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.

Rest day on the Tour de Hawkesbury

Plunging down the switchbacks of Berowra Waters Road with a canoe strapped on top as a weekend dawn breaks is a hair raising experience, for a newbie driver like me anyway.  At any moment, heavy breathing MAMILs (Middle Aged Males In Lycra according to our friend Bruce Ashley, author of Bike It! Sydney and Cycling around Canberra) might suddenly loom out of the fog in the middle of the not-quite-two-lane road.

They’ve swooped down through Galston Gorge, across the only bridge, passed swiftly through Arcadian horsey country, and after a moment of quietly gazing out at the marina as they cross the ferry, they’re battling the steep 200 metres ascent up to the ridge.  It would seem rather cruel if, after all that effort, my kayak shot off the roof in an emergency stop and impaled them before they got that well-earned coffee.

Scary as this drive is, it’s not quite as nerveracking as coming back from the Hawkesbury up the Old Pacific Highway on a misty morning – a journey that is begging to be made into a terrifying but addictive computer game called something like “Drive of Doom” or “Death Dodgems”.

Peering through the billowing mist round the hairpin bends, you hope you’ll spot the scattered packs of labouring MAMILs in time to slide right, all the while praying that a mob of motorbikes doesn’t choose that moment to come roaring up from behind to wipe themselves out on your rear window.  Or that an oncoming vehicle doesn’t take the next tight corner wide and smash into you headlong.  The reward if you win a game is obvious: a triumphant stop high above the clouds at “Pie in the Sky“, a place where the lambs lie down with the lions, or at least, the road cyclists eat pies with the bikies.

But not this weekend.  Not a single specimen of the MAMIL, keystone species in our local ecosystem, to be seen.  What’s going on around here?

Eventually, as I hauled the kayak off the car and wrestled it into the water, I worked it out.  The MAMILs have been up all night watching the Tour de France.  At two o’clock in the morning they were gripped as Mark “The Manx Missile” Cavendish floated past Andre “The Gorilla” Greipel to claim his first stage win in two years, his twenty sixth stage in the Tour.  And they’re still curled up in bed, knees bent under the covers, dreaming they’re Australia’s next Cadell Evans.  Middle aged, but still contenders.

The river was very very quiet too.  In February this year, I ventured for the first time into the brackish winding creeks that feed Calabash Bay.  It was fish paradise.  Despite my complete indifference to fish as a meal, pet or leisure pursuit, the sheer numbers of tiny transparent spratlings leaping from the water and darting between the mangrove roots was eye opening.

Even nearly twenty years ago, just after the high point of algae blooms and floating maritime corpses in Berowra Creek, research into estuary processes discovered twenty nine species of fish up and down the water.  Marra Marra Creek, in the lower reaches, with its saltmarshes and long stretch of mangroves, was the richest, but even upstream there were flathead and flounder, gobies and mullet and perchlets, silver biddies and pacific blue eye.

But this weekend, nothing.  I went to see the fish and it was out.

One azure kingfisher was so weak with hunger it sat exhausted on a waterside twig in full view long enough for me to take a numerous terrible blurry photographs.  If I keep going out in these lean times, I may finally get the chance to take a sharp, closeup shot of an emaciated glinting blue bird spiralling slowly downriver on its back.

Despite my glass-half-empty-and-probably-tainted-with-nuclear-fallout tendencies, I’m pretty sure the lack of visible fish is a natural thing, part of the cycle of life.  Most of the inhabitants of the creek spawn in spring and summer, so the tiddlers of the summertime shallows are no doubt happily traversing deeper waters now, invisible and unknowable to those who drift involuntarily into unconsciousness at the mere mention of rod, bait or tackle.

There must have been a few fish around, I guess, along with the amphipods, the isopods, the molluscs and the worms. I saw a few blokes slumped gloomily in tinnies, a handful of great cormorants and the contractual obligation pair of white faced heron in every cove and mudflat.

My ship building neighbour rates his sequence of ancient clapped out Mercedes according to the number of cows featured in the interior trim (“a two cow Merc”, “a four cow Merc” etc).  I’m thinking I should start rating my canoeing trips similarly, according to the number of white-faced herons I see during the day.  This Saturday was, by my calculation, at least a nine-heron day, and that’s not giving myself extra points for seeing the birds in pairs, hedgehog like in their full breeding regalia.

But all in all, there still plenty of solitude to be found out there in the mist.  I’m not sure, but I may have discovered a new form of white-water canoeing.  It may not be high-octane, but it’s got to be higher energy than watching Gabriel Gate on late night TV.  I think I like it.

The waste management business

Heavy rubbish day.  Or as it’s known locally, the council cleanup.  No words strike more fear into the hearts of your loved ones, if you are a gardener with an ample shed and an insatiable love of junk.

I was left momentarily unsupervised today, and all the good work of a weekend of chucking stuff out began to go into reverse.  I know it’s a sign of my hoarding pathology, but I really struggle to imagine why someone would ditch a barely scratched inch-thick slab of gorgeous red gum about half as long as my kitchen.

Here’s the only plausible explanation I could come up with: it had been used in the commission of a mob murder.  “I know, I know, Vinnie had to go… he knew too much… but since he “went on holiday” I just don’t feel the same about that big chopping board…”

Another road-side acquisition of the last 48 hours (the coffin-sized item pictured below) also suggests restless nights and guilty secrets.  I swear the pruning saw was in-situ before I even considered taking this photograph.  Such measures may be necessary when “spring cleaning” for those of us who only have possession of an electric mulcher, suitable strictly for lighter duties.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there's always the pruning saw.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there’s always the pruning saw.

All this “waste disposal” has perhaps been a bad influence, since today I had to do a piece of work.  I got a place ready, somewhere nice.  No need for concrete boots (or indeed blood and bone) just a very old pair of Blundstones and some hair clippings at the bottom of a hole.  We had a problem: our new associate, low-chill Tropical Sunshu nashi pear, had to be put in the ground.

We put her in the ground, and we put her in a box.  In that order, suggesting I’m no wise guy.  Though I can say, hand on heart, that she’s gone to her narrow bed, to sleep the Big Sleep, since the box we put her in was constructed of not merely one, but two bed frames.  Those beds may never have concealed any horses’ heads, but they were absolutely and definitely products of the waste management business, a business I should clearly for the sake of my family (and my shed) try to leave behind.

Today on Chicken TV: the makeover show

Here’s me thinking that Chicken TV involved humans watching avian melodrama unfolding in their own backyard.  Little did I realise that Chicken TV is, in reality, chickens relaxing in front of the spectacle of me doing DIY.  Forget the twitter feed on Q&A, this is truly interactive television, featuring tea-thievery, butt pecking and repeated attempts to use powertools.

The occasion for this viewing pleasure was a revolution in gate-making – my first not entirely constructed of bamboo, zip ties and chicken wire.  This one is constructed from a superannuated IKEA bed frame (ok I cheated.  I also used some hinges, paint and one additional length of pine).  The original intention was to keep an ancient dog, visiting for the fortnight, away from the poultry.  As it turns out, the tiny, arthritic dog and the strapping teenaged chooks settled into a comfortable state of mutual disinterest.  The project had gained its own momentum by then, as gate-making activities always seem to do.

I was feeling mighty self-satisfied about my bed-gate, despite the “chookhouse tolerances” of my dodgy carpentry and the ominous creaking of overstrained hinges, and started to warm to the prospect of keeping the livestock out of the native shrubbery.  As my nine year old said “You’d don’t know our chickens, mum”.  And and sure enough, within ten minutes, there was Shyla, marching up briskly and forthrightly up to the back door.

Twilight of the Chickens

Snowball portrait

Jeez, chickens go to bed early.  I’m outside getting the washing, and ok, it’s heading towards dusk, but not only can I see the location of my smalls, visibility’s so good I can even spot and dodge the brush turkey doings as I go.  But the chooks are already tucked up in their palatial quarters, or in the case of Snowball (pictured above), having a nap in an elevated position while waiting to be eaten.

So, twilight is more complicated than you might think, and I’m not talking about the teen vampire series.  Apparently it comes in three types.  As the sun first sinks, there’s civil twilight.  Technically, that’s when the centre of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon – in good weather you can still see the things around you (say, your knickers on the line, or an inconvenient pile of guano).  Then, after about 20 minutes, more (as you get closer to the poles) or less (closer to the equator), you have nautical twilight.  The sun is 12 degrees below the horizon now, and if you’re a sailor, you can take a bearing on the stars with the horizon still visible. If you forgot to pick sweet potato greens before sundown, you’re rummaging around in the cupboard for a torch.

After nautical twilight comes astronomical twilight, with the sun 18 degrees below the horizon.  To an untutored eye it might appear as if night has finally arrived, but impatient astronomers wanting to check out nebulae will be still pacing up and down waiting for full dark.  Of course, you won’t get the full sequence come the summer in Trondheim (civil twilight from sunset to sunrise), Glasgow (nautical twilight for most of the darker hours) or even London (astronomical twilight all night long, even without throwing in the orange glow of light pollution).

I find this orderly taxonomy of darkening moments curiously soothing, an effect only slightly diminished on reading that nerdy acronyms like EENT (end evening nautical twilight) aren’t just used by meteorologists and astronomers to document the passing days and track the movements of the stars, but also in military campaigns to synchronise watches.

But all this is from a human point of view.  For chickens, it’s different.

If possums have got pretty dud typical mammalian dichromate vision, chickens are rocking their cones.  Not just three sets of cones like us, but five, including one that enables them to see ultraviolet light and a double cone for detecting motion.  And “cellular sunglasses”: an oil-drop to filter particular wavelengths of light.

But wait!  There’s more!  Chickens also have, in essence, a third eye.  Okay, not as visible as parietal eyes of Tuataras and other less famous reptiles (and related organs in the eyes of other tetrapods – like the receptor that looks like a little blue pimple between this critter’s eyes).


But still, a pineal gland perched up just under skull that receives enough light to regulate sleep and trigger annual reproductive cycles. Extremely cool.  Perhaps too cool for some. While researching this post, I noticed, right underneath a webpage spelling out the multidimensional excellence of chicken vision, an advertisement for eye surgery.”Replace tired and baggy eyes with a younger look!”.  Presumably the reader, ruminating dolefully on the superiority of the avian retina and the failings of human sight, is primed for this kind of thing.

But perhaps we humans shouldn’t be so grim about our drab colour vision, our tediously symmetrical pair of eyes.  At the very least the time our mammalian ancestors spent cowering in a burrow while the dinosaurs strode the earth gave us respectable night vision.  We can revel in our fine array of twilights while the shutters come down with a clang at the end of the day for our long time companions.

Okay, The Twilight of the Chickens may not have the apocalyptic ending of the Ragnarøkkr, the Twilight of the Gods.  The rivalry between Treasure and Shyla over who gets the highest perch in the upcycled coop doesn’t have the same Wagnerian grandeur as Odin’s battle to the death with the wolf Fenrir.  But pleasingly, even the Norse myths have a place for chooks: the end of days is heralded by the crowing of a crimson rooster, a golden rooster, and a rust red rooster.  I must tell Andy Ninja.

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….

Chicken real estate

Andy Ninja has started crowing at dawn. Well, too early in the morning anyway. It’s a reasonable hobby for a post-menopausal chicken without a flock to keep her entertained. However, I fear those living nearby may view poultry crowing at daybreak, regardless of equipment, as in effect a rooster and invoke the “no cockerels in the suburbs” by-law.

She chooses a spot on the rim of an artificial well (one may ask!) right beside an adjacent henhouse to make her morning pronouncements. We suspect she likes an audience and may be pining for company, given her reported daily outings to our neighbours’ shed to watch him welding and her watering the garden. So I decided to make good on a longstanding promise to the kids and buy some day-old chicks to add to the flock. For the mental health and long term survival of Andy and her sexually harassed companion Snowball, rather than any self-centred reasons of future egg-thievery. Obviously.

Turbo the dinosaur       Andy inspects Palm Beach

Three weeks on, Turbo the Plymouth Rock (pictured), Shyla the Australorp and Donna the Barnevelder seem to be impatient to be shot of their brooder despite its comforting heat light and round the clock child companionship.

So I spent the weekend making “Palm Beach”, a pullet hangout and future nesting box out of an ikea footstool, two ancient shelving units, the lid of an aquarium, a panel of hardwood fencing from the last council clean-up and an assortment of fixings.  I’m going for beach-shack cum vernacular modernism, orchestrated with “chookhouse tolerances” (a phrase I plan to deploy as often as possible).  Here’s a picture of Andy making an inspection.  She looked it over, front and back, top and bottom and then briskly hopped out, not even using the steps. “Not enough storage”, was the look in her eye.  Yes, it is a bit small but it has to  fit inside my existing chicken dome (three years young, and primarily used as a roosting spot for the older gals).  The idea is to give get Andy and Snowball time to acquainted with the new posse with a minimum of pecking and, in Andy’s case, mounting…