Saturday, 29 April 2017

Having a quail of a time

For my birthday this year Mark bought me six Cortunix Quail hens - 3 dark Japanese, 3 lighter and larger Italian. We spent much of the two week easter holiday building them a home.
Being a keen fan of Thinking Things Through, I read everything I could find online about quail keeping so we could build them a good environment. This is what I learnt:

Quail are game birds rather than poultry. Their eggs have a higher protein proportion than hen eggs,  and as such require a much higher level of protein in their feed. They are ground-dwelling and they don't need perches, just deep litter/bedding to snuggle down in at night. They are fully grown by 6-9 weeks and will start to lay eggs from that age if conditions are right. They don't usually eggs in a nest box, just wherever they feel sheltered and private. They tend to bury their eggs, so some furtling about is required to find them.

The demanding fluff balls  need an awful lot of light to lay eggs regularly - at least 12 to 14 hours a day.  If kept outside, like mine, they need shelter from rain, places to hide if they feel threatened and most of all protection from predators like rats. Because they are only the size of a handful, that means choosing a very small mesh. I read so many reports of quail decapitated because a predator reached through the bars and grabbed them.
The darker birds are Japanese quail

Quail can fly, unlike chickens.  They stay on the ground normally but like all migratory birds, are capable of flying vast distances when needed. They jump vertically like a crazed mini Harrier Jet when startled, so need a roof over than they won't knock them out if they smack into it.

Our chickens have a lot of freedom, and we've gone to significant trouble to allow them that. The quail? Not quite the same. You can let quail free range if you really want to, but only the once.

Not much is known about quail behaviour, really. I read a study from 1997 that was very interesting, but less academic sources are pretty vague. There's plenty of anecdotal information from people who keep quail but that varies widely, and as far as I can tell that's down to how the quail are housed and the proportion of hens to cockerels.  I have all hens, so that sorts out the noise issue (quail hens make tiny little peeps and chirrups) and the fighting that some breeders reported.

Lots of people asked me if I'd be keeping the quail in with the hens. No, they have different needs, a different diet and the chooks will easily kill the quail if they perceive them as competitors for food or shelter. Some people keep quail in the bottom of aviaries with flying birds like finches or budgies, but not with chickens.

A huge number of people seem to keep them as little egg (or meat) factories, kept on wire mesh cages with no opportunity to engage in natural behaviour like foraging, dust bathing, and generally being messy balls of fluff who love to scratch away on the ground for food and fling dirt and bedding everywhere. Quail can lay from such a young age and reach their full size for meat at the same age, so as a means of producing some of your own meat, I guess they are a pretty easy way to go.  17 days to hatch, 6 weeks to grow, then table-ready.  Not really my style but fair enough.
A number of (mostly US-based) bloggers and forum members have expressed disgust at the concept of putting the quail on anything other than mesh - "They will be standing in their own faeces! That's cruel and disgusting!" I feel this view misunderstands the needs of the animal to behave in a natural way.  When managed well, deep litter systems are clean and environmentally responsible, and even shallow litter isn't mucky if you clean it regularly. It's basic pet care.
I guess that's the main difference - my quail are pets with lovely fringe benefit of eggs, not next month's dinner, so I can afford to get attached.

Our 6 quail hens have over 15 square foot to play in. Recommendations went from half a square foot in a production-based set up, to one square foot per bird. Plenty of hobbyists had larger spaces, naturally, but the guidelines were really quite tiny. We figured if we have the space, why not give it too them?

I couldn't find any plans or blueprints for quail housing that suited my intentions. Those I found were  wire cages or walk-in aviaries. So I thought about what I'd learnt and we started from scratch.

We thought a scrappy bit of border near the house would be an ideal place eventually, but our lovely next door neighbours are having a large extension at the moment on the other side of the fence. That meant we needed something that could be moved to a temporary location.
The frame
Quail don't require a nest nor roosting bars like chickens. They do, however, value a place to retreat to when cold, frightened or in awful weather. we interpreted that as a small version of a nest box with a door we could fully shut if we need to herd the quail in there while clearing the run out.

Gonzo helps Mark measure the shelter
To stop predators digging their way into the quail house, we put a sheet of mesh on the bottom of the frame as well as on the sides. I painted the timber before we assembled it fully because painting through mesh is a pain. I chose a lovely sage green in a wood stain that was pet-safe. It's worth pointing out not all wood treatments are OK for animals, so it's important to check.

Gonzo remained a keen participant

Stapling the mesh to the underside of the frame
Ideally we wanted a clear solid roof (strong enough to cope with a badly behaved cat landing on it) which is able to let light in and sloped to let the rain run off.  We used dual walled polycarbonate sheets, which were very easy to cut to size fit. We have some offcuts as well, which we can slot into the doors to provide additional shelter in winter.

The project took us most of the Easter holidays, with numerous days off for going to the wildlife park, the safari park, generally being out and about and actually celebrating my birthday as well. Rain stopped play on a few occasions and waiting between coats for the paint to dry slowed us down too. Still, in the end we had a luxury dwelling fit for the most discerning of birds.
A 5* dwelling

A Quail Palace

The Versailles des Cailles

Last bits to paint after resolving snagging issues
Ta Da!

To make their habitat more interesting for them they have a dust bath ares, some plant pots, branches, shelter and foliage. They seem very happy, and hop about with excitement when something new arrives.
How many quail can bathe at once?

They had a tendency to spill or lose their food, so holes drilled in a plastic container (and filed to make sure the edges were smooth) allows them access to food without wasting it and without taking up too much space. 
Gonzo is pretty sure we made it for his amusement

Yesterday I got 5 eggs from the 6 of them for the first time, taking me up to a total of 29 eggs so far.  We've had them hard boiled as snacks, marinated in soy sauce and garlic to eat with ramen, soft boiled to eat with the new season's asparagus and today I'm trying them pickled. Local pals, if you fancy trying some, give me a shout. It looks like we'll have plenty!
J x

Monday, 24 April 2017

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

Hello again!
4 months since my most recent post, so I suspect I'm chatting to myself now. I either had no words, had too many, or just couldn't quite decide how to be sufficiently articulate to put my thoughts down in a coherent - and not too tedious - way.

It's been an eventful few months since I last blogged. We've had some truly marvellous moments as well as some unexpected and more challenging times. I might tell you about it later, if you like.  However, today I'm all about the livestock.

Bight, Aire, Wharfe, Rita and Starling on a bug hunt
It's been 12 years since my first Eglu, with Margot and Dolores as our new hens.  I've had around 50 hens over the years as we upgraded to a big Eglu Cube, suffered predation by foxes and Alsatians, illness, escapees getting stuck in other gardens and other poultry related mishaps, or just old age. Some had individual names for (Sarah, Ruby, Doris, Ronnie, Truffle, Starling), but mostly we named by theme:

  • Chicken Supremes (Mary, Flo and Diana)
  • Beatles Girls (Rita, Prudence, Eleanor, Lucy, Penny)
  • SF/Fantasy TV characters (Buffy, Capricorn 6, Rose, Xena, Chloe)
  • Doctor Who Companions (Sarah Jane, Donna, Martha, Ace)
  • Shipping Forecast Regions (Viking, the Utsire sisters North and South, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, G Bight, Humber, Wight, Biscay, Finisterre, Fitzroy*, Lundy, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Faeroes)
  •  Rivers (Aire, Wharfe, Nile and Amazon)
  • Austen women (Elinor, Marianne, Emma)

My current hen count stands at 8, of whom the most important is Rita. She's a big heavy bird from a mixed use strain (meaning reared for both egg production and meat) and she's 10 years old. That's VERY old for a hen.  She's still a handsome beastie, with her dark grey head fading into a pipe smoke grey on her body. She's a post-menopausal lady who nevertheless is everyone's favourite.  Rita has earnt her retirement and can leave all that egg-laying malarkey to the younger lasses.
Rita's the big grey, second on the left

A word on the eggs - obviously they are delicious and there's something lovely about knowing the name of the hen who laid your brunch. Before I kept hens I didn't know that laying is light-dependent, so from late November to late January everyone downs tools for a bit.  Also, hens lay far more eggs when they are young, but the eggs get larger and larger as they get older.  A young pullet might lay a 45g egg, while a 3 year old will lay a 75g extra large. In addition, like humans being more prone to having twins when they are in their 40s, older hens are more likely to lay double yolkers. You can usually spot a ridge where the egg hasn't narrowed as usual but had to widen again for the second yolk.

Double yolkers can get pretty big
There are certainly disadvantages to keeping hens. They will eat anything they can get in their mouths, and aren't respecters of borders. If they can escape into the neighbour's garden to pinch food from the bird table, they will.  Likewise they'll make short work of my vegetable garden if they can. I've had a polytunnel of seedlings decimated when 2 hens noticed the door was open a crack.
Helpfully emptying the veg bed of greenery

Caprica 6 had a nifty trick of flying to the 6 foot fence, walking along it to the end of the chicken run and hopping down into the raspberry patch to gorge herself.
They also trash any area they are in. Even with 22 square metres to play in, my birds don't leave grass there for long.
A prolonged wet season means the run gets very smelly as the chicken poo and mud form an odiferous mire, but a cold snap or some dry weather sorts that out.

The best part of hen keeping is the liveliness they bring to a garden. They cluck and coo, take fright at a gust of wind or charge down a blackbird who wants to pinch their grain.

Hens can become incredibly tame, and they do have distinct personalities. Dolores was over-confident; when I sat at the table in the garden she'd hop onto my lap in the hopes of pinching some of my lunch. Mary, called Biffer usually, was a "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" bird, smacking down all the feathered visitors to the backyard. Dogger was aptly named because she'd follow me around like a puppy. Rose was Miss B's hen when she was a toddler. Rose was the most patient bird I've ever seen - she'd let B pick her up and cuddle her, carry her around the garden, even put necklaces on her (which I quickly removed so she wouldn't peck them). Hebrides was an escape artist but couldn't get back in the run, so would come and knock on the door when she wanted to go back in. She taught Dogger that trick, who taught it to our cat.
Knock knock

Having hens hasn't lost its attraction at all. If anything, it was a gateway drug - from 2 hens to 3, to a big run with 8, then a larger free range area and up to 12.

Now I've entered a new level of crazy - quail. More about that in a day or so.

*Geeky footnote: Finisterre isn't a shipping region anymore but it is a lovely word. It was too easily confused with a Spanish shipping region called Finisterra, so it was renamed Fitzroy. I liked both, so I had hens called Fin and Fitz)