out

The cats are becoming something of a social embarrassment: apart from leering at the quail and next doors’ guinea pigs, and catching Bantam Neighbour’s tiny bees, they wee in the potato tower (don’t tell himself), insert themselves into any hole dug for any purpose – usually to do something unspeakable – and plunder every cat bowl for miles around. I can barely look my neighbours in the eye. Next door has acquired a water pistol to try to fend them off. I feel like a character from Six Dinner Sid, only worse, because there’s two of them. Catch mice, dammit.

Still, the garden is sprinkled with cherry and pear blossom and the runner beans are unfurling their first leaves. Compost and kitchen waste have been dug in (with a little help from the felines), pots dug out and tools sharpened. Let the cultivating commence. We’ve gotta have something to eat with all those quail eggs.

Quail diary _ 79. Walking with dandelions

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Quail "hiding" - Oeuf with her favourite, unfortunately non-mouse-repelling ferret blanket

Quail "hiding" - Oeuf with her favourite, unfortunately non-mouse-repelling ferret blanket

Eggs: 19 – and all is peaceful in the quail house. Behind the perspex, the temperature is pushing 20C and the quail have stripped off to bikinis and towels in the oyster grit beds. When the door opens they stir and stare through the fug, like punters in a sauna. Quail really, really don’t like a draft – not even when it heralds a shower of mealie worms or dandelion leaves. But I probably shouldn’t broil them. Meanwhile, the mice are busily nesting again, showering the quail with flock filling which they push out through holes chewed in the lagging. Time to take it down, last frosts or no.

They are big buggers, these mice. Fat, glossy and well fed. Digging the garden the other day, my attention was caught by the cat suddenly poleaxed, nose to plastic against the run. The mouse was there, in full view, ambling about – filling his supermarket trolley full of goodies. The poor cat was beside himself, and I confess felt a tad put out myself. The cheek! But the mouse didn’t turn a whisker, or at least not until Junior Teen came galloping up on tip-toe for a peek. When the little beast (the mouse, not Junior Teen) finally shrugged and decided it was time to rediscover the exit, it ran over two of the quail. Right across their backs… The quail didn’t turn a feather. Stupid birds.

Baby mouse - bye bye Monty

Baby mouse - bye bye Monty

So I’ve got a problem: a quail house floor like the Mariana Trench, populated with butch rodents and their droogs,  and a baby mouse that can’t live in Senior Teen’s bedroom forever. Release loomed, but where? Monty is now four weeks old, which is probably gap year age for a mouse, but she’s only little. Junior Teen pleaded for the shed (!?), but Himself and I settled on the park across the road – beside the dog poo area (to keep the cats off) and on the right side of the stream, to ensure she can come home when she wants. We did the deed yesterday. In the sun. She looked heartbreakingly small as she scampered off into the undergrowth, with a scatter of seed to tide her over the next few days. It’s hard to let them go.

So I took a deep breath and went to pick dandelions.

Quail diary – 78. Eggs!

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Boss quail Harass and Oeuf, keeping an eye on geeks bearing gifts

Boss quail Harass and Oeuf, keeping an eye on geeks bearing gifts

The quail have laid. Yippeee! Two eggs yesterday, two today. Randomly in the straw. Almost certainly the work of Oeuf and either Tom or Emmet, as they’re the ones sitting around looking surprised. (Well, wouldn’t you?) Harass has resumed her lookout on the breeze block, magnificently ignoring the frantic cats, and keeping a weather eye out for geeks bearing gifts – dandelions and mealie worms preferred. She comes tearing over when I step into the run, staring pointedly at my hands, and pecking at the boots if I don’t oblige fast enough. Mugged, by a quail.

Let the lunching commence. Spring has sprung.