Saturday, 24 September 2016

Arrivals and departures

A Spring picture - Spock enjoying the daisies!

We've all been struck down by end-of-winter colds and flu...unfortunately one after the other, not all together, so it seems as if the house has been filled with coughing and snuffling and the scent of hot lemon and honey for weeks and weeks...
The quails, meanwhile, have been full of the joys of Spring. So much so that we have been forced to cull some of our males, as they were attacking the females quite viciously. Most of our birds have paired off, but there were some boys who refused to settle down, preferring instead to attack the already-paired females, leading to nasty battles. Three of these boys were served up as a roast dinner...and today we sold two more. We sold them because the kids were quite distressed at eating the others - and decided that selling them would be easier. I'm not so sure. They went to a breeder, and I know they won't be living in a sunny open orchard, but in a cage. The fellow seemed nice enough, and had lots of different birds, but I am feeling surprisingly sad, imagining them missing their friends and family, and their free-ranging life. I'd rather eat them!

We'd been searching for eggs, but failing to find any, until we noticed Snowpea acting slightly oddly - attacking any bird who came near her and sneaking off after we followed her, and discovered eight eggs in a neat little nest, hidden in a clump of grass. So, our legendary mother-quail, who successfully raised all her chicks last year, is broody again! That was another reason for getting rid of some of the boys...
 Snowpea's eggs, hidden in the grass.
 Snowpea on her nest. The camouflage is pretty good!
Our little mother having a hurried dust bath before rushing back to her eggs.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Predator-proofing: our net design

We love our quail! We are also pretty happy with our net, despite occasional incursions by rats and persistent attempts to get in by currawongs...
It's a big area - 30m by 50m -  and we needed enough height to fit our fruit trees inside, without possums being able to jump on the net and reach the leaves.
The net - looking in from outside
 We bought 16 treated-pine poles, 4m long, and put them in holes around .5m deep. The soil is really easy to dig, and we didn't cement the poles in, allowing them to shift a bit with the wind. We drilled holes in the top of each pole and threaded high-tensile wires through, attaching these to the ground with metal stakes (hammered in to a depth of at least 1m.) The wires are held as tight as possible, to keep the net taut.
Pole and holding wires - each pole is anchored to the ground in three places
 We put 'tensioners' on each wire so we can crank them up really tight, and re-adjust if needed. This has been really useful after high winds, when the poles shift a bit. Not having them on a concrete base means they are much more flexible - I am pretty sure they would have broken by now if they'd been held fast.
Wire tensioner
 We then covered the poles and wire framework with strong black nylon bird netting (commercial grade). Getting the net over the wires was by far the hardest thing to do - it came in huge bags, 100m x 10m, and 100m x 5m. We have quite a lot left! We pulled three rows of 10m net over the top, and used the 5m width for the sides. We clipped the pieces together with plastic clips provided by the netting company, but we didn't tie it well enough and butcher birds got in through the joins, killing two of our quail. We then stitched all the joins together with wire - this took the best part of a week, standing on a ladder, doing a metre or so at a time.
The final bit was adding a strip of chicken wire along the base. This we dug into the ground so rats couldn't burrow under it, and stitched it to the nylon netting at the top. We thought that was pretty good, until we realized rats could get through the chicken wire and bite through the nylon netting...we had to add a second strip of smaller-gauge chicken wire, and fasten that tightly to the first piece, and to the netting, to make a thick wire layer rats couldn't wriggle through. It works, most of the time. Every so often we find a hole eaten through the black nylon netting and we know a rat has got in...we patch the hole, and set traps until we catch the rat.
Patched nylon netting where a rat has got through

No possums or wallabies or large birds have got in, and the quails - and the fruit trees - are thriving. It's held up in winds of more than 100km/hr, as well as being covered with snow (albeit lightly). It's not 100% rat-proof, but it's the best we can do!
We'd love to hear how other people keep free-ranging quail protected!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Spring cleaning

The quails never bathe in water - they keep clean by dust-bathing. In winter, when the ground is wet and muddy, they can start to look a bit scruffy...but as things warm up they search out areas of dry ground and settle in for a session of intensive cleaning.

They have a favourite spot in the top south-east corner of the net where very little grows, and their regular routine is to head up there in groups of two or three, taking it in turns to nestle down into a sandy spot, loosen up the dirt with their beaks, and shuffle and flap until they are covered in dust. If they are particularly relaxed and the sun is especially warm, they will stretch out on their sides and fully extend each wing in turn, with their feet pointed like avian ballerinas.

Once they have had enough time in the dirt they move under the nearest clump of grass to preen and sleek their feathers, while the next group come in for their bathe. Sometimes two birds will try and use the same bathing hollow at once, lying across each other and jostling for the best position.

It's hard to get photos of them in action, but we tried...!

Remembering Spick - a gentle girl

Spick - September 2016


Well, our brave girl struggled on for the best part of a week with two nasty rat bites on her upper thigh. We bought disinfectant spray, and kept her in a small cage for three days, then she showed signs of wanting to be out and we released her into the main garden. Her appetite was good, and she was obviously enjoying the sunshine and the company of the other's Spring, and the boys were doing what male quails will do, and I think the stress of fighting them off brought her down. We saw her one evening being jumped on by Apricot, one of our dominant males, and it was distressing - she rolled away and was obviously hurt.  Interestingly, when we had initially released her, Apricot went straight over to her and kept all the other boys away, making no attempt to mate, just keeping her company. We thought it was sweet - and several times now we have noticed the birds do have a tendency to separate into pairs.
But this last evening, after fighting Apricot off, Spick went into a spasm, and looked like she was convulsing. She was limping badly, and we picked her up immediately and put her back in her small cage. She was having trouble walking, looking quite lopsided and uncomfortable. It was evening, so we left her alone, hoping she'd have recovered in the morning - but when I came back early the next day she was still convulsing - it was over. Being the cowardly woman I am I left her to Seb to cope with - there was nothing else we could do. Afterwards, when he checked her he found her leg wounds were healing well but there were feathers deep inside the bite - no sign of infection, but that can't have been good. There was also a horsefly, engorged with blood, biting on the wound. Can any of these things have caused her to convulse? Or did she have a heart attack? Or did Apricot hurt her? We'll probably never know.
She was our oldest bird, and is much missed. We buried her under the Rosemary bush - and if anyone is wondering why we didn't eat her...well, the antiseptic spray we were using on her bites explicitly stated Not for Consumption within 28 days of use on the animal....

Saturday, 20 August 2016


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...