Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Quail diary – 97. It’s a wrap

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quail on watch

Quail watching the house from their breeze block look-out

It’s dark at 6am. And chilly. Daylight is down to 11 hours and 26 minutes, but the quail are still laying – one or two eggs a day, every day, tucked into the whirl of straw in the pile behind their perspex screen. Shockingly, we’re so blasé about quail eggs these days that we no longer keep count.  The tally since they began laying on March 30th is well over 400, a hundred eggs each. Last year I was pickling the surplus, but this year I think I’ll just accept the down-time and look forward to the new season when laying resumes next March.

Quail Tom, on guard

Quail Tom, on guard

First, we have winter to prepare for. Lagging, and draft-proofing. Winter is a luxury, a cold finger of reality best enjoyed with thick socks out and a warm kitchen to stomp back to. As supermodels stagger down the catwalks from New York to Paris with the new season’s collections, it falls to me to report that this year’s quail lagging “look” is a slim, contour-hugging, space-age silver bubblewrap, formerly intended for putting behind radiators (£11.88 a roll from B&Q).  The red hot water cylinder jacketing (so last year, £3.98 for four from Wickes) turned out to be unsuitable for animal husbandry, emerging from summer storage shedding droppings and little dessicated mouse corpses like dandruff … )

The quail house, now lagged in silver and glazed with perspex, no longer makes you feel you’ve been swallowed by a whale. More like being trapped inside a dalek. The expensive red banquette has gone and in its place a spare sheet of clear plastic, untidily abandoned inside the run one afternoon, turns out to be a crowd pleaser. (They haven’t so far found a use for the hammer similarly mislaid, but it is only a matter of time.)

Quail, snuggled behind plastic screen - three in front, one rear

Quail, snuggled behind plastic screen - three in front, one rear

This bunch have always turned their noses up at my expensive rabbit hutches – even as the water in their hopper froze. A clear picture window, however, trapping warm air in a mound of straw against one wall, provides the type of draft-free grandstand view they do like. Sometimes they even remember it’s there without tapping their way along the entire length, puzzledly looking for the way in past the smug sisters peering out … Quail are really not the sharpest tools in the box.

Next stop, solar heating – made of Coke cans.

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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 – 95. Feathered fiends

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Quail in disgrace

Oeuf the quail, called in for questioning

All is not well in the quail house. Oeuf is being horrid. She squats malevolently  in one corner, like a spider, fluffed up to twice her normal size. The other three either huddle together or – if I’ve disturbed them to bring food – scatter, steering well clear of poor Emmet, who seems to be the victim of choice. Poor Emmet just stands in a corner and droops. She doesn’t have to be doing anything to get attacked. There are feathers everywhere around the run. Even the mice are lying low.

What is it with this bullying among birds? It’s not lack of room. Or lack of food. I think it’s the eggs. Oeuf is my best layer, but Emmet has always been quietly productive. Are they both broody and competing for the clutches of eggs I inconsiderately keep taking away (and eating, yum)?

Chez Bantam Neighbour too, one of the birds is looking bedraggled. Pecked. Hanging back when food arrives. Well, not that I blame her. You take your life in your hands scattering corn in that flock, let alone hanging up a cabbage. Any food triggers a stampede of scaly legs, rugby-sized thighs and stabbing beaks. They’re not dainty and they’re not shy. I’ve nearly lost fingers. Hens are bloody terrifying.

Quail are much more lady-like, but no less Mean Girl. I wrestled six eggs out from under Oeuf the other evening. So she went off and beat up Emmet. Such is life.

quail snug behind perspex

Quail snug behind perspex - they don't like drafts, but they do like a bit of a view

Quail diary – 94. Four blind mice

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Nosy quail - supervising the clearing of the shed

Nosy quail - supervising the clearing of the shed

First nip of autumn in the quail house. It’s mid August, but already at 7am you can smell it in the air. Mists and mellow fruitfulness. The runner beans hang in fistfuls, seven foot high, and the late crop raspberries are still in full tide, but daylight is down to 14 hours 51 minutes, the four remaining quail are down to one or at most two eggs a day (311), and slowly, slowly insulation is going up again for winter.

Not without casualties, though. No one warns you how much death is involved in animal husbandry. Rescuing mice from the cats (oh yes) is the least of our worries.

Unpacking the cheery red cylinder jacket from the shed under Harass’s beady eye, ready for pinning back up in the quail house roof, two dessicated little furry bodies appear – huddled heartbreakingly in death in a nest in the lagging, two baby mice who starved to death waiting for their mum.

But worse was to come when I put in the new planks. The pile for the tip was well advanced before the mother mouse abandoned her post in the discarded lagging and ran for it.  I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t seen her go: four tiny bald blind jellybean babies, barely a day old, nosing for warmth in my hand. They lay helplessly, too young to crawl away – but old enough to know not to squeak. Instead, they chattered – to each other, to mum, to the world? – in a barely audible clicking probably more impressive when done with bigger teeth.

Four drowned mice

Four drowned mice - a day old, too young to save

Reader, I killed them.

In the watering can. Well, it was that or leave them for the cats or the ants. The price of eggs, eh. How do Buddhists manage?

Quail diary – 93. Tally-ho

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Fox in the park

Fox in the park

The fox was outside the french windows at 6am, munching cherries and firing the pips at the pots of still green tomatoes. I couldn’t find the camera until he’d ambled out of sight behind the bean stacks, of course. By then, he’d already looked in on the quail and passed on. The quail barely bothered to ungum an eyelid. Nice to know my handiwork holds firm – at least against foxes.

How do you curb the wild things when there’s an urban fox under every garden shed? Hens have been taken in the next street, and a white cat is reported missing, seen carried off by the cubs. Buff Boyfriend (Senior Teen’s, rather than Bantam Neighbour’s latest squeeze …) last week found one of the foxes about to take a chunk out of a drunk on the pavement up the road. In the afternoon. The drunk was most ungrateful when he called 999, and I was slightly put out myself at his evident assumption that foxes are rarer than drunks in these parts…

Bumble bee in foxgloves

Bumble bee in foxgloves

Meanwhile, squalor reigns in the garden. The big tidy-up for the new patio has been stopped in its tracks by discovery of a late stagbeetle larva curled under a crumbling log. Soon we’ll abandon the last of the luscious cherry crop to the thrushes and pigeons. Himself has started potting the surplus in brandy. Chris P. Byrd is plotting blackcurrant jam (and roast quail in cherry sauce). By next month we’ll be up to our necks in cooking apples.

Soon it’ll be time to lag the quail house again. Brrr. Eggs: 279

Quail diary – 92. Losing our marbles

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Quail egg and marble (?) being

Quail egg and a warm marble - one of the birds is several eggs short of a clutch

Quail don’t do broody, everyone says. But Emmet is definitely “sitting”. Not sitting in a dedicated homemaker last-drop-of-my-life’s-blood sort of way – (she’s not a hen) – but certainly sitting. Ish. There’s a whirl of straw behind the perspex windbreak and every morning all the eggs have been tidily rounded up into it.

Yesterday there was also a small pink marble tucked into the nest. Even Harass looked slightly taken aback.

Quail diary – 91. Age cannot wither

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Quail and hen's eggs - in a surprising range of sizes

Quail and hen's eggs - in a surprising range of sizes

The fox cubs passed me in the road as I left the house at 6am for the station. They looked at each other, three lanky halflings, slim, fit, tireless, and loped on, blanking the scurrying middleaged human – as all teenagers do – with disdain. I could almost hear the grins.

All was quiet in the quail house. The remaining four birds eyed me tiredly as I checked on them before I went. Nights in inner London are hard, short and brutal in the cubbing season. The shrieks and partying go on all night. We all need a lie-in.

One of the quail has taken to laying very, very small eggs – a centimetre long. It is Emmet, or possibly Tom. Oh dear, does this mean another end in sight? Or is it just a bit of infinite variety?

Harass isn’t laying any eggs at all, of course. (“Lay ’em yourself.”) I think she’s on HRT. Well, she’s on something… She still hops up and down in the doorway every morning and evening, and fiercely insists on being fed by hand. Or else. You try being mugged by a quail at ankle height. It does nothing for the self-esteem.

Beyond the wire, fertility is rampant. The runner beans are reaching for the sky. The raspberries are bent double under their own weight and Mrs Blackbird is busy in the cherry tree, thieving fruit for a late brood. (“Your garden’s so fecund,” says Mrs Nextdoor, which I suspect is  polite for “overgrown, needs trimming, get your act together…”)

The quail are well and Pottingshedder’s gone to sea for summer.