It all started with an egg. Well, fifteen to be exact.
Last year I was making my routine bird food purchases at our local grain merchants here in France. It’s a very rural outfit, with large warehouses stuffed full of fodder for beasts, cereal seeds and products for farmers. A couple of cats are engaged to patrol the area, but they’re usually seen snoozing in a sunny spot rather than controlling the hordes of mice that make nests in the food bags. I should be used to it by now, but it’s still an unwelcome surprise when one pops out to squeak ‘Bonjour!’ when I open a feed bag.
It is also a popular hangout for a motley assortment of bored gents. The group on that early spring day were mainly farmers. Some were making a half-hearted attempt at buying, but they were evidently kicking around, killing time while they waited for a cherished bud to burst out of the soil or transform into a perfect baby apple.
I knew most of them, which in some ways was a drawback. My purchases had to wait until I’d executed the customary French greeting. A kiss on either cheek for those I knew, and a warm handshake with the strangers – one of whom stared at me fixedly. This was a tad unsettling. I could already feel the warm, tickly glow on my face where it had been scraped by several unshaved well-wishers. Perhaps my usual rash had erupted earlier than normal. This proved not to be the reason for his interest.
Monsieur’s opening salvo was issued at such a percussive rate I was lost after the first couple of words. Happily, Jacques, the store manager, had been listening. A short, tubby chap who shouts his way through every sentence and finds most things in the world, aside from his plague of mice, screamingly funny.
“Ah hah! Monsieur Declerce. Ha ha ha. elle est anglaise!” he roared, guffawing. His information concerning my country of origin was supported by a wafting of his hand to encourage monsieur to slow down. Happily he did.
A short, complicated explanation ensued where monsieur’s purpose was revealed. He was passionate about raising partridges. (Strange how conversations like this emanate here.) He raised so many, he said, he didn’t know what to do with them. Someone had told him that we raised pheasants and would I please take this week’s eggs from him? Since he obviously didn’t want to go down the omelette route, and we had our incubation kit ready for our pheasant eggs, I said I was happy to take a few off his hands if that would help.
Subsequently, I thought very little about our chat, dismissing it as yet another relatively eccentric encounter at the grain merchants. To my surprise, the following week monsieur turned up, laden with eggs. He was terribly bashful. Once again he sped through his explanations, handed over the eggs and rushed off, cradling the bottle of wine Jack, my husband, had given him as a thank-you.
After about three weeks every one of the eggs had hatched. We were now proud parents to a mixture of fifteen grey and red-leg partridges, which grew into fine, healthy young adults.
Ever since we came to live here we’ve been trying to develop the wildlife on our land. And, actually, our new partridges represented an ideal addition. The next stage of their development was a transfer from their existing covered pen into a large release pen which we had built in the middle of our land. Here they would join the pheasants, and begin their transition to freedom and, hopefully, breed in a natural environment.
The timing of this coincided with an unusual phone call. Unlike face to face conversations, I often find speaking on the phone to French people very challenging. For some reason many double the speed of their speech. The antidote is supposed to be a clear and loud exclamation of “Trop vite monsieur/madame, doucement s’il vous plaît.” This has the effect of slowing them down for about five seconds, after which they’re back to full gallop.
Jack, never lost for a colourful theory on any cultural trait, reckons it’s such a consistent characteristic that the technique must have been drilled into them from a very early age as an economy measure, and they haven’t subsequently realised that telephone charges are really quite cheap nowadays. I’m not convinced of the validity of this theory, but the fact remains they are definitely babblers when armed with a receiver.
Luckily Jack got to the phone first. However, it quickly became clear that it was another one of those difficult conversations. He struggled on, becoming exasperated as the tortuous process continued.
"C’est pas à moi de décider. c’est ma femme. Ne quittez pas s’il vous plaît monsieur,” he barked down the phone, and then to me, “It’s your partridge man. Do you want any more birds?”
“Well, not really. Are you sure he doesn’t mean eggs?”
At which point Jack’s comms. overload point had been reached. He grimaced at me, thanked monsieur, telling him I’d ring very soon, and ended the call.
Work quickly began on preparing the small release-aviary, which sits inside a two hectare open-top release pen. Here the birds could naturalise and learn some survival skills before exposure to furred predators. The pen hadn’t been used for over a year so making the tracks useable for rotund birds, who prefer to walk rather than fly, took quite a while. My sister and I drafted in my unsuspecting nephew and his pal for the job, which they thought would be a cinch. Huh – teenagers!
Four hours later, the boys declared themselves totally exhausted. Taking pity on the lanky pair, we returned home to patch-up the impressive number of bramble scratches they’d picked up during their labours. After consuming gallons of drinks and many snacks they flaked out, moaning about never having any ‘chill-time’ during holidays and parent people taking more care of animals than their humans. Fortunately, their laments were interrupted by the telephone. Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t about – I was forced to answer.
After my triumphant opener of, ‘Bonjour’, things went rapidly downhill. Communication was disjointed to say the least and the caller was becoming frantic. Finally, I realised it was Monsieur Declerce, and he was definitely saying something about birds. I quickly apologised for not calling him back, still assuming he was offering us more eggs like the previous year. I tried to explain that we were not incubating this year. The word for incubator in French being: incubateur I felt he might understand. Noooo, not a bit of it, I’d lost the poor man without a trace. He terminated the call relatively quickly thereafter, which was a merciful release for both of us. Wincing with embarrassment I sighed, there was nothing for it, I resolved, it was high time I found a tutor to teach me the fine art of understanding high-speed telephonic French.
With our dogs in tow as usual, I trudged off to start my daily chores in the bird pens. However, my tranquil husbandry moments were soon shattered by the hooting of a car horn. This normally augurs the arrival of a visitor, and is an immediate prompt for the dogs to erupt into a torrent of barks and frantic dash to lick to death any potential victim. Shortly after, a very flustered Monsieur Declerce appeared with a large bird transport box and a dog hanging off either corner.
“Oh, monsieur, je suis vraiment désolé”, I cried in apology, grabbing the dogs.
“Pas de problème madame, voici les oiseaux.” he replied breathlessly, proffering the box.
It seemed that monsieur, who for some reason was wearing carpet slippers, had brought some birds. This was most unexpected – although perhaps it shouldn’t have been if I’d only understood the nature of his call. Despite actually understanding what he was saying this time I must have looked extremely dim because he asked me what I wanted to do with them.
“Les oiseaux, madame. Voulez-vous les manger?” he asked.
“Non monsieur!” We certainly did not want to eat them.
Looking slightly non-plussed, he had another go.
“Voulez-vous les tirer plus tard?”
“Oh, non, monsieur!” We definitely didn’t want to shoot them either.
Before he came up with another bright idea I thanked him profusely and suggested that they could go with our existing group. His face lit up and I took him into the bird pen. Still unsure of the species in question, I watched as he turned the box upside down and about 20 mixed partridges tumble out. Completely unperturbed by their journey and dog incident, the birds immediately trotted off to find food. Monsieur, on the other hand was quite different.
Looking decidedly nervous (probably running scared in case I tried to strike up a deep conversation), monsieur explained that the birds were surplus from last year. They were healthy, he said, although perhaps a bit too tame. I wasn’t sure what the ramifications of being ‘too tame’ were. So long as they weren’t going to turn into telly-addicts and perch on the sofa with us I felt we could probably handle that. I bade goodbye to this kind, bird-loving gentleman and continued with my jobs.
We now had too many adult birds in the pen, which confirmed the need to release the younger ones as soon as possible. Jack reluctantly agreed. We catch up birds using a contraption that looks like a gigantic butterfly net, and then pop them into bird transport cases. Easy in theory you might think, but the process is quite different, especially where my irascible husband is concerned.
Despite having a heart of gold (underneath it all) there are two key factors that, when combined, cause Jack to experience meltdown. He will happily labour for hours on any engineering-related challenge but, outside of this narrow field, he has the patience of a gnat. As we all know, partridges do not have predictable moving parts. Furthermore they are quite reluctant flyers, often preferring to sprint off in random directions, but when they do take flight, mayhem often ensues. So, in order to minimise the inevitable histrionics, I knew careful team planning was needed.
Our bird pen is large, and houses a mixture of chickens, pheasants and partridges. They all live perfectly happily together but it does make the job of trapping the correct species a bit more tricky – especially for Jack, who thinks they all look the same. By way of preparation I put all the feeders and drinkers to one side, and removed extraneous leafy materials so the net wouldn’t get snagged.
We were ready to begin.
Jack immediately grabbed the net, informing me that my reactions and spatial skills had consistently been left wanting, proving that I wasn’t at all suited to this highly specialised netting process. I nodded obediently and got ready to start corralling.
Things started relatively well. Jack adopted his praying mantis pose by crouching down behind one of the shelters, and commenced netting. Initially the birds were taken by surprise and we managed to quickly trap the first couple. But success was short-lived. The remaining 22-ish had witnessed the initial captures and formulated a battle plan. As I herded them along the 25 metre length of the pen, several would outflank me, skip off across the middle, and sprint back down the other end.
“What’s going on?” came the puzzled cry from behind the A-frame shelter, after the fifth time it had happened.
“I’m trying my best but they’re a slippery mob.” I replied, preparing for yet another run.
Jack’s head popped up like a periscope.
“You’re obviously not doing it properly! Why, oh why do I have to do everything myself?”
That appeared to be a rhetorical question so I chose not to respond. He surveyed the assorted throng of clucking, cheeping, preening birds, and came up with a new plan.
“Right, it’s obvious what the problem is – you’re not driving them quickly enough. You need to make sure their miniscule intellects are occupied worrying about you, and none are left to think about me trapping them. Let me show you. You take the net here and I’ll rush them towards you.”
I duly took up my position, poised for action.
There is a health and safety point to note here associated with the netting process. Netted birds are extremely adept at spinning and tying themselves up in knots. This means that care must be taken in the act of netting (so they don’t get walloped with the rim of the structure), and also removal (untangling beaks and legs). I tend to be overly cautious, and only scoop a bird when I’m 100% certain it won’t be injured. This is another patience-drain for Jack.
“For crying out loud, what are you doing? Just trap the sod, will you? We’ll be here all night at this rate!”
“Look, darling, I just want to do it properly. I’m worried about harming them.”
“Harming them? I’m about to have a cardiac arrest here – they’re absolutely bloody fine, as you can see by the way they’re galloping around like sodding racehorses! Get on with it!”
On reflection I might have been a little namby-pamby about things, so steeled myself for a more assertive approach.
Jack rounded up the mob yet again and set a stampede heading in my direction. The five cockerels were in front, they had to be avoided. Then came the hens, high-stepping it after their beaus. Thereafter it was a blur of game birds. The partridges were seriously on to us by now. With the skill of racing cyclists they tucked into the pheasant formation, nicely obscured by their larger kin. As the peloton approached at speed I was absolutely stuck. How on earth was I going to safely pluck a partridge from that feathery mixture?
“Get that one, thaaat one! Oh my god, you’ve missed again. Come on! How can you be so slow?”
“That was a pheasant.”
“Was it? Well, they all look the bloody same to me. Absolutely stupid idea to have them in the same pen together anyway.”
After a couple more failed forays on my part, Jack resumed control of the net, which I felt probably wasn’t such a good idea. He had now used up all his patience, plus reserves and had begun muttering to himself. It never augers well when Jack starts muttering. On the other hand, the partridges seemed to be delighted. They’d devised a fun new game – hide and seek.
This saw Jack thundering around the pen after the feathery scamps, mostly swatting thin air, as they dodged in and out of the A-frame shelters and behind the lean-to nesting boxes. As he became more agitated, the net was swung with less accuracy. No problem for our team of synchronised sprinters, who evaded tackles like skilled rugby players, but a major problem for the equipment.
Bigger and bigger holes appeared as the net snagged on bits of foliage. Poor Jack finally lost the plot altogether. He exploded with a rant-a-thon about the idiocy of raising animals. Luckily, these histrionic outbursts never last long. I tried my best not to giggle and instead ignored him and got on with the job in hand. Running repairs were made, and little by little we gathered our small group of feathery Houdinis.
It had taken nearly two hours. As we surveyed the bird carriers filled with noisy partridges, an important thought occurred to me.
“Ooh, Jack, hang on a minute. Perhaps we ought to keep a couple of breeding pairs back just in case we have a major problem with predators when they’re fully released.”
Jack, dripping with sweat and covered in dust, stared at me.
“I don’t believe you just said that,” he croaked.
“It seems to be a very sensible idea.” I replied, convinced of my wisdom.
“That confirms it. You are, in fact, stark raving mad! You’ve just had us thrashing around in this godforsaken aviary for half a day – just so you can fill the forest with fat little buggers, who, by the way, make a dreadful noise anyway. And now you want to take some out of the boxes? I honestly don’t believe my ears. My god, I’m nearly dead!”
“You certainly don’t sound it, darling,” I replied crisply. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it. You can have a nice rest while I’m sorting them out.”
A short tussle ensued while I selected a couple of suitable pairs. Two escaped in the process, which Jack steadfastly refused to re-capture, his comments being predictable, unprintable and possibly understandable. Finally we were good to go. We loaded our precious cargo on our little utility truck and drove to the paradise that was to be their new home.
We placed the boxes in the small covered pen. They would spend three nights here to acclimatise to their new surroundings before entering the open-top penned world that surrounded them. It had been quite a morning so I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Would they come out charging? Panic-stricken even? Happily, there was nothing to worry about where these stoic little citizens were concerned. To a bird, they strolled out and immediately started inspecting their new leafy world with interest.
The following day I returned to re-fill their food, and was greeted with a happy surprise. Two perfect eggs had been laid in the middle of the pen. Definitely no trauma here, the birds were perfectly relaxed. Then, on release day, when I opened their gate, rather than dashing off, none of them showed the slightest interest in leaving their cosy new home. Instead, this part of the process happened gradually over the next two weeks until only one pair of grey partridges remained. They had set up home and were extremely content.
On the whole I was very pleased with the way things had gone. Jack is always full of bluster; I’m quite used to that. The main thing was that our feisty crew were unharmed and apparently energetically embracing their freedom. I commented on this over a beer a few days later.
“D’you know, those birds are flourishing out there, let’s hope they breed as planned. It makes the whole process so worthwhile.”
“Humpf – s’pose so! Just don’t expect to get me involved in another one of your brilliant bird-release programmes for a while, I’m still recovering from that one.”
I looked over at sleepy Jack, who was being used as a chaise longue by our cat. Both his feet were obscured by equally snoozy dogs.
Yep, for an ‘animal-hater’ he coped very well!