The shortest days and how to use them

The chickens let us know when midwinter’s come.  The fortnight after the winter solstice, no matter how bloody cold it is, the girls start serious egg-laying.  So even as you’re trying desperately to stash four different kinds of hot lemon pickle and a hundredweight of lemon marmalade, as you open the fridge, a dozen eggs roll out.

Lemon preserves cool closeup skinny

I went AWOL from the blog for the last six months, as the observant amongst you might have noticed.  The days just got shorter and shorter.  My garden kept growing and the Hawkesbury streamed uninterrupted to the sea, but time to write about these things just seemed impossible to find.  But now the days are lengthening (and I’ve finished my night classes), all that is going to change!

Eagle flyby long crop

White bellied sea eagle doing a fly-by of Gunyah Beach

The shortest day may have passed but it’s still pretty nippy at 5.30 in the morning when I get out of my lovely warm bed and drive off through the nautical twilight to put my kayak in the water.  When it’s 3 degrees and you have wet feet, the exact moment when the sun touches your frozen toes comes to be of critical importance.

I have a nifty little app on my phone, SunCalc, that shows just where the sun will appear over the horizon on any day of the year.  So I check the tide, and the wind, and then, on a winter morning, figure out where I’ll catch the very first light.  Putting in at Brooklyn and heading for open water is not a bad choice.

I’ve had some lovely paddles from Parsley Bay in the last year.  Quiet jaunts into Porto Bay, a shallow backwater frequented mostly by raptors and oyster fishermen…

Juv sea eagle long

Juvenile white bellied sea eagle

And, on a day with hardly any wind, I braved it across to West Head, stopping off at four beaches – Gunyah on the way and Eleanor on the way back; and on the other side of Cowan Creek, Little Pittwater with its tumbling stream and littoral rainforest and Hungry Beach and its a pair of sunbaking sea eagles.

Terns in front of Lion Island cropped closer small

Terns fishing off Gunyah Beach

I was almost bold enough that time to cross the invisible line – “limit of flatwater sailing” – that passes between Juno Point and Flint and Steel Beach, but bottled it in the end, just peeking round the corner towards Pittwater and the open Pacific beyond.

Clouds over the sea long and skinny

And last weekend, coldest it’s been on a Sydney morning in a couple of decades, I set out for Refuge Bay, where the pleasure craft rocked quietly, their skippers sleeping.  But not the kids, slipping away in their dinghies to fish and play under the waterfall on the beach.

And on journey there, what magic scenes!  The open waters of Broken Bay skimmed, concealed, curtained, framed, illuminated, by the fog.

Fishing boat and lion island

Fishermen and Lion Island

If there’s something to be said for the shortest days, it’s the long nights.  You can almost have a sleep-in and still get up before dawn.

Juno head mist dark sky

Happy Easter from Morgan the syncretic leghorn

We have pommie chooks!  Or from somewhere north of the equator, anyway.  I’m not sure how they managed to make the perilous transcontinental journey before their cute fluffy butts made it to our place at a week old, but somehow they must have dodged border control.

4 fluffy butts horizontal crop

How do I know our feathered friends come from the far north?

Well, here in Sydney, we’re past the equinox and the nights are drawing in.  We may have had a February that smashed heat records, 1.3 degrees C above the longterm averages.   But it’s hours of daylight that tells chickens when to get laying (thanks to that sort-of-third eye) and the days are getting shorter.  Even as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, it is, nonetheless, autumn.

And yet my chooks have decided to start laying.  Just in time for spring with its baby bunnies, and peeping chicks, and Easter eggs, and its celebration of rebirth and renewal.  In the northern hemisphere, that is.

I love Easter.  Most religious festivals are a delicious mish-mash of stuff from the Big Book and whatever else people were into at the time.  But with Easter the syncretism is really out there, bouncing around with its ears pricked up, laying  coloured eggs in the spring greenery.  After witnessing the pre-Good Friday panic by shoppers terrified by the prospect of a day without ready access to a new packet of Cocopops, the nice young guy at the checkout reckoned  we might add a zombie apocalypse to the usual combo of vernal equinox, Passover, and frenzied confectionary consumption.  As he pointed out delicately, Jesus did after all, come back from the dead.

In the midst of this cultural mash-up, it seems appropriate that it’s Morgan the flighty leghorn, named after a Welsh enchantress in an Arthurian legend, who has marked the occasion of the (deeply seasonally inappropriate) Christian festival of rebirth with the gift of her first lovely white eggs.

A muddled pagan blessing to egg eaters, one and all.

 

Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

My little herders

We have egg-quilibrium! After a long six months, the eggs produced by the household finally balance out the eggs consumed. At last we can egg-xit the dodgy “free range” aisle of the supermarket (okay, I’ll stop now).
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If we were serious survivalists this would be a tremendous day.  There’s nothing like a sorrel quiche to ring the changes from sorrel soup; sorrel and jerusalem artichoke stirfry and sorrel, mustard and parsley salad.  And lemons.  Lots and lots of lemons.  We’d be hungry but we certainly wouldn’t get scurvy.
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To what do we owe this embarrassment of eggs?  The days are getting longer and chickens do have that proto-third eye (okay pineal gland, but it has photoreceptors) inside their noggins to detect that kind of thing.  But with snow at the Queensland border and  the coldest spell of weather in Sydney for the better part of twenty years, it’s not like spring has convincingly sprung.

My theory is that the egg-drought has come to an end because we’ve gone from being ranchers to herders.
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“Too few and too busy with other endeavours, early colonists lacked the labor force and the time necessary to supervise livestock closely or to contain them adequately within fenced perimeters; livestock were turned out to fend for themselves… ranchers deliberately neglected their livestock and let them roam at will” (La Rocque, 2014, 76)

Sounds like us, alright!  Except we don’t grab a gun and ride out on the range to kill the varmints, which is what LaRocque reckons was was the inevitable outcome of roaming-animal-neglect in the US West.  Although, I’ll admit, when the population of brush turkeys in the chookyard was triple the number of chooks, the temptation was certainly there.

Legal protection for top predators has meant the “git-ma-gun” strategy won’t wash these days, so instead LaRocque advises US ranchers to follow the path of African herders who “have exquisite control over the whereabouts of their animals…[taking them] on daily treks and bring them back at day’s end to a safe haven where animals and humans mingle in a common area.” (LaRocque, 2014, 77).

I wouldn’t say we have exquisite control over Abby (skittish) or Snowball (faster than fluffy greased lightning), but I guess the kids scaring off peckish brush turkeys by leaping around on the trampoline while the chickens have their breakfast might count as “animals and humans mingling in a common area”: “all parties find[ing] satisfaction in a mutualistic interaction of sorts” (LaRocque, 2014, 77).

Has hanging around to watch the chooks eat entirely “resolved [the] ecological contradictions” (LaRocque, 2014, 73) in our backyard? I don’t think so.  The magpies and the brushturkeys still mooch about waiting for me to be so distracted by chicken portraiture that I don’t notice them sneaking in for a mouthful of bean sprouts (Chickens love them.  Who would have thunk it?  Or maybe it’s just our hippie chicks).
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That said, our new herder lifestyle has given us the opportunity to get to know the girls’ table manners a lot better.
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Breeders are feeders it seems – just as poor old Andy Ninja’s lost her spot as Top Chook once she stopped pumping out the eggs, now hen-pecked Abby is back on the lay, she’s shoving the other girls out of the way to get to her tucker.
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And how’s this for a before and after shot?

Treasure – pre and post egg laying.  If you’re ever wondering whether to serve omelette at your next dinner party, take a Dulux colour swatch to your chook’s comb.  Is she Pastel Barren or Fiery and Fecund?

As I’m idling at the bottom of the garden waiting for the girls to finish their meal, I’ve started to think we herders need a new term for talking about our animal friends.  From the wonderful Mildly Extreme blog I’ve learned that evocative word koremorebi for light filtering through the leaves.  I wonder if Japanese can offer me a word to describe the exquisite glow of sunlight filtering through a flushed and fertile comb?

LaRocque, Olivier (2014) “Revisiting distinctions between ranching and pastoralism: A matter of interspecies relations between livestock, people, and predators Critique of Anthropology 2014, Vol. 34(1) 73–93

Brush turkey mathematics

Four hens + eleven teenaged brush turkeys + several decoy eggs in the henhouse = one fresh chicken egg a day.  I can’t quite nut out this equation.  There are three intractable maths problems here.
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One is agricultural-cum-mathematical.  Why are three of our pampered pets failing to lay eggs?
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The second is at the point where philosophy meets mathematics, along the lines of “how many angels can dance on the head of pin”. Just exactly how many brush turkeys can occupy one suburban backyard?  And why are there so damn many of them?
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And then there’s the ethological question.  Given the apparently infinite number of turkeys, and clear evidence that they are unrepentant egg eaters, why are we enjoying any omelettes at all?
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What with the festival of poultry diseases we have been hosting lately, it’s not a big surprise that only sprightly Shyla continues to lay a regular egg.  She’s an Australorp, a new fangled breed, presumably with disease resistance as one of her mod cons, while, say, Treasure with her tedious moulting and brooding, is a Light Sussex, a breed that’s been around since Roman times.  I reckon that kind of pedigree is going to her a proclivity to old fashioned things, like the distinctly medieval-sounding fowl pox.

Being Top Chook doesn’t hurt Shyla’s capacity to pump out eggs. She makes sure she gets the best snacks by belting up to the garden gate as soon as she hears me coming and bounding in the air to grab scraps before I get a chance to dish them out.

But I’m not sure the other girls are getting quite enough to eat.

Now, I’m not saying that they’re wimps.  Even ancient, diminutive Snowball the silky bantam will frighten off nosy megapodes that try to butt in while she’s in the middle of breakfast.  But the trouble is, the chooks never sit down for a three course meal.  They’re snackers.  A few minutes of frenzied eating, and they wander off to nibble grass, have a dust bath, or in Shyla’s case, follow me around hoping I have better treats – say, limp grapes or weevil ridden grain.  If that’s not forthcoming she’ll taste-test the wet washing or have a red hot go at pecking my butt.

Shyla’s certainly not one to let starvation diminish her egg supply.  But by the time the other hens realise seconds wouldn’t go astray, it’s a teeny bit late.

No-one is 100% sure why there are so many damn brush turkeys in Brisbane and the northern suburbs of Sydney.  “I’m supposed to be the expert on brush turkeys and I still can’t explain why that’s going on,” commented Professor Darryl Jones of Griffith University, talking to the ABC.  He reckons numbers in Brisbane have increased by 700 percent in the last 20 years.

In the early 1990s, scientists thought moggies snacking on the unprotected chicks would put a stop to the urban invasion.  Nope.  The cluey babies will listen out for the alarm calls of just about any old bird, and as long as there’s enough cover they’ve got a chance.  Fox and dingo baiting mean grown-up life has been less brutish and short, and the water-wise mulching habits of modern gardeners have made mound building in suburbia extremely convenient.  The odd gormless adult bird might be taken by an ambitious powerful owl, willing to have a go at prey “at least 103%” of its own body weight, according to the remarkably precise estimates of scholarly birdwatchers.  But let’s face it, these owls are just not powerful enough in the brush turkey execution caper for my liking.

If anyone knows about megapodes it’s Dr Anne “Brushturkey robochickGöth, working down the road from here at Macquarie University. She’s explored every aspect of the weird story of how brush turkey babies, all on their own, dig their way out of their giant natal compost heaps – “the most nonavian life history you can get among creatures that are still feathered and lay hard-shelled eggs” – and then figure out without any parental guidance what they should eat and what will eat them, not to mention what the hell other brush turkeys look like without a glimpse of their parents or siblings.  Its no wonder they have a thing about mirrors.

Dr Göth’s erstwhile colleague up in Queensland, Prof. Jones, comments “fortuitously her arrival [in Sydney] coincided with a marked expansion of populations in the vicinity of the northern suburbs of the city” (2007, 3).  Mmmm.  Coincidence, eh, Dr Göth?  The gardeners and chicken keepers of the north shore are deeply, deeply suspicious.  Anyway, whether or not she has been deliberately breeding an evil army of brush turkeys in her secret underground lab, Dr Göth is on the money about the cause of the population explosion in my back garden – the ready supply of chook food.

So onto the final maths problem.  If there is an apparently infinite number of megapodes in our backyard, how come they haven’t spotted Shyla’s daily egg, sitting there, sometimes all day, next to its plastic companions?  Can’t brush turkeys count?

Rumour has it domestic chickens are a dab hand at maths.  Three day old chicks can figure out where to go left or right for a bigger pile of edible stuff even when items are added one by one, and each pile is hidden behind a screen.  This research by Rosa Rigosa from the University of Padua has been reported in the Telegraph under the headline “Chickens are cleverer than toddlers”.  But on my reading, 3 day old chicks should be put in charge of pairing our socks after washing, as they seem to a better grip on arithmatic and object permanence than the adults in our household do.

I have looked and failed to find for research on megapode counting skills. Dr Göth obviously hasn’t started work yet on this critical issue in animal cognition.  So I can’t tell if our continuing egg supply is a consequence of brush turkey innumeracy or if they are just lulling us into a false sense of security before brutally snatching away our remaining hope of home grown-protein. I guess we’ll have to see how this one plays out with our convenience sample in the back yard lab.

And if 1000 words on brush turkeys is barely enough for you, why not go read some more?

  • Goth, Ann and Maloney, Mary. Powerful Owl preying on an Australian Brush-turkey in Sydney [online]. Australian Field Ornithology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Jun 2012: 102-104
  • Göth, Ann and Uwe Vogel (2002) Chick survival in the megapode Alectura lathami (Australian brush-turkey) Wildlife Research 29(5) 503 – 511 Published: 30 December 2002
  • Göth, A., Nicol, K.P., Ross, G. & Shields, J.J. (2006). Present and past distribution of Australian Brush-turkeys Alectura lathami in New South Wales – implications for management. Pacific Conservation Biology 12, 22–30

The Problem That Has No Name

Betty Friedan’s analysis of the psychological consequences of compulsory happy housewifery for  1950s middle-class American women may not cut much ice in the twenty-first century, when two incomes drum up barely enough cash to rent a cardboard box under a Sydney bridge.  But in recent weeks I’ve started to wonder if Her Indoors in the Henhouse may still, even in this day and age, struggle with The Problem That Has No Name.

Treasure has just spent several weeks in the nest box, trying to hatch baby Light Sussex chicks from golfballs.  At about 11 am every day the frustration seemed to overwhelm her and she would leap from the coop, galloping madly around the yard, finally throwing herself into the nearest patch of scarified earth for a frenzied roll about.  And then, after an orgiastic dirt bath, back to the nest for another thankless 23 hours of golfball-warming. After a month or so of this, she seems to have given it all up as a bad joke: she’s spending her nights with the other girls now, out on the edge of the fig tree barrel, in the rain.  But she’s emerged from her confinement looking disturbingly downtrodden and scabrous.

Just to ramp up the poultry-keeping anxiety, we’ve also had an egg strike.  Snowball occasionally pops out a pocket-sized effort which we have a slim chance of collecting, if we leap up the minute it’s been laid and leg it down the yard, hurling any object at hand at the awaiting brush turkeys.  But otherwise, nada.

We have had these health concerns before.  In the past our concerns about the wasting disease fatally undermining the chooks’ productivity has usually ended with a discovery like this:

After extensive searching of the spider-rich environs around the yard, a mother-lode of eggs has yet to be found, though  I have come to the conclusion that “exclusion netting” may be something of a misnomer.

Could an infestation of red mites explain Treasure’s sorry state and the recent lack of omelettes?  Oddly, Friedan’s account of housewives’ distress in The Feminine Mystique never references insects.

The henhouse has been duly scrubbed and even sprinkled with wormwood, allegedly a natural insecticide.  If it doesn’t kill off the annoying bugs, perhaps we can set up a still in the woodshed, chuck in the left-over wormwood and help the chooks drown their sorrows with absinthe.  What with the late Victorian bohemian vibe, I think chickens wasted on absinthe would have higher self-esteem than your hen zoned out on “mother’s little helpers“.

Not entirely persuaded that the beverage of choice of the nineteenth century Parisian art world would also do a good job with the modern mite, I also cracked out some evil commercial pesticide and gave the very indignant Treasure a good dusting.

In the spirit of equal opportunity ignorance, I’d been doing my best to avoid reading the manual or asking for direction.  Eventually I cracked and consulted other, wiser chicken enthusiasts.  Almost immediately I found out from Tim-the-Chicken that your broody light Sussex often sashays straight into the egg-free zone of the annual moult.

It’s The Problem That Has No Name no more. It has a name, and its name is moulting.

I’m not sure what insights I’ve offered into twentieth century women’s history here.   Can we read the rising popularity of the bikini in the the 60s and 70s as some kind of symbolic human female “moulting”? Will we see birth rates and valium consumption rise again with the increasing popularity of the retro one piece swim suit and the burquini?  Who can say.  I’m simply hoping, like a scary social conservative, that Treasure will come to her senses, cover up those naked bits, stop running around the town and get back into the henhouse.

The Phantom Egg Eater: caught in the act!

At last, after yesterday’s sting operation, I can announce that we have finally exposed the identity of the Phantom Egg Eater.

Was it Luna, so long a marked hen after the damning outcome of her interrogation by the children? Or Andy Ninja, craving not just egg yolk, but a return to her lost youth? Or Treasure, driven to the edge by long days alone in the chicken coop, attempting to hatch offspring from a collection of golfballs?

Or was it Snakey, taking a break from the taste of toxin-laden rats?


After six months of suspicion and doubt, all of the above have been exonerated.

Yesterday, RB caught the culprit in the act.

It was Colonel Mustard, in the henhouse, with a candlestick.  Okay, there was no candlestick.  But the resemblance to Colonel Mustard is more than passing.

So it seems apt that, in the interest of maintaining a consistent omelette supply to the humans of the household, the Colonel will be getting a taste of his own medicine.  Whenever he’s in the Dining Room, or indeed, taking light refreshments in the Billiard Room, the Kitchen or the Abandoned Compost Bin, the canapes will inevitably be that 70s classic “stuffed eggshell with a giant mouthful of spicy condiments“.

It’s a relief to know that our girls are innocent of Egg Murder.  However, I’m not sure if I have the probation officer stripes to successfully rehabilitate the Colonel and potentially the entire brush turkey population of the Berowra Valley National Park, even if I had an infinite supply of Masterfoods’ Hot English Mustard. Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that the Colonel, and indeed Mrs Peacock, Miss Scarlett and other native poultry friends, haven’t got a secret passion for the stuff.

So perhaps it’s lucky that the silly season is coming up.  During the festive period I’m hoping my intensive work schedule will involve exhaustive ongoing surveillance of chicken conversation for boastful “I’ve laid an egg” cackles from a strategically chosen location (ie, an easy chair on the back deck).  To ensure the achievement of my critical key performance indicators (that is, collection of at least four intact eggs a day), it will obviously be essential to clear my diary of all other commitments to ensure that I am able to respond to The Egg Dance in a timely and flexible way. This zero tolerance approach to policing brush turkey misdemeanours is going to be a productivity challenge but I think we can rise to it.