Welcome back, beautiful stranger

Sparrowhawk square crop old

It shows a certain lack of character and imagination to be keen on raptors, but I can’t help it.  I love them anyway.  Even the whistling kites and white-bellied sea eagles I clock every single weekend out in my boat on the Hawkesbury give me enough of a thrill to  clog up my computer’s hard drive with a thousand pictures of them in every conceivable posture and mood.

So two years ago, when I caught this beauty in my backyard, I was beside myself with excitement.  It’s a collared sparrowhawk, one of three species of Acciper found in Australia, along with the very similar brown goshawk and the hauntingly beautiful grey goshawk.  So beautiful that on my one and only encounter with one (whilst pegging out the washing) my camera fainted and so in its barely conscious state was only capable of producing a groggy quasi-mystical image of the world’s only pure white raptor.

I know our beautiful visitor in 2015 was a sparrowhawk and not the very similar looking brown goshawk, having been schooled on the key differences.  Brown goshawks are slightly grumpier and more threatening looking, with a beetle brow and chunkier legs.  Both species, it is said, waggle their tail on landing, but the sparrowhawk does it a tiny bit more rapidly.  As my brother, a much more expert bird watcher than I am, points out, this has to be the most arcane and pointless advice for distinguishing two very similar looking birds.  “Sorry lads, the video of your tail waggling was slightly out of focus.  Can you just circle round and land side by side on that branch again?”

Collared sparrowhawks also have another feature – the absurdly long middle toe of the collared sparrowhawk, used to grip its prey while it systematically plucks them (starting at the vent) and then devours them.  It’s moments like these you’re grateful not to be a sparrow or a silvereye, isn’t it?

But is that enough to tell the difference between a goshawk and a sparrowhawk?  Both apparently have these long middle toes – the sparrowhawks’ toes are just longer and more delicate.

There are other differences too.  Goshawks have a rounded tail, and a smaller eye.  So is it welcome back stranger… or good to see you, lifer?

Both the collared sparrowhawk and the brown goshawk are widespread through their range in Australia and New Guinea – they can be found in arid areas as well as woodlands and suburbia.  They are one of the few raptors that will perch and hunt in gardens, as I saw today.  The fact that they’re partial to a snack on introduced birds like sparrows, starlings and newly hatched chickens (gulp!) may be one reason why they’re considered “of least concern” to people who worry about the current mass extinction event.

But still, they’re not exactly common. Numbers declined from the 1940s through to the 1980s thanks to DDT, although the effect of this insecticide – thinning the shells of eggs – seems to have been less dramatic for them than peregrines and some other raptors.  Loss of habitat for the small birds that sparrowhawks like to eat and competition from pied currawongs that will (somewhat implausibly to my mind) attack both adults and chicks are other threats.

It’s been a long couple of years since that last wonderful visit.

But over the last few days there’s been a new sound from the decrepit pine trees that stand (or should I say lean) between our place and our neighbours’.  At first I thought it was a whiny juvenile wattlebird begging for a feed – the call was a kind of feeble high pitched kik-kik-kik-kik.  And then I saw a creamy coloured bird with wide striped wings and a blunt head, superficially like the “green” satin bowerbirds that hang around here all year round scrounging off my chilli bushes and demolishing my bean plants.

But there’s something distinct and decisive about the way raptors fly.  I eventually got a good look as the bird chilled out in the trees, waiting to ambush passing little passerines, which they catch on the wing.  I’m really hoping they have a taste for noisy miners.

good sideways distant crop wide

These really are very low-key birds.  “Often lives unnoticed in mature-treed suburban parks and gardens” one ornithology site comments about sparrowhawks… “easily overlooked”.  Having spent quite a bit of today staring slightly hopelessly into the naked branches for an immobile, unconcerned and well camoflaged bird of prey I can confirm this.   “Trusting and approachable“, the Peregrine Trust’s turn of phrase for a collared sparrowhawk, seems like a slightly embarrassing description for a predator.

Sparrowhawk profile crop tighter still

A gorgeous profile on display.  One very chilled out bird.

The grumpy reputation of Brown Goshawk is apparently not just a consequence of their Resting Bitch Face.  They’re also apparently quite aggro around the nest.  True to form, sparrowhawks are said to be calmer.

Perhaps this parental behaviour will be the solution to my ID problem.  There’s a nest made of sticks high in the neighbour’s pine tree, a spot I saw the sparrowhawk returning to several times today.  If there’s anything better than grown up raptors in your backyard, it’s a clutch of baby raptors.

nest rop

Could this be a sparrowhawk nest?

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.

Nude trees and naughty birds

Who lives in our backyard?  How would I know? I haven’t been paying attention.

I see a flash of black and white down by the chook run and what do I think?  “Magpie”.  Humans, huh?

Yesterday, ominous thumps and crashes below the lightning-riven radiata pine had me racing to see if it had finally succumbed to a pincer movement of termites and southerlies.  But no, the demolition job was courtesy of a pied currawong, ripping the tree apart like it was a lego construction.  Well, a lego construction with integral insects.  Since in the (distant) future Lego will apparently be “sustainable”, one day this might even be a thing.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Lego’s green-washing target date is a decent decade and a half away.  Depending on how significant bark is to the structural rigidity of defunct pine trees we might need to use those infestation-proof plastic bricks – we’ve got enough of them under furniture and half buried in the garden – to rebuild our crushed house.

That’s if the currawongs are here to stay – and they might be.  Back in the day, before the ’40s, currawongs came down from the mountains to visit Sydney over the winter, but now they hang out in the big smoke all year round.  They like it down here, snacking on cute little birds and munching up the tasty berries of our attractive invasive plants.   If I want to save the roof, that monster privet the size of a redwood may have to go.

And a sighting today of another naughty black bird has cast doubt on the long-settled verdict in the Case of the Phantom Egg-Eater.

There was a stramash this morning between a crowd of brush turkeys and an crow, the latter carrying something that from a distance might appear to resembled a chicken’s egg.  I have no pictures of the actual incident but only an image extracted from the raven’s dream, in which hens’ eggs are light as a feather and easily borne in the beak for leisurely later consumption in convenient locations.

Later investigations showed that a freshly laid chook egg had indeed be devoured, but, in addition, one of the fake plastic eggs, carefully placed in the nest with to confuse and baffle hungry brush turkeys, had also vanished.

I’m not sure what this tells you about corvid intelligence but to me it suggests that ravens are optimists.  Apparently young European ravens are extremely curious.  In experiments where juvenile birds were offered “novel inedible items”, it seems, “birds never missed any potentially edible item … even with “highly cryptic objects”.”  I think it would be fair to call last year’s Easter hunt left-overs “highly cryptic objects”.  Maybe this was a young ‘un because apparently adult ravens are “neophobic”.  I’m assuming this doesn’t mean harbouring a hatred for Keanu Reeves in the Matrix sequels (though this is not an unreasonable viewpoint), but rather preferring actual foodstuffs to eccentric plastic replicas.

Where does the arrival of this new mob of razor sharp egg-robbers leave our prospects of our home-grown protein?  I can almost certainly outwit a brush turkey, but the socially adept, tool-using raven with the problem solving skills of a seven year old might give me a run for my money.  Perhaps I should plant some more broad beans.

And there’s more backyard black-feathered bandits where they came from.  The red-eyed, jet-feathered male koels are gone for the season, but the bowerbirds are back – mostly the “greens” – olive, stripey young bloods and females – but every now and then there’s a flash of violet-black as a grown male, glossy and gorgeous, disappears, full bellied, into the shrubbery, after a exhausting afternoon of shredding my kiwifruit vines.

But, despite my doziness, there was no way I could mistake today’s most magical visitor for a common or garden magpie.  Nude trees held no allure for her.  She watched me, still and cautious, from a leafy branch low in the hibiscus, patiently waiting for maybe five long minutes while I snapped away incredulously.

I reckon she came after the noisy miners that have descended on us over the winter, yipping and snapping at the wattle birds.  Last I saw the sparrowhawk, she was gliding off through the jungle at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden, indignant miners in hot pursuit.  I’m hoping she got the best of them.  What a fitting end for those hateful lerp eaters – fastidiously “killed, plucked and eaten”, all the while clutched in a sparrowhawk’s long and elegant middle toe.

I hope she’ll be back.  I’ll be keeping watch.

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.

Andy Ninja, cannibal chicken?

A good couple of years after apparently going through the “the change” and only a few months since she was regularly crowing at dawn, Andy Ninja’s back on the lay.  They’re not particularly beautiful eggs – sometimes crimped like they’ve been extracted with forceps or she’s stopped for a breather mid-lay; sometimes exceedingly delicate; often broken – but eggs nonetheless.  She seems to favour the long abandoned compost bin: quiet, private and less heavily policed by huffy uber-femmes than the nestbox.  And thanks to my laziness in the composted-cardboard-shredding department, eggs laid there are even honestly labelled.

At the very same time  Andy starts producing her miracle eggs, The Phantom Egg Eater has returned.  It’s a suspicious coincidence. The veteran, yearning for the good old days when she trotted up to the house to lay an egg a day, regular as clockwork.  The aging chicken willing to do anything to return to those glory days….

…anything… even taking other hens’ eggs… younger hens… pretenders to the throne… taking their lesser eggs and transmuting them, creating… yes!…. my very own marvellous eggs…

Okay, so I had fully worked up a vision of a tormented yet triumphant Andy Ninja, guiltily gorging herself, all to restore faded reproductive glory. But natural justice must be done: I needed proof.

In the quest to catch the egg eater in the act, I hot footed it to the bottom of the garden at the first triumphant cackle yesterday morning.   Andy is just lifting herself off a still-warm mid-life egg.  This one’s intact and I’ve stolen it before she has a chance have any kind of peck.  She retreats, a picture of innocence. Content of the paragraph

Suspicious andy cropped

Andy walks straight past the pre-damaged plastic egg in the least favoured laying spot – the old lawn mower catcher under the granny flat. Only used in moments of desperation.

But here’s a plot twist: as soon as Andy leaves the compost bin, Shyla the Australorp moseys in.  Is she settling down to lay?  No – moments later she reappears, looks around (are any witnesses?), and darts away.  So it’s Shyla!

But wait! A minute or two later, Luna the Barred Rock arrives on the scene, ducks into the compost bin, peers about and then pops out again.  Nothing to see here.

Oh my god!  They’re all at it. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express!

I need a plan.

Someone on a backyard chicken forum recommended a strategy for dealing with egg-eaters:  fill a cracked egg with hot English mustard.  The culprit will gulp down what it thinks is the yolk and learn its lesson rather sharply.

No English mustard in the house, just a rather toothsome wholegrain French. And no broken egg.  So why not cover one of the plastic ones with mustard and do a bit of pre-emptive operant conditioning?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Only I forgot: the chooks like to snuggle up to the fake eggs as they settle down to lay, scooting their little plastic treasures from one side of the nestbox to the other if need be.  With their beaks.  I race down to the henhouse to find Luna and Treasure looking they’ve just eaten their first vindaloo.  I do the only thing an empathetic chicken keeper would: given them a cooling slice of watermelon*.

So, chicken tongues soothed. But I’m still no closer to bringing to justice the Egg Eater.

This morning Andy popped out a broken egg, so it’s back to a more standard use of the mustard technique.  We still don’t have English mustard so it’s a pretty disturbing looking yolk – if chooks are anything like as smart as animal behaviour researchers say they are they wouldn’t touch it with a 40 foot pole.

This time there’s no sign of repeat offenders panting in the evening breeze.  But by nightfall the egg and its condimenticality have disappeared entirely.   No shell fragments.  No spillage.

Now, it is possible that the hens as a group are very very tidy eaters with a surprising love of spicy flavours.   Alternatively, maybe somewhere nearby there’s a diamond python with a serious stomach ache.

*Okay, rather suffering from mustard-mouth, Luna and Treasure might have simply been hot, since chickens don’t sweat and it was a steamy old day.  Did I mention that chicken breathe using air sac that extend into their bones?!!? Oh yes, I did.  Well, they also maintain a consistent temperature by dumping heat into those air sacs (and connected pneumatic bones).  Dinosaurs probably did it that way too… according to Mathew J Wedel in “Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs” Paleobiology 29(2) 2003 pp.243-55. 

Literally and figuratively cool….

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.