The Murders in the Q Morgue

Posted: May 1, 2013 in Urban farming
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It has all of the makings of a classic murder mystery.  A locked room.  Ample opportunity.  A range of possible motives.  Suspects milling about, casting the odd furtive glance.

And, of course, murder most fowl.

Our quail, known affectionately as “the Q”, are kept indoors.  They live in wire frame enclosures, with only two to three quail in each two-foot by two-foot space.  They have access to clean water, with a dash of apple cider vinegar to guard against coccidiosis.  They receive organic feed, ground dried peas and lentils as a protein supplement, and are kept stocked on fresh hay and bedding.  We make every possible effort to ensure a decent “qualité de vie” for our feathery charges.

So when we went recently to do their evening feeding and care and turn off “the sun” for the night, we were shocked to find that one of them had obvious and significant wounds to the side of her head, and was moving around the cage in obvious distress.  Upon removing her to examine her wounds and administer care, her head lolled sickeningly to one side and she expired, gone in a handful of seconds.  As she had just died, and obviously from wounds and not disease, we processed her and placed the oven-ready result in the freezer, something probably not done in most murder cases.  Still, one of our birds had shuffled off in a far less than gentle manner, and we were quite concerned.

We assembled the facts.  Suspects?  We assumed that the culprit was still in the cage and had not fled the scene, as the cage was of course still locked.  But the female victim was in with a male and another female, so it might have been either, or both, of them.  Motive?  Might the male be exerting dominance to such an extent that he had, intentionally or unintentionally, fatally wounded the female?  Might the female be competing, perhaps even to the death, for exclusive access to the only available mate?  Might there be some other circumstance at play that was making one or both of the quail act in an aggressive manner they had not previously exhibited?

Discussion of the facts of the case continued that evening and through the next day.  Food and water supply had been relative constants.  There had been no recent changes to which birds were in which cage.  Warmer and drier Santa Ana wind conditions had begun, and continued, but the heat was much less extreme than what we had weathered without incident the previous summer.  We were still talking about what might have brought on what appeared to be a freak isolated violent incident the following evening at “sundown” when, in another of the cages, another of the females showed similar signs of trauma.  As before, we removed her and, sadly, she expired within seconds.

Further review and a bit of research on the interwebs indicated that increases in heat, even sometimes moderate increases, may be a stressor on the birds much as with humans.  To help them weather the heat of last summer we ran a small window-box refrigeration unit and placed ice in their water.  This seemed to keep the quail comfortable, and no outbreaks of violence were observed over the course of the summer.  Deciding to treat the heat as the most likely primary cause of this sudden outbreak of violence, we increased ventilation and circulation around the enclosures and monitored them more closely than usual, with the chiller and ice-water combo held in reserve as Plan B.

As fortune had it, these modest changes seemed to do the trick.  We made it through the rest of the recent round of Santa Ana winds, and past that to now, without any further evidence of quail-on-quail violence.  It is not certain that this was due entirely to our measures, but we think it likely that they helped.

But summer looms, and with it the promise of yet hotter temperatures.  Will there be more incidents?  More clues?  A startling chirped confession?  Stay tuned for further reports as they come in.


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