June turned out to be quite a baby bird-filled month for us. It started with one of our Reeves hen pheasants. What a good lass, I thought, delighted when she produced a clutch of eggs in her pen. Shame about the timing though.
We were dealing with the worst period of bad weather most of our French farmer pals can remember. (As most of these gents are knocking-on ninety, that’s a pretty long time.) Nevertheless, she refused to budge, bravely resisting the driving rain hammering against the nesting partition.
I was on countdown, hopelessly excited at the prospect of nurturing and releasing a new home-grown batch of poults into the forest. The due date came. Went. This was disappointing, although mum was still in situ. Was anything going on?
“That’s pheasants for you, dim as ditch water. She’s probably sitting on a pile of duds,” said a morose Jack, my husband, when I reported a potential nil return.
I wasn’t so sure. I’m convinced birds have a knack of sensing life early on in an egg.
A couple of days later under threatening skies, I was trying to complete my feed rounds before the next storm hit. I found our girl dashing around agitatedly. Had she abandoned her eggs at the critical moment? I didn’t want to prove Jack right, but it’s true – pheasants are famously poor mothers. Fearing the worst, I crept in to have a look.
Rain started falling as I scanned about. I checked the clutch and found a mess of broken and unbroken eggs. Amongst the shattered debris there was a chick halfway out of its shell. Faint tweeting elsewhere alerted me.
I spun around to find three tiny chicks pottering around pathetically, looking for their mum. Apparently dismayed at having produced them, mum had deserted her brood. Typical!
Raindrops bonked the little ones’ beaks as they wandered around, totally lost. The temperature was dropping as the weather deteriorated. If they stood any chance of survival I had to do something.
I tore back to the house, grabbed a box and yelled at Jack to sort out the nursery. I knew he’d know what that meant so ignored the barrage of complaints coming from the study and returned to the pen.
The unhatched eggs were stone cold so there wasn’t much hope there. The half born chick was still alive, but also cold. I gathered them up and hunted down the chicks. Still by themselves forlornly peeping in the lashing rain, I gathered them into my box and hurried to the courtyard and hatching equipment.
Jack had started the incubator and lit the infrared light in the chick pen. He looked after the eggs and half-born while I snuggled the three little ones under the warm lamp. With nothing more we could usefully do, we left them to warm through.
Of the nine eggs, four were infertile. Sadly not all of the remaining chicks made it, but we ended up with three. Had our rescue attempts been worth it? Of course. It’s always worth trying to save a life. As you can see, our remaining chicks, Aramis, Athos and Porthos, are thriving and will no doubt develop into beautiful birds equally as nutty as their mum.
I mentioned bad weather didn’t I? After a long hot summer and autumn, unusually for our part of south-west France, the heavens opened in mid-December – and forgot to stop. It rained incessantly until mid-June. The constant wet weather took its toll on the wildlife and one little group that came to our attention.
It was during my daily feed rounds when I noticed a dark, soggy form at the base of a skinny tree. I knelt down to have a look and was amazed to find a leafy nest full of chicks. Very new to the world, these tiny fragile mites were damp but apparently unharmed.
I assumed the nest had slipped from the branches above in the wet weather and somehow remained intact. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to nurture them successfully, I did the only thing I could think of at the time.
I placed the nest on an upturned feed bin and surrounded it with wood shavings as insulation. I left quickly, hoping against hope that mum would return to her brood. But I wasn’t optimistic.
The next day I was astonished to find that not only had they lived, but they were fluffed up and looked ready for a meal. In sharp contrast to the Reeve’s pheasant, their mum, a pretty starling, was doing a sterling job. The moment I retreated a safe distance, she zoomed in with a tasty morsel, flitting off on her perpetual mission to feed her brood.
As their progress continued, Jack and I became increasingly concerned about their position. The reality was they would make very pleasant canapes for a furry by-passer. We decided to reposition the nest (I say ‘we’ – I stood at the bottom of the ladder and offered helpful advice to a moaning husband) in the tree. Are they still all fine? It’s hard to say, although we have spotted the occasional bobbing head which suggests some at least are thriving.
My third baby bird encounter involved a different species altogether.
You may remember my sister, Di, and I traipsing off to the Gers in pursuit of a pair of peacocks to buy for her neighbour’s Birthday. Silly idea? Yep, it turned out to be just that, although we did have a lovely day.
Still determined to buy birds that were just that little bit different, we sought advice from my pal Monsieur Sarot, a mushroom picking fanatic and bird fancier.
His eyes lit up at the avian challenge – he knew just the species for us. It had to be une oie. Now, I like a goose as much as the next person, but they don’t strike me as being terribly exotic compared to peacocks. That, he assured me, was where I was so wrong.
Monsieur Sarot knew a lady who bred magnifique Egyptian geese. These sounded intriguing. I asked him to describe the animals. Multi-coloured with showy crests, he said they were the most striking geese he had ever seen. Bought young enough, they would follow their new master around like faithful hounds.
It was obvious, these were the ones for us. I briefed Di.
“Is he on commission? They sound too good to be true.”
“I don’t think so. He gets almost as enthusiastic when he’s discovered a new variety of mushroom – he’s just a bit keen that way.”
“Oh right, sounds genuine then. I reckon David would like a fancy goose or two.”
“Shall we do it?”
“Yep, let’s do it!”
I arranged a visit. We decided to buy goslings, one gander and three geese. Monsieur was a bit vague about the size so I loaded the puppy cage, which I assumed would be about right.
We drove in convoy on a sunny day towards the famously beautiful Lauzerte. It’s a medieval hilltop village which was made a bastide town in 1241 by the Counts of Toulouse because of its strategic importance. It’s now a hit with tourists and fairly bristles with Brits in the summer.
The countryside transformed from our alluvial plain landscapes into a new world of limestone outcrops, spiky hills and arable fields. Our journey should have been tranquil as the scenery, but it wasn’t.
Following Monsieur Sarot’s car presented its usual challenges as the French don’t like to trouble the indicator stalk on their steering columns. Their brake lights rarely work either. Several emergency braking situations and sisterly squabbles later, we skidded off a country road onto a dirt track and madame’s domaine.
The homestead was a fascinating collection of ramshackle wooden barns surrounding a rickety old farmhouse. As we pulled up, madame, a swarthy lady with a great smile and tell-tale stem of straw sticking out of her hair, appeared from a shed. Ready to do business, she took us into the first barn.
As we struggled through the splintered, rotten doorframe I started feeling apprehensive about the quality of her stock. If it was in the same state as her physical surroundings, we might be in trouble. We followed the sounds of cheeps, our eyes gradually acclimatising from the sun’s glare to the gloomy interior.
“Voici le premier groupe,” said madame, pointing towards a cluster of small things.
Masses of goslings were waddling around on a deep bed of clean, sweet-smelling straw. Fluffy, tubby, with strange little knobbly heads and teeny-tiny wings, they were beyond adorable. After several coos and ahhs, I left Di to have a bash at conversing in French with madame, and followed Monsieur Sarot, who was beckoning me to have a look in the adjoining barn.
This was bigger and housed two even larger groups of goslings. It was impossible to count the closely-packed mini-honkers, but there must have been hundreds of them. The farthest cluster were only a few days old, he explained, and had heat lamps for warmth. I stood, gaping at these wonderfully healthy animals. It was clear where madame spent her money.
Music piped out of an ancient radio perched on a manger. It was to get the goslings used to human voices, he said. I wasn’t certain they would hear many French love songs around here, but one never knows.
We re-joined madame, and Di, who was now looking rather anxious.
“We’ve got ours. Erm, she grabbed them by their necks and stuck them in this box. Hope they’re okay.”
“Oh right, well, perhaps that’s the way they should be handled.”
“You’ll have to ask about how to look after them, I haven’t got a clue what she said.”
I peered into the box at four indignant, knobbly-headed shriekers and discussed husbandry requirements with madame. She had selected 10-day old chicks, and they were already whoppers, nicely chubby and covered in yellow and buff-coloured down. They were going to be perfect.
Sensing we were instant fans, madame took us to see their assorted parents. A flock of geese were free-roaming in the field closest to her house. Some were lolloping around in a pond, others grazing or preening. We stood and admired these magnificent birds.
It’s just as well we were already smitten as it was very clear that monsieur was not a goose expert. At all. There was nothing remotely Egyptian, nothing even slightly crested about these incongruously knobbly-headed creatures. I asked madame the species, a question which proved to be a toughey. She sucked her teeth, knitting her brow in thought.
“Oooh, Tarn peut-être?” she suggested.
I’m not an expert either, but I have never heard of a Tarn goose.
She pointed at a large one at the base of a tree. It was a female sitting on her egg.
“Voulez-vous voir l’oeuf?” she said, asking if we wanted to see it. We shook our heads, not wanting to upset the scary-looking mother-to-be, especially since she was hissing quite loudly now.
Madame wasn’t having any of it, she was determined to show us every element of the process. She produced a floppy length of rubber hose and gave the goose a gentle thwack with the end. The goose clamped onto the tube in a deft Rottweiler-esque movement, which enabled madame to pluck the egg from its nest.
“Voilà!” she proudly cried, holding up the white beauty. This one was destined for the incubator.
Concerned our goslings might be starting to roast, we decided to take our leave. On the way to our car, madame paused to show us her other passion. Renovating machines. We would have loved to rummage through her magnificent graveyard of rusty gems but time was against us. It was probably just as well as she was beginning to look rather lustfully at Monsieur Sarot’s old car.
The purchase of our new goslings coincided perfectly with David’s Birthday. We housed them overnight in one of our pheasant chick nurseries while Di broke the news to him. She had already plotted with Sue, his wife, so felt things should be fine, but we had a contingency plan in place in case he was horrified at the idea. (I quite fancy a goose or two swimming around in our moat).
Luckily David was enchanted by the whole idea (phew). He spent most of the following day building a remarkably complex nursery to house them, incorporating the heat lamp and litter kit we had supplied. He came to collect his presents that evening.
The look of happiness on David’s face was enough to make a grown man cry. To say he was charmed by his surprise gifts was an understatement. Satisfied he had done enough to make sure they would be comfortable and safe, he whisked them away to join his quirky entourage of chickens, llamas and a herd of rescued cats.
The goslings have now been in their new home for about three weeks. They are growing like mad and stretching David’s carpentry skills to the max. They have progressed from daytime grazing in an enclosure on the lawn with nights in a cosy infrared lamp heated cabin, to joining the chickens in their pasture and shed.
Early concerns that the hens might savage them were allayed as the girls had a team panic attack at the sight of the waddling yellow perils. They are now firm friends. The llamas are still in conference about them and are likely to pass judgement soon. As for the cats, well, they’re not stupid. They’ve seen the size of those beaks and are keeping a healthy distance.
As the goslings continue to flourish, so do David’s small-holding ideas. Next on his list of animal-friendly jobs is to create a pond. Once that’s complete, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his small flock joined by a new group of goslings and perhaps, even a proper Egyptian variety. He’s that kind of animal-loving chap.
It has been a very happy end to our birthday bird buying quest. And as for the animals, are they lucky to live here under the dedicated care of David and Sue? Absolutely!