Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Posts Tagged ‘DIY

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.

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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…

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 – 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.

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.

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…