What’s inside the bird cage?

Not artichokes.

I spent all of last autumn dreaming of artichokes.

In the three years since my last bumper crop, which grew splendidly with no attention at all while we were half a world away, I have tried and failed to get more magnificent edible thistles towering over my veggie patch.

Our garden is a challenging environment for any seedling.  I suspect the sad fate of the last two generations of artichokes can be attributed to the deep gloom that descends on the yard around the time of the autumn equinox.  But there are other possible suspects in the frame…

Yes, rabbits.  My transition to the Mr McGregor, the homicidal carrot fancier in Peter Rabbit is now complete.  But so far I’ve avoided GBH with a shovel.  Instead I got me a fine flock of bird cages.

A budgie lover in Berowra must have had a mass break-out just before the last heavy rubbish day and I was the lucky beneficiary.

But my visions of bounty weren’t to be.  I’m not sure if some small but dextrous herbivore lifted up the tiny food hatch and sneaked in for a unappetising meal of baby thistles or if the artichokes lost the will to live in dank captivity.  On the upside, budgie cages are evidently great at keeping rabbits off your rocket.

Not strawberries

So, there are no artichokes in my bird cages.  And so far, there’s no strawberries either.

My other score from the last council cleanup was a load of aviary wire and some nice hardwood architraves.  A few bucks on hinges and I was able to put into place the final stage of my termite-assisted plan to reduce my erstwhile (and totally pointless) garden path into rotten timber. My aim: to grow strawberries under the flight path of the gate-that-used-to-be-a-bed.  Or more precisely, to grow strawberries for human rather than chicken consumption.

I was pretty happy the outcome of my chookhouse-tolerances joints, held together with an assortment of mixed screws from the jar at the back of the cupboard.

Thus far the chooks haven’t managed to break in but the strawberries seem somewhat oppressed by their location.  Every day is a bad hair day.  I’m hoping they’ll be ugly but productive but the signs don’t look good so far.

On the bright side, lazily throwing scratch mix over the gate has produce a little protected patch of green in the razed earth of the chook yard.  I’m not sure the strawberries enjoy the competition from wheatgrass, but the hens have a hippie feast every time I do the weeding.

Fewer chickens than there oughta be.

Sadly, on one bleak and rain drenched evening in the middle of winter, most of our hens weren’t in the birdcage either.  Only Cyan, bottom of the pecking order thanks to her gammy eye, and Treasure, broody as usual, were in Colditz, the predator proof cage, when a hungry fox came to visit.

Only one of the chooks that had been perched in the favoured roost, the potted fig tree, survived, a fairly run-of-the-mill Barnevelder whose name we could never quite remember.  After the slaughter, we renamed her Xena as a mark of her prowess in battle.  Bold and beautiful Cleo, curmudgeonly Snowball, at least 8 years old, feisty Morgan, shy but reliable Abby and inexpertly named Tigress all disappeared or were found in bits in the yard the next morning by the shellshocked RB.    Given the sad end of Shyla under similar circumstances at the same season the year before, you can only conclude we are poor chicken keepers and, frankly, very slow learners.

So now, come rain or shine, you’ll find our remaining hens locked up every night.  At the moment, it’s a lonely night for Xena, locked up in Palm Beach.  Her mum, Treasure, laid low by has some mysterious ailment, has been in the intensive care ward in the laundry, while one-reviled Cyan has now attained the pre-eminent position of queen of Colditz, adoptive mother to three new day-old chicks.

Fortunately, Xena can always rely on her playdates.  Just like next doors’ kids, the neighbours’ hens nip through gap in the fence and hang around outside waiting for our girls to be let out for the day.  They share a feed and if we’re lucky lay an egg or two on our side of the “magic portal” (to clarify: we get eggs from the chooks but sadly not the kids).

Three cheers for the return of stay-at-home scrumping!  Low-level food thievery without even leaving your own backyard.

And no baby brushturkeys

Until they’re 12 weeks old, the chicks are confined to Colditz along with their adoptive mum, in case they get eaten by a kookaburra or pecked to death by one of their loving aunties.  None of them are taking imprisonment well.

Smuggling the chicks (sexed and vaccinated and genetically disparate) under relentlessly broody Cyan at the crack of dawn was a doddle. Especially compared the sleepless night I spent as a ignorant featherless human trying to keep the wee things safe and warm in a cardboard box under a desk lamp without setting the house on fire.

chicks-in-sunlight-eye-open-crop

They were happy at first.  But these days, the chicks and their mum spend most of their time pacing the length of the cage, apparently hoping to find a hidden exit.  Their only distraction is the thrill of scratching through the bug, straw and leaf litter mixture left in the potato patch after this year’s laughably miniscule harvest of spuds.

They’re particularly plaintive when they have visitors.

I’m not sure if all that frantic peeping is concern that one of their number has apparently gone astray from the flock, or jealousy that the baby brush turkey is free to roam the yard at will.

The little brush turkey spends a surprising amount of time close by, staring intently into the cage.  Perhaps there’s something more to it than the chick crumble dropping through the wire floor.  One night, tiptoeing down to shut in Xena for the night, I saw him roosting there, right on top of the cage.  Strange behaviour from a chick that never meets its siblings or its mother, let alone snuggling together with them at night.

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.

 

Chicks in Colditz: this week on Chicken TV

For a gardening blog, we get our fair share of disappointed p@rn watchers, or so I surmise from the viewer stats*.  Having excitedly entered the search terms “nude” and “naughty birds”, it must be a real passion killer to find yourself reading about pied currawongs defoliating my pine tree.  And I do pity the devotee of BDSM hunting for “rubber” “bondage” and “backyard” and coming up with a pic of my bespoke, soft-to-the-claw chicken perch.  So I suspect it’s possible that some of the readers of this post may be disappointed not to encounter saucy black-and-white photos of girls in revealing military uniforms leaning provocatively over the wooden glider (built for an escape attempt from the Nazis’ high-security prisoner of war camp) known as the “Colditz Cock“.

But surely even elderly erotica enthusiasts couldn’t fail to be charmed by these pictures of the real chicks that have arrived in Colditz, our predator-proof chicken enclosure, this week.

“Dunk her in cold water” was the hard nosed advice RB’s workmates gave to get our broody Light Sussex Treasure out of her nest full of golfballs and plastic easter eggs.  Then it came to me in a flash: I’d been stonewalling our eight year old’s pleas for baby chicks for at least a year – and this was the perfect time to give in. I put two and two together and came up with five: five little fluffsters – two Barnevelders, a Barred Rock, an Australorp and a patterned Leghorn.

RB collected them from our local supplier of fancy vaccinated hens to bourgeois urban chicken lovers on Friday, and Operation Instant Motherhood was put into action later the same day`.  Sneaking into Colditz in the dead of night kind of breaks with tradition. Equally, I’m sure no escape attempt was ever made with a peeping chick in either hand.  But slipping the littlies underneath Treasure’s wing wasn’t the nerve-racking part of proceedings.  That came at dawn as the youngest and I stole into the coop to see whether our broody was a natural mother or a natural eye pecker.

It was a close thing for a while. Treasure seemed disoriented and faintly hostile at the unexpected transformation of her golfballs into hatchlings, as well she might be.  There were a few savage pecks, which thankfully caught my reproving hand rather than the chicks’ tender eyeballs.

Then Morgan, the feisty pattern leghorn, stepped out from under a wing towards the bowl of chick food.  She was spotted and instantly froze.  Treasure stayed curiously immobile too.  They stayed stock still for at least a couple of minutes (to me, dwelling all the hard work and poo removal involved in raising chicks in an indoor brooder, it seemed like an eternity).  There was some sort of transcendental moment in which all things seemed to somehow resolve themselves, and the vision of five cute little bloodied corpses laid out on the floor of Colditz began to dissipate.

When Morgan tentatively stepped forward again, Treasure left her in peace.  In fact, after watching the little ones tucking in, she started to refuel too.  She seems to be eating in a new and odd way, crunching the chick starter in her beak as if breaking it into tiny chick-friendly pieces and making a new short clucking noise that I think means “try this, it’s really not too bad“.

The chicks seem most interested in eating bugs, including a range of invisible bugs from Treasure’s face, which seemed to endear them to her tremendously.

If Treasure has come round to mothering, Snowball the silky bantam seems to be longing to join in.  She spent most of Saturday doing laps of Colditz, looking for the entrance to a secret tunnel.  Silkies have a reputation for being exceedingly motherly, so I’m assuming she wasn’t spoiling for a fight, but I’m not sure we’ll smuggle her in with the others quite yet.  We’ve been told to leave it til the chicks are ten weeks old before we let them demob and mingle with the older chooks and, of course, the young team of brush turkeys (or “flying disease vectors” as I sometimes like to call them) hanging around our backyard.

There probably isn’t going to be a happy ending for every one of the chicks stationed in Colditz.  Our copybook is far from unblemished and there’s a worrying rattle in Treasure’s chest (I fear sputum rather than gold). But I guess it wouldn’t be top rating Chicken TV without the plot twists, the high drama and the fear that any day now those enchanting characters might meet their doom.

*Yes, WordPress knows a lot about you, noble reader, but then, if you live in Australia, every petty official has access to a complete collection of your metadata without a warrant, so better get used to it

Previously on Chicken TV:

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?

Andy Ninja’s great escape

Andy Ninja was always a chicken with a mission.  She arrived at our place, in the company of her rather macho sister Harley, already in possession of a name that perfectly captured her special qualities, thanks to the penetrating insights of my chicken-wrangling nieces.

Within a year she’d made her first break for freedom.  A quarter acre block just couldn’t contain her ambitions.

Most mornings we’d wake up to find her scratching up the trad in the front garden, her daily constitutional in no way hindered by clipped flight feathers or the locked garden gate.  Then one morning she toodled up the drive and didn’t come back.

There was no tell tale trail of torn feathers, but after a couple of days I tried to gently break it to the kids that Andy probably wasn’t coming back.  All the fox-baiting national park rangers in the world weren’t going to save a chook on the loose overnight on the mean streets of Berowra.

My eldest was in denial.  She hand-crafted a “missing” poster, complete with full-colour portrait and I nailed it over our mailbox.  Some kind of closure at least, I figured.

A week later, I get a phone call from some folks down the street.  Andy Ninja, it seems, was that proverbial chicken who crossed the road.  She had introduced herself to a new family, laid them some eggs and made herself at home in their kitchen.  They were in love with her.  There were childrens’ tears as the unrepentant adventurer was returned.

Don’t get me wrong.  Andy liked to roam, but she knew her own stomping ground. A couple of years back we spent a few months overseas.  While we were gone, some young Swedes rented our place.  They weren’t keen to be small-holders, so our generous and well organised neighbours, chicken aficionados from way back, offered to take in our birds for the duration.

We gave the chooks a week or so to settle into their new high security quarters – a proper coop, enclosed on all sides with wire, with a sturdy dog-proof outdoor run.  After our haphazard fencing and half-baked sleeping arrangements, surely the chooks would be safe and sound in the custody of some proper chicken keepers.

By Day Two, Andy Ninja had made her way home.  I returned from work to find her mooching around in our yard.  We had stern words and passed her over the fence.

On Day Three, she was back again.  Our chicken-wise neighbour assured us confidently that with close wing clipping, there would be no repeat offenses.

We woke up on the morning of our flight out to see this view from the window.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when we arrived in London, to receive a slightly aggravated email from our Swedish tenants asking what to do about the chicken that, despite previous arrangements, had turned up on the premises.

Or to receive another one, a week later, saying that actually, it turns out that they quite liked having the chicken around and what should they buy it for treats.

While we were gone, Andy Ninja was quite the chicken around town, it seems.  Our poultry-hosting neighbours would get phone calls at all hours reporting sightings of a neat brown chicken strolling down the main street.  Was it one of theirs?  Our friends up the drive also got regular visits.  Andy would pop into their shed to learn a bit more about welding, or perambulate through their herb garden to monitor the watering.

She survived abandonment by jetsetters.  She survived a week on her own on the street.  She survived, we suspect, a midnight attack by an ambitious tawny frogmouth, perched, as she was, all alone on the top of the chook dome.  At one point, Andy transitioned to become a she-rooster who crowed in the morning and made eyes at her flock mates.  And then started laying eggs again.  After months under surveillance as a suspect in The Case of the Cannibal Chicken, she emerged, eventually, entirely vindicated.

I have to admit, Andy wasn’t wildly keen when the hefty newcomers arrived and stole her place at the top of the pecking order, but she rolled with the punches.  She was bit miffed when her perch, the chook tractor, was repurposed into a brush-turkey-proof brassica zone, but she sighed and settled down next to the pushy new girls on the edge of the potted figs. She outlived her bikie sister and a large percentage of the world’s twenty billion chickens, with their abbreviated and unfree lives.

But she didn’t survive this week.

Something – maybe Marek’s disease, maybe “wet” fowl pox, maybe both – has rolled through our little flock, despite our middle class pretention of expensive, vaccinated hens.  Luna quietly expired a week or so ago, and despite an attempt to segregate the sick bird, Andy went a few days after.  On her last day, looking horribly under the weather, she simply disappeared, her mysterious ninja powers undiminished by age and illness.

She’s made her final break for it and it looks like she’s got away for good this time.  We will surely miss her.

A grand day out

Time to get the fully feathered chicks – all of 6 weeks old – out of the brooder in the kids’ bedroom.  To my amazement the new coop, which weighs the same as a gas giant, does actually fit under the chook dome.   After Donna’s departure, I’m a bit worried about plunging the peepers straight into the fowl-and-brush-turkey-ordure-rich environment of the run, so we’ll give them a few weeks in the chicken tractor, getting a garden bed ready for brassicas.  They had a first scratch around this afternoon, ready for the big move tomorrow.

Andy is looking very miffed by these developments.  I caught her lurking in the new coop – I think she envisages it as her own personal quarters.  She was transfixed by the sudden appearance of the new girls, so I was able to grab her and turf her out before any argy-bargy.  However, Snowball and Andy have been using the top of the dome as a perch, so they were wandering around the run at something of a loss at sundown tonight.  They have a whole series of dry places to sleep – under the granny flat, in the wood-shed – but since they seemed to favour a spot underneath the neighbour’s horrible coral tree, we leaned a ladder (a previous craft project) against the outside of the woodshed, exactly where the chicken dome used to be.  I tried to give Andy the idea but she wasn’t having it.  Hope they are somewhere out of the rain tonight….