Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Archive for the ‘The tortoise’ Category

Quail diary – 88. Mean, broody and magnificent

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The quail don't do broody

The quail don't do broody. Much too undignified (Eggs: 217)

The bantams are broody. Two of them. They squat in a single bad-tempered heap of grey feathers in the nesting box, unmoveable, fluffed up to twice their size – two bald bums jostling over one hot egg. When I reach in to shoo them out, they fight back, pecking me and each other, scaly legs braced against eviction. Oh dear. Bantam Neighbour is away on holiday (again) and the hens are revolting.

It’s not even my watch. Gangling Yoof is in charge, his palm crossed with silver to juggle homework and sleep round the demands of one tortoise, two cats, five hens, a patio full of young beans, and about 20,000 bees. Only the tortoise seems unhappy with the arrangement.

At the first sight of me one hot afternoon last week, she came scrabbling across Bantam Neighbour’s shimmering patio, remorselessly crushing a bed of dessicated alpine strawberries under claw. Don’t tell me tortoises don’t smile. She beamed, she fawned, she frisked, beaky gob wide with anticipation, scrawny turkey neck ululating with excitement. After ten years of guerrilla warfare – throwing herself into the pond as soon as I wasn’t looking, wedging herself under fences, lying about waiting to be mugged by the foxes – suddenly I’m her new best fried. If she had a Facebook page, we’d be “in a relationship”. Though, of course, it could have been the cucumber I’d brought …

The tortoise

The tortoise - not as slow or as helpless as you might think

The tortoise is like Andy from Little Britain. She may look like a lump of masonry, but turn your back and she climbs stairs, scales walls, or hides in impossible crannies. Minding her requires popping in on hot afternoons to check she’s not lying helplessly on her back, frying in her shell, and going out with a torch last thing at night, hunting her among the patio pots because she’s refused to put herself to bed. She has to be sung to sleep in autumn (OK, I exaggerate – a bit) and coaxed back to life in spring, and I bet Gangling Yoof doesn’t tie himself into knots on the concrete, hand feeding her calibrated slices of cucumber and mango to stave off dehydration.

Oh, yes, I do.

Poor Gangling Yoof. Last thing I heard, he was out the other night, searching among the pots… beating off the hens. Inner city gardens, eh? It’s a jungle out there.


Quail diary – 76. Rites of spring

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Baby mouse - caught in the quail house

Baby mouse - caught in the quail house

Howls of laughter from the quail house. And still no eggs, except the metaphorical variety all over my face. What a wuss. City folk shouldn’t be allowed near animal husbandry.

After months of stamping shut mouse holes, there’s now a mouseling in my own house: small, defenceless, unbearably cute, and orphaned. By me. It sleeps sweetly in a small plastic tank by the computer as I write, snuggled up against its own hot water bottle, tiny tummy full of milky crumbs. Yes, yes. Fed by hand. My hand. I can’t even blame Junior Teen.

It was there, huddled behind the hutch when the Wellington boots stepped into the quail house fresh from dropping First Born at Heathrow the other morning: an infant mouse, barely a week old; confused, cold and too young to know it should run away. When I scooped it up, it cuddled into my warm palm, curling its stumpy little tail confidingly round one finger. I had no idea what to do, so when it suddenly leaped to freedom in the wide, wide garden, I was relieved – until five minutes later, when the cat found it.

The cats are still not talking to me. Only Bantam Neighbour understands. She’s spent the past week waking the tortoise, bathing it three times a day in “Turbo-tortoise” or some such, and patting it dry. Remind me how this design has survived millions of years? … She’s had to drag it out of hibernation like a reluctant teenager, shouting “it’s spring, get up”, because she’s going away. I’m back on hen, house and tortoise duty. And seed trays.

And now mouse. Time to refill that hot water bottle. Stop smirking at the back.

Baby mouse - tucks in

Baby mouse - tucks in

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…

Quail diary – 43. Phew, what a scorcher

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Tortoise eating - very, very, excruciatingly slowly

Tortoise eating - very, very, excruciatingly slowly

38C in the quail hutch and most of the girls have dug themselves cool holes in the shade. I’ve put up a towel, but two are still lying huddled together in full sun. Stupid birds. Toss them a little garlic and thyme to peck at instead of lettuce and dandelions, and they should be done by dinner time. It’s really time I mucked them out, threw down some fresh earth and checked for rats, but it’s too hot.

Even the bees are sluggish. Only the tortoise is thriving; trundling around Bantam Neighbour’s sub-Saharan patio in full sun, the remains of an illicit strawberry cooking gently in the wrinkles of her neck.  Yesterday, she steamrollered a pile of fresh cucumber slices, claws scrabbling, beak wide and beady eyes manic  at the sight of my toes in flipflops. I could almost hear the swerve across the shimmering concrete.

Yes, I’m on neighbourhood hen, hive and house duty again – this time including an appointment with the beeman and instructions to wear the full protection rig, not forgetting to tuck my socks (socks? in this weather??) into the overalls… (Gasping at the very thought.) I’m to write a report on how the bees are doing: progress of honeycomb, whether I saw the queen, what temper they’re in etc.

(…) Long gap. Actually, it’s too hot to blog. Too hot to think.

Six eggs from the bantams last night – eight from the quail (379 since March). Go quail! Puzzlingly, Junior Teen and I found 10 eggs between us the day before. From seven quail? How is this even possible?


Written by pottingshedder aka Jay Sivell

July 1, 2009 at 8:13 am

Quail diary – 28. Fox attack

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The foxes are getting worse. Now the tortoise has been mugged. Two nights ago it was unrolled and dragged out of its kennel in the garden. Bantam Neighbour found the poor thing on the patio at daybreak, still in shock, withdrawn deep inside its shell, refusing to come out. Head, legs, tail, everything was retracted. It was so traumatised it could only hiss at her, feebly. She had the devil of a job administering first aid.

Now it’s indoors – hiding under the boiler cupboard in the kitchen, the only sign of life the quite astonishing piles of poo left on the lino. It won’t come out, not even for handheld cucumber.

It’s cub season in London. There are foxes on the roads at night, foxes on the roads by day – insolently staring down the traffic – foxes in the park and foxes in the gardens. They call to eachother before dawn with blood curdling shrieks that sever dreams, and leave me sitting up in bed, heart hammering in the darkness. The cry sounds like murder.

Come daybreak the signs of pitch invasion are everywhere – incontinent dollops on path and pots, an unfamiliar chewed sock, and broken seedlings where they’ve dug for worms in the compost. Temptation must be driving them mad, what with hens and goldfish at 125, plump guineapigs next door and a row of wide awake quail standing on tiptoe watching them through the wire here.

The hens seem quite unmoved by the night prowlings. Five eggs again this morning between six. (Show offs) The quail managed two between seven … Come on girls, 14 hours of daylight the books say – where are my eggs? We’re up to 50 now, a snip at £7.70p each.

Written by pottingshedder aka Jay Sivell

April 14, 2009 at 1:20 am

Quail diary – 21. Rites of spring II

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A menacing crate lurks in a corner of the neighbour’s conservatory, covered in blankets and dozing cats. Those of us intermittently feeding bantams (and collecting the eggs…) have been under instruction to lift a flap occasionally and listen. Deep in the straw nothing has stirred, but it is only a matter of days, for the cherry tree across the road is in flower and the outside thermometer is rising. It is nearly time to unbox the tortoise again. Arrghh.

It would be fair to say I don’t get the tortoise. In fact, it is right up there with the narcoleptic hamster that managed to gnaw through a friend’s mum’s prized floor-to-ceiling passionflower (by means unsuspected) when I was 13, leaving me trying to explain festoons of dying foliage around the living room walls on her return a fortnight later. The memory still brings out a cold sweat. Cats, hens,  guinea-pigs, even dogs are fine, but the tortoise adds new meaning to high maintenance. If it isn’t lying helplessly frying, upside down in the sun, it’s scaled a knee-high retaining wall and will be found floating apparently lifeless in the pond. Constant check-ups are required. Despite a surprising turn of speed at the first sniff of a grape (or toes in flip-flops – ’cause its eyesight isn’t great), it has less balance than a Reliant Robin and no reverse. Many a night we’ve been out with torches, trying to find the damn creature wedged behind the pots and crates of veg on its pocket-handkerchief patio.

And don’t think you can get away with throwing down a lettuce leaf or two and bustling off about your business either. Slowly, slowly the scaly head emerges from its shell, the wrinkled neck stretches taut, and there’s sound of scraping concrete as the carapace is dragged round. In the slowest of slow motion jaws open, and the great prehistoric beast lunges – only to miss by a mile whatever it was lungeing for. It drives me demented. For a living fossil supposedly so successful that the design’s barely changed for 60 million years, the tortoise is mindbogglingly helpless. How did this manage to outlive dinosaurs? I end up on hands and knees, holding out slices of cucumber in exasperation. Anything, anything. Just don’t die on my watch.

One year, Bantam Neighbour had to intubate the brute, to coax it back to life, and the steel trap jaws nearly took off my fingers. Last year, it needed bathing in tepid water and patting dry with towels. And then there was the tupperware salad container in the fridge, that had to be kept full of dandelions because apparently they can suffer from anorexia.

Yet she’ll outlive the lot of us and she’s laid more eggs than the quail … Spring, bah, humbug.

Written by pottingshedder aka Jay Sivell

March 13, 2009 at 1:15 pm