Death & sibling rivalry

Both birds eyes crop better again

The sibling sparrowhawks in their favourite tree… in my backyard!

It’s happened. Our babies, only three weeks or so out of the nest, are now out there in the big wide world, killing for themselves.  It brings a tear to your eye.

Distant with second bird flying crop

Keeping an eye on little brother or sister

But it’s not all cheery dismemberment:  there’s trouble in the nest.  The siblings to have an uneasy relationship.  I often see them perched on adjacent branches, and when they’re further apart they call out to each other every now and then.  And when one takes off to hunt, the other often falls into line, disappearing suddenly in a simultaneous dive.

But there’s also a certain amount of what might be described in human siblings as petty jealousy.

Yesterday I stood on a chair on the deck for an hour watching one of the sibs engage in  a comprehensive preening session / extended tai chi practice.  I wonder whether this serious self-care might have been the consequence of getting tangled up in one of the humungous org spiders webs stretched out between the trees to catch dragonflies, cicadas and, for the really ambitious arachnid, a passing sparrowhawk.

Preening headless profile tail out crop b&w

… and the headless sparrowhawk

I found the “revenge of the headless raptor” impressive, but his nestmate, looking on from a high branch, seemed rather unimpressed.

Distant top brother looking down b&w

Jeering at silly sibling

But both martial arts and sneering were set aside when the fledgling in the upper branches spotted something tasty beyond the neighbour’s yard.

Juvenile sparrowhawk wings raised square

I’m off…

There was a simultaneous stoop, and then a fracas in the jungle at the bottom of the garden.

White cheeked honeyeater crop

Dinner… a white cheeked honeyeater I prepared earlier

I don’t think the squawking was the work of dinner – an unfortunate white-cheeked honeyeater (rarely seen in our yard.  I wonder why…).  I reckon the ring-ding battle was between the sibs.

The winner landed, very conveniently for me, right next to my washing line, showing the total indifference to human proximity that seems to characterize most young raptors.


Sparrowhawk profile left with untouched prey

The lucky sibling with significantly less lucky white cheeked honeyeater

This diffidence did not extend to the presence of little brother or sister though.

Juvenile looking behind for rival

Keeping an eye out


















Juvenile with head turned mouth open amended


Just a few moments after the winner landed with their prize, there was another skirmish.  Luck favours the prepared, and this youngster was in position, with wings spread out protectively around the prey like a sort of meat umbrella. Ew, what a nasty image.

The hungry one had another go, and to be honest, I’m not really sure who was successful, since neither juvenile has any distinctive marks (like a scar over one eye or a dragon tattoo or anything) I am completely unable to tell them apart.

Juvenile plucking the prey

Settling in for a good plucking

Anyway, someone had a lovely meal of raw songbird and someone sat nearby looking on and feeling sorry for themselves.

Sibling watching

Luckless sibling looking on at the feast

Nevermind, buddy.  I’m sure there’s be some tiny, tasty, rather slow birds on the menu for you sometime soon.

The backstory of the serial killers in our backyard…

The new generation of sparrowhawks emerges from the nest…

Baby brush turkeys versus nestling sparrowhawks… the battle of the backyard baby birds

The collared sparrowhawks return to our backyard… or are they brown goshawks?

A first glimpse of the sparrowhawks… and a beautiful white goshawk visits the washing line

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?

Death, hot compost and chicken addictions

Something weird happened today.  With a self-important summons to the other chooks, Treasure sped over the large disgusting vat of compost tea lurking under the tumbler and took a long, luxurious drink. After a good sup, she briskly trotted away with the kind of dirty stain on her snowy chest that speaks of an all-absorbing gastronomic experience.  Is this a chicken version of the breakfast long black?

Chicken coffee

Nom nom nom

Knowing as I do in the contents of the compost tumbler – innocent things like lawn clippings, comfrey cuttings and fallen maple leaves; but also less pleasing items –  mouldy citrus peel, rotten pears and fetid greens, barnhouse bedding weighed down with healthy gobbets of chicken manure, and in consequence a fine array of crawling and creeping things, their offspring and their excreta – the idea of the chickens necking great drafts of the liquid that oozes from this brew is really quite disturbing.

In general, I view keeping chickens as bit like teaching adults (my day job).  Kindy teachers have to wipe away tears, give cuddles and clean up vomit, but when you teach in higher education you can more or less rely on students to handle the basics on their own.  I don’t like to patronise my chooks – I reckon they have a fair idea of where to hang out, how to spend their time and what’s okay to eat.

But perhaps I’m being too laissez faire.  Maybe I should treat my hens more like my children and start policing their behaviour a bit more vigilantly.  Possibly letting the girls drink compost tea is the equivalent of doling out supersized glasses of Coke (and a Happy Meal?) to under tens.

This is the dark side of the compost tumbler.  It seems so sleek and neat, holding its dubious contents high above things that squirm and scamper and gnaw in the night.  You spin her wheel and steer her like a noble vessel towards the promised land of super-speedy compost, black gold faster than lightning.  And I can say, hand on heart, that after fifteen years of steadfast unintentional cold composting, one bucket of kitchen scraps at a time, with this tumbler, I’ve seen my very first batch of the good stuff, cooked within an inch of its life.  While most things (except for teaspoons and the plastic tags on bread bags) will rot down eventually regardless of how incompetently you build your heap or how infrequently you turn the pile, there is something glorious about seeing steam rising from your compost and knowing the nasties – weed seeds and plant viruses and pathogens – have been fricasseed.

But the path to hot compost is not pure.  Here’s what I found on the innocuous sounding Soil Forum while hunting out the best compost recipes, the perfect balance between browns (carbon rich things that crunch) and greens (nitrogen rich things that squelch):

“when we say that “anything” can go into a tumbler, we do mean “almost anything”. Whole small animals are OK but I would do deer heads in a separate pile! (Make too much noise flopping around in there!) I do have 20 deer lower legs on hand but they’d create quite a tangle sent through in one batch. However, I may simply saw them in half and run them all through the next hot batch.”

No, that wasn’t a post from Sarah Palin, though I’m sure she could cook up a fine tumblerful of deer-heads if she turned her hand to it. In case you were wondering, deer body-parts would count as greens (squelch).  Always put them in the very centre of your tumbler, where it’s hottest. (seriously, in contrast to anything Sarah might say, for rat, health and aesthetic reasons I never compost dead animals – there’s not a lot of corpses going round in a vegetarian household, and any tragedies that do occur are accompanied by a tiny funeral and ceremonial interring)

That said, there’s no getting around it: composting is still all about death and decomposition.  An interesting bit of that Peter Greenaway film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” comes to me.  The cook says:

“I charge a lot for anything black. Grapes, olives, black currants. People like to remind themselves of death. Eating black food is like consuming death. Like saying: “Death, I’m eating you”. Black truffles are the most expensive. Caviar. Death and birth. The end and the beginning.”

I quite like the idea that the chickens are engaged in some kind of philosophical act drinking up their ordure-enriched powerade.  That it’s not just forbidden pleasure, the subtle piquancy of insect exoskeletons or a health-giving blast of liquidised potassium that holds such appeal, but that they’re drinking deep from the existential heart of gardening.

What lurks in brush turkey bellies?

This is my other flock, the brush turkeys.  I think there are about six of them using our place as a recreation area and take-away just now.  Teenagers and youngsters, I think, none of the absurdly young yet unattended chicks at the moment – the hatching season must be over.


Our fences are not so much boundary markers, more convenient perching sites and high level walkways, attractive and arboreal, a little like New York’s famous High Line.  When we bought our vermin proof chicken feeder (made by Grandpa, it seems) we were warned not to train the chooks how to use it in front of cockatoos.  Though individually cockies are not heavy enough to step onto the foot pedal and trigger the lifting of the feeder lid, apparently they are quite capable of learning to saunter on mob-handed and get a feed that way.  It took the chooks a few weeks to get used to the clanging as the pedal went down and the feeder opened.  The learning curve for the brush turkeys was pretty steep it seems.  They are casual snackers at this stage.

So I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks thinking about the contents of brush turkey guts and the parasitic load of brush turkey ordure.  We lost another chick (Turbo… sniff) and I’m blaming the turkeys rather than myself.  Viral and bacterial vectors, flapping and crapping all round the yard.  We couldn’t leave little Shyla to join the big chickens all on our own, so we went back to the hatchery and got some older and hopefully more robust pullets.  But now the veil of naivete has been drawn back and I’m expecting more deaths, despite Sulfa3, cider vinegar, natural yoghurt snacks and regular anxious visits to the bottom of the yard where the young ‘uns are segregated in their chook dome from bigger fowl. I’m not sure I can bear to lose any more, at least not yet.

So I’m going for a chemical blitz, on new chicks and the old. Still thinking through which antibiotics I should have in the cupboard for the inevitable emergency.  And when I’m dosing up the chickens, I’ll also be dosing up the brush turkeys, our involuntary companion animals.

Killing your babies

So, poor little Donna the Barnevelder died.  Despite the medicated water and the vaccinations, the expensive rented brooder with its profligate wood shavings, the mercy dash to the Pet Barn for pharmaceuticals.  She heaved her last, suddenly, huddled in RB’s hands, before even losing her last baby fluff.  People wiser in the ways of poultry than we may know why.   Obviously, we blame ourselves.  She became RB’s favourite chick posthumously.

Now we are watching the remaining two chicks like hawks.  No, that came out all wrong. What I’m trying to say is: we are watching them anxiously for signs that they might be poorly whilst, at the same time, trying to remember that infancy is a numbers game.  And consoling ourselves that, for all our inadequate husbandry, at least these are not McNuggets.  If only you make it through the tough early days, girls, there’s a promise of near-infinite insect prey and greenery. Hang in there!  Wrangle that microbiome!  The sunny uplands of maturity await.

Ok, so the news hound metaphor may be redundant, even tasteless.  But there’s so much more I could say here: about the cruel elisions of a “dolphins will nudge out your baby” view of reproduction; or the fundamental unpredictability of gardens and the things that live there, fairly large and very very small; or the not entirely perfect miracle that is vaccination. But enough.  Goodnight Donna, you are not just a metaphor, not at all.