Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

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 – 103. Silly bees

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swarm of bees in tree (close up)

Swarm of bees in tree

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.

Written by pottingshedder aka Jay Sivell

April 24, 2011 at 10:28 am

Quail diary – 102. Eggs!

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quail eggs and penny

Quail eggs and penny - Oeuf's on left, Emmet's (probably) on right

The quail have laid! Yippee, slurp. One egg yesterday, one the day before, two today. Enough for lunch.

“How can you tell who is laying?” asks Bantam Neighbour, staggering in with another crate of spare eggs from the Stakhanovas. Hens apparently flush up to their wattles with the effort.

Zat so? Well, there’s no flushing in the quail house. Although Emmet and Oeuf do seem to be doing a lot of rather grumpy sitting, interrupted periodically by Harass on her sweeps of the perimeter. Harass is a tad short on social skills. She doesn’t do ladylike (or eggs, I suspect). Instead she barges around like a toy tank on patrol, tramping straight across all obstacles encountered – stepping casually on the head of any sister quail quietly recovering in the straw.

And they need to recover. Quail eggs are about 8% of the quail’s body weight – which would be like squeezing out a 12lb baby, every day… or at least from April to October. Think about that next time you dip your soldiers. (Apparently hens only manage 3% – about 5lbs. Not that I’m competitive, or anything.)

Meanwhile, Oeuf and Emmet need calcium: oyster shell grit and dandelions. Nothing is too good for my elderly gravidas. Put away those bus passes. Let the foraging on scuzzy verges commence. Season IV has started.

Quail diary – 101. Sheer lunacy

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Quail - not laying any eggs

Quail - not laying any eggs

No eggs. We’re two weeks into spring, daylight in London is up to 13 hours 8 mins, the cherry tree’s gone mental and the quail still sit spaced out in the straw, eyelids drooping. Not even dandelions elicit a rheumatic hop. It is only 5C in the quail house at dawn and the quail are contemplating their fourth (and probably final) summer – which makes them about 90, in human years. I think they may have retired.

Bantam Neighbour trots round with a box of eggs. Again. “Still nothing?” she asks, sympathetically, as if something’s died. Something may be about to. Of course, the bl**dy bantams have been laying since February. Show-offs. But the quail are still in suspended animation – and have been since October. Not for nothing are quail eggs a luxury item, you realise. By now half the neighbourhood is on tenterhooks. “Text me,” says Blog BFF as he heads off for a long weekend.

Up in Edinburgh (daylight 13 hours 19 mins) Clan florafaunadinner is hatching cute fluffy bumblebee-sized quail chicks, planting trees, growing asparagus and eating quail eggs for lunch – fresh, new quail eggs, and not just the tooth-curling last of the pickled ones from the bottom of the jar at the back of the cupboard.

Quail snuggled in straw

Quail snuggled in straw - retired, feet up, enjoying the twilight of her days? Or just bone idle

“Easter’s so late this year,” moans a school mummy, wearily counting days to some time off. Aha! Perhaps that’s the answer. A quick google reveals Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (hmm, they weren’t daft were they, those early church fathers?), and just because the supermarkets have been filling shelves and minds with chocolate eggs since the Christmas decorations came down the first moon of spring is still only just a sliver in the night sky. It won’t be full until April 18. So, in fact, the quail aren’t late at all. Apparently. “Particularly not if they’re Christians,” mutters Himself.

Of course, by Easter Sunday there will only be two months left till midsummer. Just a thought.

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.