Ghost chickens

We have poultry visitors from beyond the grave.

RB had a wild look in his eye after a visit to the henhouse last week.  “I just saw Luna!!”  That’s Luna the barred Plymouth Rock, who sadly, quietly, died about three weeks ago.  And then, the next day, I saw her too, or at least her fluffy wraith-like behind, evanescent in the half-light by the woodshed.

You may doubt the evidence of our eyes*.  I invite you to compare this spectral butt with the large as life hindquarters of Luna the barred rock in better days.  The resemblance is uncanny.

And now Shyla the Australorp, thankfully still hale and hearty, has been possessed by the feisty spirit of the late, great Andy Ninja.

Never having shown any signs of Houdini-like qualities while Andy was in this world, she now greets us every morning from the back step.  The garden gate, sturdy as an upcycled Ikea bedhead could ever be, and previously an impenetrable barrier, now presents no obstacle to her fulfilling her urge to join us in the dining room for breakfast.

Clearly Shyla has been inhabited over by a chicken possessed of both wisdom and wanderlust.  Andy Ninja walks amongst us again.

* or indeed you may suspect that this fluffy behind belongs to the authors of our adventures in passive scrumping, the Barnevelder-cum-Australorp-cum-(possibly)-barred-Rocks from next door.  You may be right.

Latchkey chicks

The local youth have been loitering around our place, nicking in without so much as a by-your-leave, cadging food and then disappearing as soon as the adults arrive with a basket of washing or a lawnmower (or a camera).

Normally at this time of year the offenders are brush turkey chicks, absurdly tiny and fluffy to be so completely unattended by any kind of parental figure.  Chooks the same age and size would be under the watchful eye of some stern motherly type, but brush turkey babies are the original latchkey chicks.  From the time they burrow their way out of the incubating mound, they’re on their own.

Brush turkey like to make their mounds where it’s really shady – 85-90% cover.  Our neighbours’ backyard is perfect and every now and then the little chicks squeeze through the fence  – or fly over it, something they can do from the time they’re only a few hours old – into our place.  This one doesn’t quite have the heft to work Grandpa’s foot-pedal activated chicken feeder, but it’s giving it a red hot go.

But this year the brush turkeys are not the only feckless youth about. One morning last week, I spotted two scrawny youngsters scuttling away behind the woodshed.  Two?  I’ve never seen a brush turkey babe with a buddy before.

It seems the neighbours’ pair of fledgeling Barnevelders occasionally like to slip away from their adoptive mum to rampage through our yard.  I was baffled by the sudden demolition of the “clucker tucker” patch –  a mix of tasty greens and seeds like bok choy, buckwheat,  clover, linseed, lucerne, millet, silverbeet and sunflower that I’d been carefully cultivating as a cover crop and future fodder supply.   Green Harvest’s website makes the droll comment that these plants “have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten”.  I’d carefully fenced it off from our own poultry demolition squad and the damage didn’t have that “visit from by a front end loader” look so characteristic of the work of brush turkeys so I was at something of a loss until I saw two sets of skinny dino-legs through a pullet-sized scrape under the fence.

I’m not sure what the allure of our backyard is.  I guess there are no handy bus shelters for the young team to hang out in around here, so our woodshed is the next best thing.  Recently I’ve seen one of the neighbour’s teenage chickens in the yard again, this time fraternising with an adolescent brush turkey. All fine and dandy, I’m sure (like any naive parent, I’m carefully not thinking about this kind of thing).

I’m taking tips on bringing up the kids from the chooks – the case for a free range childhood seems pretty sound to me.  So bring on the latchkey chicks!  I’m here to embrace the modern fowl – whether she be Alectura lathami or Gallus gallus domesticus – with her busy life as a working parent, and to celebrate her offspring’s initiative and spirit of independence. As long as the little fiends stay out of my silverbeet!

Reflections of a ground predator

Drawing of Andy bigger

What noise does a chicken make?

Some people might go for the classic “cockadoodle dooo!” of an rooster at the crack of dawn.

But many people probably come up with something like this: “Buck buck buck buck” (here’s a video example).  That’s what chickens sound like to most of us.

In fact, this is a specific type of chicken alarm call.  It means “Ground predator! Watch out!“.   In this video, there’s a cat on the prowl.  However, this call sounds so familiar to us humans, even those of us who are not chicken obsessives, because we are ground predators.  So what we think of as “normal chicken sounds” say less about what chickens normally do, and more about the fact that we’re there, and they’re keeping an eye on us.

Chickens make at more than twenty four different calls (check out some of them on this very interesting video), which are not only referential (“aerial predator” “food” and so on) but are uttered differently depending on who’s listening and what’s going on.  In fact, they can be quite machiavellian, deliberately “lying” (for instance, some males make a food call to attract females when there’s no food to be had – though since chickens can recognise and remember up to 100 individuals, this is not a good long term strategy!)  They are pretty cunning too.  In a recent article in Scientific American K-Lynn Smith and Sarah Zielinski explain how researchers resolved a problem: why do roosters frequently call out a warning about a passing hawk even when this might attract the hawk’s attention and put the rooster himself at risk.  They found that roosters are very strategic.  For instance, they observe that “a male calls more often if he is safe under a bush and his rival is out in the open, at risk of being picked off by a swooping predator. If the rooster is lucky, he will protect his girl, and another guy will suffer the consequences”.

To sum up, chickens are smarter than humans usually think (if not always nice), and humans… well, humans are ground predators.