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:

Having fun with no money

The untimely death of our favourite chicken Shyla has generated unaccustomed scenes of activity in our backyard.

We are not a dynamic household.  We are a posse of ponderers and ruminators, hoarders and procrastinators, ever ready with a “let’s not rush into things” or a “perhaps we should pause to examine this problem from all angles”.  In a disaster movie, we would be the bit-part characters who are consumed by a rising tide of magma while considering our escape plan from the easy chair with a view of the volcano.

But all that changed this week.  Fate intervened, in the form of a generous Hungarian freecycler whose guineapigs had gone to on a better world, leaving behind them the Taj Mahal of pet enclosures.

They say money makes the world go around.  But does it really?

Just add up all the things people do for love, or for family, or to be neighbourly or because it seems like it might be a hoot, and all stuff you can grow or swap or get as a hand-me-down or find by the side of the road (or, if you are my boat-building neighbour, at the bottom of the creek).  The gift economy may not have its own stock exchange, but things would grind to a halt pretty quickly if all the tuckshop volunteers, weekend soccer coaches and grannies with strollers called it a day.

As Noam Chomsky says in this fab video “We don’t have a capitalist system. No capitalist system has ever survived“.

Freecycle is a case in point.  With a trailer and a tolerance for cyberloitering, I reckon in less than three months you could completely furnish a McMansion without spending a cent.  Your home would admittedly be rich in bulky exercise equipment, large lamp shades, and clothing for the under threes, but still, the sheer quantity of stuff on offer is impressive.

And that’s without even considering what you can buy with the local currency – the Opera – in Sydney’s community exchange system – bartering with more bling, I guess you could call it.

Our new chook house was miracle of timeliness.  Fabulous finds on my local freecycle facebook page are  snapped up almost instantly.  In fact, even implausible things like half-used bottles of shampoo to be collected immediately from Mona Vale seem to be claimed with surprising speed. The new predator proof run – Colditz, as I’ve provisionally named it – turned up just before we headed off for an out-of-town family weekend.  Without the generosity of strangers, our chooks would have been an all-you-can-eat buffet for the newly emboldened feral foxes.

And then there was the gift of Dave.  Having eyeballed pics of the cage on facebook and figuring it was a shonky wood and chicken wire job of the sort I might cobble together myself, I reckoned if I knocked off work early, RB and I could wrestle it onto the top of our old Subaru Forester.  But hearing of our dead-chicken woes, Dave, RB’s workmate and ex-trucker, insisted on driving down from his place on the Central Coast, an hour away, to help us out.

And thank god he did.  Turns out our new 3 x 1.5 x 1 metre chook run is has rivets, a steel frame and weighs as much as a Panzer tank.  I could no more have lifted one end of it to head height than unicycled to the moon.  Dave, on the other hand, had the Hilux, the roof-rack, the reversing skills, the muscles and the shipping-big-things savvy to sort it, no wuckers.  Thanks Dave.  You are a legend.

It may not have the casual elegance or aquarium-lid clerestory window of Palm Beach, my own vernacular modernist masterpiece, but Colditz has a number of winning design features – most impressively, a sliding roof to cut down on the lower back pain associated, for inconveniently tall adults, with egg collecting (I’m hoping child labour will make the sliding sun roof unnecessary, but my track record of achieving such outcomes is poor).

What the new coop lacked, however, was a roost.  Having googled what the modern chicken requires of a night – apparently, just like in the contemporary bathroom, square is the new round – this is what I came up with.  Soft on the feet, in a range of widths for chickens of all shapes and sizes.

It looks disturbingly like bondage equipment.  Who would have thought old bicycle inner tubes and a repurposed wooden ladder could be so kinky?

It is possible that the girls prefer something a bit vanilla.  Given a choice, they seem find their way back to Palm Beach at dusk, where they can sleep in a egalitarian fashion, all on the same dowdy round perch, without even a whiff of rubber.

But don’t worry, with a bit of discipline, we’ll soon sort that out.

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

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.

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.

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.