Partridge Cock

Sometimes a great picture just falls into your lap.
Sometimes a great picture just falls into your lap.

Just wanted to post this photograph of one of my escaped partridge cocks which jumped up on the dyke behind my office in the evening sun a few minutes ago. My breeding stock wintered well, but when a few birds escaped last month, a sparrowhawk took great relish in killing all the hens but one. The single pair that remains will produce eggs this coming spring, but the bulk of my eggs will come from elsewhere.

A beautiful bird on a stunning evening.

Windblown Partridges

Windblown partridges

Further damage from the storm has included the escape of almost my entire breeding stock of partridges. As I type this, there is almost a constant cacophony of skreiking and growling coming from the garden, where the fugitives are mingling with the hens and picking small fights with one another. I am trying to catch them up again, but have to work piecemeal as the only opportunity I get is after dark, when they jug together under the ruins of a honeysuckle bush. Bit by bit I am getting my breeding stock back again, but each frantic nocturnal engagement with a kiddy’s shrimping net is proving to be more tiresome than the last…

Ex-Battery Broody

Tatty ex-battery hens teach a valuable lesson about chicken instincts.
Tatty ex-battery hens teach a valuable lesson about chicken instincts.

After almost five months working with a number of broody hens to produce partridge poults, it’s been very interesting to see the variety of attitudes different individual birds have to rearing their chicks. Some mothers (the best ones) are attentive, communicative and light-footed around their tiny charges, while others never seem to form a bond with their chicks, spending their time stealing all the food and crapping grandly into the water. As with human beings, hens are a mixed bag, but it is fascinating to note that while the behaviour is not always perfectly conducive to the growth of healthy chicks, it is always there in one form or another.

In April, my girlfriend “rescued” two ex-battery hens which had outlived their period of peak-production and were subsequently due to be ground up and re-made into something more useful. The bald, cowering organisms had never seen daylight before, let alone fresh grass. For a few days it looked like they were going to die, then they gradually marshalled their resources and started pretending to be hens. As much as I know that “rescuing” ex-battery hens should give me a warm glow of satisfaction, the ressurrection of these two birds has been a wholly unrewarding experience. I am pleased that they weren’t condemned to death by a society that never truly seems to appreciate that a hen is a living animal, but they are such unpleasant birds that embracing them with warmth and love is beyond me. I feed them, water them and provide them with a garden to forage in, but I have no affection for them at all. They are aggressive, saucy and deeply hostile, and they have never even really started to lay eggs.

However, we were all quite surprised when one of the two went broody a month ago. Assuming she’d give up, we ignored it altogether. After a week, she was still sitting soundly, so I decided to try her on some plastic eggs in a broody box, finding that she really was quite determined to sit. Given that I was getting towards the end of this year’s partridge eggs, I put fifteen under her from one of the last batches, more as an experiment than anything. Imagine how surprised I was to find that she hatched them off – twelve chicks from fifteen!

This bird has been selectively bred to minimise the risk of broodiness; she was hatched in an incubator and understands nothing of reproduction, but to watch her grabbing beakfuls of chick crumb and feeding them to her little partridges really is amazing. She clocks happily to tell them when food and water is available, and I even saw her cock her eye up protectively to assess the danger from a seagull flying overhead. She has turned out to be a fantastic mother, far better than some of the other birds I bought specificially to raise chicks. That breeding instinct must be deeply hard-wired into what little brain matter hens have, and although I still don’t like her, I have developed a quiet respect for this ex-battery hen.

Five months later, feeding chicks with beakfulls of crumb
Five months later, feeding chicks with beakfulls of crumb

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.

The Joy of Broodies

The first brood is up on the Chayne
The first brood is up on the Chayne

What an all-consuming process this partridge rearing has become. I must apologise to my grousey readers, since this blog has become a chronicle of partridge rearing during the past few weeks, but while it seems to be a diversion, there are always grouse at the heart of this project. And even if there weren’t, trying to re-establish a native population of grey partridges into the Galloway uplands is a mission worth recording in itself.

A month to the day since they were hatched, the first batch of partridge chicks has been put into position on the Chayne. I set thirteen eggs beneath a silkie x sussex bantam and she hatched twelve. One died the following day, two were trampled and another one got stuck under a drinker after a week. This has left eight birds, all of whom have done fantastically well – One slight exception is a bird which took a funny turn during week two and started to gape and yawn as if it had something stuck in its throat. Given that it was too early for it to have gape worms, I left it and in due course it came back round to good health. The only way I can tell it apart from its fellows is that it didn’t grow at all during its brief illness, and it is now the only bird in the brood without feathers on its head – it still has a red and gold downy cap. Aside from the obvious error of working with such small groups of birds (I have one rather impractical brood of just three…), the experience has been a great primer, and seeing my own “home-bred” eggs into viable poults has been extremely enjoyable.

I moved the entire brood up together with their mother and placed them in an A-frame next to where the game crop is going in. I was too late to organise a contractor to come and disc the ground before the silage cutting started, so I’ve had to make my own arrangements. We went to collect a rusty rotavator this morning, and once the smiths have taken a look at the three point linkage on my father’s tractor, work should get started pretty quickly. I don’t know exactly what will be planted this year, but I have a sack of stubble turnip seeds on my desk which will fit the bill if nothing else. As this crop grows, and at a few strategic points elsewhere on the farm, partridges will be trickled out onto the hill.

Interesting to see in the new hedge nearby where some remnants of last year’s gamecrop still remains that ox-eye daisies have made a sudden appearance, along with “essex red clover”, which looks like a cross between normal clover and a pea. It has grown almost two feet tall and promises to produce some fantastic flowers, provided it doesn’t mind being overshaded by the monstrous, over-bearing ranks of rugosa rose which have come on fantastically since I planted them in the long distant days of February.

Although I’m a total convert to working with broody hens, there are some downsides. The hen up on the hill is quite my favourite bird, and it causes me some concern that she could be gathered up by some lousy fox with hardly a moment’s notice. You can’t help getting a little attached to the hens, particularly since they are all so different and have their own distinct mannerisms which are then passed on to the chicks. I’m obviousy fretful on behalf of the partridges alone, but putting at risk a hen that I have been working with every day for almost eight weeks really makes me a little uncomfortable. I suppose she is “at risk” every night of her life, particularly since a badger set seems to have recently appeared on the hill behind the hen house.

A small electric fence around the pen gives me some cause to relax, but as soon as the game crop goes in and sheep are taken out of the field, there will hardly be room to walk without standing on a snare. Combined with frequent trips out with the lamp and rifle, I hope to be able to keep the danger pinned down for the next couple of weeks until she is not needed any more and can be brought back home again. The other hens will start going up with their broods next week, and while I would disappointed if anything happened to them, I am guilty of the most appalling favouritism.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for a warm, still evening to open the pop-hole and let these poults out for their first taste of freedom. Provided that the hen calls them back in again to roost, they will be able to use the pen as a base to explore the rest of the field. This method of “hefting” partridges to a particular area is certainly rather old-fashioned, but it certainly makes for a fascinating and rewarding project.

In the meantime, I gathered up my 191st partridge egg of 2013 this morning, with no obvious sign that my laying pairs have any intention of stopping. The only pair which has stopped should be hatching out eggs even as I type this, so more details will be posted when they become available.

The Broody Partridge

Hissing, but not moving.
Hissing, but not moving.

The partridge which began sitting a few weeks ago has been impressively steadfast in her attempts to incubate the plastic eggs I gave her. So much so that I replaced them with real eggs on day 22 of a 24 day incubation process this morning. I had imagined that she wouldn’t tolerate my being anywhere near her, but as I lifted up the drinker stand which hides her nest, she didn’t move a muscle. I carefully pulled each plastic egg out from under her and replaced it with a real one while she did nothing more than puff up into a perfect sphere, hissing dramatically. She had laid another two real eggs into the clutch of plastic ones, so their hatch dates might be a little off, but otherwise the transaction was surprisingly straightforward.

I wonder if she knows that the moment of truth is approaching and is reluctant to leave the nest as a result. Grouse become much less likely to abandon their nests in the face of predators when the hatch date approaches, and it could be that this little hen was sticking to her guns after having come so far with the sitting process. I can’t resist getting my hopes up that she might be able to bring off some chicks of her own.

Partridge Army

The first batch
The first batch

To celebrate their third week, it’s worth including this picture of my first batch of partridge chicks, which are now thriving in a ten foot square pen. I realised too late that I should have made the clutch sizes bigger for each broodie, since I now have three hens with just eight chicks each – it would obviously be far simpler to have fewer broodies with larger broods. Fortunately, the fact that the partridges are still laying means that I can do the remainder of this year’s eggs in larger clutches. I now have 38 chicks out of 48 eggs (ten having either been trampled, ill thriven or failed to hatch altogether), and another 13 are due to hatch tomorrow.

Watching free ranging partridge chicks is probably the biggest time-waster I know. On a sunny day, they dustbathe, squabble, stretch and feed on worms and leatherjacket grubs, and the  hours just slip past unnoticed (hence why this blog has not been updated very often recently). I’m particularly taken with the first batch of chicks because they seem to have come on so brilliantly in the past ten days, and they can now fly happily around their pen. I even noticed that on day 7, the first signs of tail ticking began, long before they even had tails.

Interesting to note that the partridge hen who laid the huge clutch of nineteen eggs has now gone broody on the plastic clutch which I replaced them with. She sits very tightly and only comes off briefly at around seven o’clock in the evening. Her eggs are in the incubator, and when they get close to hatching, I’ll put them back under her. It will be very interesting to see what sort of mother she makes.