Saturday, 20 August 2016

Rat-attack

We were about to post on the joys of Spring and the changing behaviour - and eating patterns - of the flock, with lovely happy photos of dust-bathing birds and daffodils...but yesterday morning we noticed something was amiss. The birds invariably gather in a mob by the door in the morning, waiting for their seeds. They flutter and call, and fight amongst themselves, and are generally active and happy. This particular morning there were only a small group, and they were crouched low, utterly immobile, staring up at me, frozen. They've been like this before, when a hawk flies low over the net - they freeze, and wait for a while before relaxing and going back to whatever they were doing. This time they didn't relax. When I talked to them, and began scattering seed, they stayed motionless but began making a noise I'd never heard before; a soft purring growl. They all did it, and not one moved. They looked terrified. I thought a currawong or a hawk had got in, but it wasn't a hawk, it was our old friend, the rat. We found a small hole bitten in the net, and feathers scattered around - and then, our oldest girl, Spick, lying bloodied and miserable on the ground...
Incredibly, she was still alive - she'd been bitten, but not killed. We put her in a small cage with straw and food and water and covered her with a blanket... One of the other birds is limping, but seems unharmed. The others were just...traumatised. They stayed huddled together most of the day, and were completely unlike themselves. They moved in short jerky bursts, staying low to the ground, and spent a lot of time sleeping. We wonder if they were fending off attacks from the rat all night...
Another group of quails, who have separated from the main bunch, were completely unconcerned and  I suspect, did not encounter the rat at all. As for Plum, our tiny rat-ninja King quail, he, of course, is unharmed.
It had to be a small rat, as a large one would have killed the birds - and the hole in the net couldn't possibly fit anything very big - I still can't believe a rat can get in at all. We searched through the piles of mulch and weeds but there was no sign of it.  In our other garden, however, where the compost bins are, there were lots of fresh diggings and rat activity. So we went hunting. Apologies to any rat-lovers...but remember, these are wild city rats, and not the gentle lab-rats that people have as pets.
We poured water into the compost bin, and sure enough, a rat dashed out and took cover in a nearby heap of weeds. We covered this heap in netting and searched through it until we had the rat, tangled in the net. We despatched it. It wasn't particularly large, but it wasn't that small either. Extraordinary the gaps they can get through! We set the possum trap inside the quail garden last night, just in case. It was untriggered this morning and all the birds were much happier. Best of all, Spick is still alive, and eating. So far, so good.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A wet winter

 A beautiful winter's morning, with fresh snow on the mountain and sunshine in our valley. Apparently it's been the wettest three months on record, and we've had unbelievably ferocious winds, deep frosts, and even occasional snowfalls, but the birds have survived everything, and I am delighted to report we still have all 16 Coturnix quails plus the valiant Plum, our little King quail. 

The birds are eating ravenously, foraging through the muddy garden and coming for supplementary seed-feeding twice a day. They have eaten almost all our stockpile of sunflower heads - we'll need to plant three times as many this year! There are some early signs of Spring behaviour, with the stronger and more aggressive males beginning to viciously attack some of the older birds, especially at feed times. There's heaps of room for everyone, so the older birds usually just fly away to another part of the garden if it gets too bad, but there's a lot of jostling and shoving - like unruly kids waiting in a line. We may yet be eating a couple of plump young males if they carry on too much...
Our soggy garden is looking a bit the worse for wear, but the bulbs are starting to come up, and we have had good crops of parsley, spinach and the wonderful Oca all year round. Oca is a yam-like vegetable (a giant oxalis, usually the gardener's bane) that roasts and boils beautifully and copes with flooding, freezing and blazing heat. The quails sometimes sleep in amongst the rows - there's not a lot else in the garden for them to shelter under - apart from artichoke and cabbage...We have a few nesting boxes for them, but they rarely use them, preferring to ride out the rain and wind in the open. 
No sign of rats - two layers of chicken wire around the base of the enclosure plus the bird netting seems to be working...
There are flocks of currawongs creating havoc - the 'storm birds' who come in over winter and raid our neighbours' chook pens for scraps...they are loud and cheeky and harass the quails, perching on the net and watching them greedily as they eat their seeds. A currawong would kill a quail, and they are intelligent, they pull at the wires joining the pieces of netting and we've twice had to repair large holes where they have succeeded in getting it apart. They also love the moss around our frog ponds, ripping it up and throwing it around the garden, hunting for frogs. The quails just ignore them. I am not so sanguine, and occasionally throw rocks at them (I miss) and yell when they rip up another piece of carefully replaced moss and rip holes in my pond liner with their scimitar-like beaks...

Monday, 6 June 2016

Rain and raptors

There's a "severe weather system" moving south at the moment, bringing with it heavy rains and strong winds. We've been pretty sheltered - so far - with little wind and only 20mm of rain today (in the north they've had over 200mm!) The quails cope remarkably well with heavy rains - the temperatures are very mild - and although the birds look slightly damp in the morning, they are active and happy, hunting slugs and worms. Today as we came home after school, instead of a flock of birds waiting at the gate for their afternoon feed, hopping and pecking each other and cheeping eagerly, there was an ominous stillness and complete silence...and a collared sparrowhawk (image from media.trevorsbirding.com)
sitting on the net above the door. He (or she) was beautiful, but threatening. We walked over and he flew off, but it took a while to spot our quails. They had frozen to the ground, utterly motionless, pressed low and flat, with enormous wide eyes, staring. They had evidently stopped in their tracks as soon as the hawk arrived - some were completely in the open, others were under bushes or against the shed, but all were unbelievably still. It took them quite a while to move again, even with us walking around, scattering seeds and talking to them. The young ones have never seen a raptor, and certainly have never been attacked, but they all had the same instinct - to freeze. Without the netting over them it wouldn't be much of a defence, but it seems to be all they have...One of our girls (Blork) didn't turn up for her feed, but there were no feathers, and we hope she was just hidden especially well. We'll check for her again tomorrow.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

To breed or not to breed

Looking online at other web sites which discuss raising quails is a bit disturbing. There are a truly depressing number of posts about the inability of Japanese quail to breed naturally, and how the birds only need about 1 square foot (??!!) of space to be perfectly content...

We originally believed much of the information on the web, and thought that quail really were unable to hatch and raise their own chicks - the instinct having apparently been "bred out of them" in order to get as many eggs as possible for human consumption. Pretty much every website tells you what wonderfully productive layers these little birds are, but at the same time, we are also told they cannot hatch their own babies and anyone wanting to breed them will need an incubator.
And presumably because quail are small, considerably smaller than a "standard" chook (such as an Australorp or an Orpington), it is thought they don't need a large coop, and can be happily kept in cramped conditions in wire cages a bit like rabbit hutches.
Overcrowded quails in a non-natural setting
 Hmm.

Having watched our birds wander around our garden for a full year now, it seems abundantly clear that the breeding instinct is well and truly present, and the single most likely factor in a non-breeding bird is the tiny enclosures in which they are often housed. Putting a dozen or more birds in a small aviary or cage, with little or no access to natural soil, and grass, and insects, and no ability to stake out territory, or pair with a suitable mate, or find a hidden place to lay a clutch, and with the eggs removed each day...it's not really that surprising that the birds don't go broody!

Not everyone has a big backyard or can build a massive quail enclosure - but many people across Tasmania, and elsewhere, already have enclosed veggie gardens. It would be fantastic if more quails were living in gardens like this, instead of being kept in tiny hutches. A "chook tractor" design would also work - anywhere that gives the birds greenery and insects and light and places to hide.  A brood of naturally-hatched quail chicks being raised by their parents are one of the most delightful things you'll ever see!
Goldie and her first little one

A broody quail does not behave like a broody chook. They do not stubbornly sit on a single egg, becoming aggressive if you approach the nesting box, making it clear they want to start a family...
Cartoon image courtesy of Footrot Flats (copyright Murray Ball)
Based only on the behaviour of our females, quails seem to choose a nest site which is relatively secret and away from the rest of the flock. They lay at least 5 eggs before beginning to sit - we had one mother sit on 6 eggs, one with 12, and another waited until she had 14 in her nest!  If you are collecting the eggs each day, the females won't ever start sitting. Their nests aren't anything fancy, but they are usually quite well hidden.
Goldie - our first broody girl - in the grass under a nectarine tree
We had one sitting under a grass tussock, right up against the net - we ended up putting a board along the net to protect her from marauding cats who could easily have taken a swipe at her. Another was beautifully hidden in a clump of thyme - we only realised she was sitting when we noticed her sneaking back to her nest, very slowly and carefully, trying not to be seen. We had another nest under an artichoke, and one in the grape vines. This last one was quite exposed, and we ended up placing a board over her - held up by bricks - to protect her from sun and rain. Once they are happily sitting they aren't easily disturbed, and she wasn't at all upset by a strange construction being placed around her. They arrange the grass into a circle, and build it up a bit to help keep the eggs in place, but they are not master nest-builders by any means. Their main form of protection is their camouflage - a streaky brown and cream bird sitting motionless in a clump of green and brown grass is almost impossible to see.
They will stay completely still unless the other birds come too close - particularly the males - and then they will fly off and drive the males away. During Spring - when most of our birds started sitting - the males can be particularly aggressive, pestering the females almost continually. We ended up putting our dominant male in solitary confinement for a while, just to give the sitting mother some peace. Once the chicks were hatched, the male was allowed back in the garden with the others, and he didn't give any more trouble. The mother didn't give him a chance - they are very protective of their chicks.

Apart from space, privacy and comfort, a male to fertilise the eggs, and patience and determination on the part of the mother,  quails don't seem to need much else to breed. We really believe that any quail will go broody, given enough room. Have a go - we'd love to hear from other people who may have found the same thing happen, or are interested in trying to raise chicks naturally.




Friday, 13 May 2016

Blowin' in the wind

It's a bit strange seeing quails being blown across the ground like a flurry of autumn leaves, but that's what our poor birds have been subjected to these past few days! We've had wind gusts well over 110km/hr (70 knots for any sailors reading this) for the past two days, as well as heavy rainfalls and even snow on the mountain. The quails have coped with it all in style, despite being literally blown over as they come for their morning seed-feeding. We're not sure exactly where they hide at night (under the cabbage leaves? In the rhubarb?) but they are always there in the morning, looking remarkably dry. We have nest boxes set up under some of the trees, which they are happy to shelter in during the day, but they never seem to use them at night, and they certainly never lay eggs in them, much preferring to hide their eggs in random patches of grass or under the grape vines...
The net is looking slightly stretched and saggy, and will need checking tomorrow when the weather is calmer, but nothing has actually collapsed. Thank goodness! Winter is coming...

http://www.themercury.com.au/news/tasmania/calm-after-tasmanian-storms-likely-to-be-fleeting/news-story/544801d827e7ce2b7fa0a82b16737c2f


Saturday, 7 May 2016

Peas in a pod

Finding the right names can be hard work, but we are pretty happy with our choices for Snowpea's brood. Introducing:
Green pea, Sweet pea and Chick pea (we hope these are the girls)
Broad bean and Soy bean (boys, we think...)
Millet, Mulch and Mildew (the dark brown ones - gender unknown)

May they lay, breed and live happily in our garden for a long long time!




Marvellous millet

Feeding a large brood can become quite a bit of work.
Despite having a very large, and very productive garden, we still find we are feeding our voraciously hungry flock extra seeds a couple of times a day. They obviously work up quite an appetite scrounging around for insects and greenery, and demand supplementary seeds to be handed out.
Spick enjoying extra seeds

We initially brought quails into our garden to help us control pest insects - once we had everything fully netted we were protected from possums and wallabies and cockatoos but we also no longer had robins and wrens hunting the aphids and thrips and slugs etc. So in came the quails. They don't scratch up seedlings, and they do eat some insects - but they dislike slugs and, as they don't really fly, they don't get any insect above ground level... They do, however, give us wonderfully creamy and delicious eggs - when we can find them.

Ripening finger millet

Proso millet (we think). This is a favourite food
And they eat! We buy large bags of seeds from a local pet shop - marked as "budgie feed" it seems to be a mixture of millet, linseed and poppy seed. Our birds love the millet particularly, so we planted some, to see what would happen. It grew beautifully. There are two different types; a delicate frond-like millet (we think it's proso millet) and a stubby darker seed, possibly finger millet. Once it began to ripen we found the birds leaping up to pull down the fronds.
They also eat sunflower seeds, and we've always grown sunflowers - mostly for their beauty, but we do use some of the seeds. Interestingly, the quails don't seem to eat the sunflower seeds until autumn - if you offer them sunflower seeds in spring they ignore them, but in autumn and winter they go wild, attacking the flower heads with gusto and gorging on the seeds.
Sunflower heads drying before harvesting
Chicks enjoying a captured frond of proso millet


Their favourite treat are meal worms. We've tried breeding these, but with only limited success. We give them to the sitting mothers, and to the chicks for the first couple of weeks. They will literally go mad over them, fighting each other - a tug-of-war between two tiny chicks over a meal worm that is longer than their head is a sight to see! The adults eat them easily, but the first time we gave them to our chicks we thought we'd choked them - the worms would be gulped down, then the chick would stand motionless, gasping, and occasionally the worm would be brought back up...it looked agonizing, but they always came running for more.


They also love it when we rake back our compost heap and they can scratch around for worms and earwigs and whatever tiny beasties live in the rotting soil. They might not be the pest controllers we had hoped they'd be, but they are a lot of fun, and excellent company in the garden.