Sitting Again

Having wiped the late clean, she's going for broke.
Having wiped the late clean, she’s going for broke.

After three months of constant laying, my four pairs of breeding partridges have laid almost precisely three hundred eggs. I’m now just gathering up the last odds and ends, and feeling rather like I’ve been hit by a bus. They produced more than double the eggs I was expecting, and although now is probably not the place to running an “ad” campaign, I must say that I attribute quite alot of this prolific success to the Marsden’s Partridge Breeder Pellet, which they have been on since March.

There will be much more to follow about my partridges, including several sorry excuses for some of the worst hatching disasters on human record, but in the meantime it’s worth recording the story of one amazing pair of birds which showed the most fascinating and complex desire to breed. I wrote about the broody partridge hen about five weeks ago as I was putting pipping eggs underneath her. I had hoped that she would be able to hatch them off and then raise them along with the cock bird in a 8′ x 12′ pen. The hatch date came and went but only one chick emerged from underneath her. It went to live with its father, and it was very impressive to see him brooding it while the hen still sat. Four days later and without any more chicks, I went in for a look and found that she had chilled most of the eggs. Rather than waste her time on eggs which were not going to hatch, I cleared them all out and scuffed up the nest so that she wouldn’t try and go back to it.

For a week, the small family went about their business. I noticed that the chick spent the majority of its time with the cock, and even when the cock was up on his sheet of corrugated iron watching the garden, the chick enthusiastically struggled to join its father, even though the hen was available and keen to brood it. Recognising the chick’s bond, the cock was correspondingly aggressive and militant when it came to defending his family. I saw him trail his wing in an attempt to lead me away from the chick, and then when that didn’t work, he climbed up my leg and attached himself to my knee, hissing like an adder.

Assuming that that was the end of their breeding cycle, I was surprised to find another egg in the run about eight days after the hatch. It was a white egg – one of the thin-shelled ones which are easily crushed by accident. I imagined that it was an after-thought and took it away, only to find another had replaced it the following morning. This new egg was beige and looked perfectly normal. Surely she couldn’t be about to lay another clutch?

Not finding another egg for ten days, I reassured myself that it must be all over. That was until I accidentally found a nest with almost a dozen eggs in it, carefully hidden under a scots pine branch at the back of the pen. Deciding to leave her to it, she continued to fill the nest for a few more days, carefully covering over the eggs with twists of grass and fluff after every new addition. All the while, the cock and the lone chick went about their business, the latter turning from fuzzy little bee to promising, feathered young bird.

Three days before she decided to sit, the atmosphere suddenly changed in the pen. I went up to see them one morning and the chick had vanished. Looking closely, I could see that it had pressed itself under a stone in the middle of the pen and was lying there silently. When I went in, the little bird bolted and ran across the pen, provoking a major attack from both hen and cock. Even as I was there, they pulled great tufts of feathers from it, and when I finally caught it I had to separate it from the cock, who had it like a terrier holds a rat. I had to re-home the partially bald chick elsewhere, and I hope that I can foster it into another brood.

I can only assume that the parents attacked the chick because their instincts told them to wipe the slate clean and start a new attempt to breed. In the wild, the chick would have been pushed away and ostracised, but given that it is still so young, this would have meant almost certain death. But perhaps the high protein formula of the breeder pellet allowed the hen to consider laying again where otherwise she would have been satisfied with just one chick. It is a very confident survival strategy that condemns a healthy chick to death on the offchance that it might threaten the survival of a non-existent brood, and I wonder if it could happen in the wild. Then again, I daresay that because that this is now her fourth clutch, it can only be the case that she is in such good, high-performance condition that we are operating well beyond natural restraints.

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