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.

 

Bananas: my part in their downfall

Yes!  We have bananas!

Two and a half years after planting my first “cool banana”, it looks like we have a crop on the way. With luck and a tail wind, we might get a few home grown smoothies before the upcoming banana apocalypse.

In fact, our fruitful plant isn’t the first one I acquired – a tiny carefully selected, soil-free, tissue-cultured plantlet sent by mail-order from Queensland.  It’s one of a job-lot grubbed up and bundled into the back of the car when my sister decided to give her backyard jungle in Newcastle a makeover.  This particular tree seems to have the right kind of humid micro-environment, protected from the wind by the tamarillo tree and surrounded in a companionable way by monstera deliciosa, ginger and tumeric plants.   It gets some winter sunlight, and some gifts of love from the chickens in the form of dung-encrusted sugar cane mulch.

For all my attempts to recreate a tropical ambience, I haven’t gone quite as far as using my bananas as a living shower screen.  This idea seems strangely popular in permaculture circles, due I think, to the banana’s love of phosphorous, frequent watering and good drainage.  I’m no stranger to nakedness in the outdoors thanks to many happy  hours in childhood spent camping on nude beaches (in retrospect I witnessed surprisingly few cooking-related injuries).   But I’m not really sure how practical backyard ablutions are in suburbia, even in the sub-tropics.  There seems to some wishful thinking about unfettered encounters between man and nature (or, more specifically if disturbingly, woman and banana) going on here.

While I’m on the theme of soft-focus fantasies of interspecies coexistence, I have to confess to one of mine – that our backyard is a little island of biodiversity.   This is the kind of thing plant-hoarders tell themselves as they croon and mumble over on-line nursery catalogues.  But thanks to my impatience to start growing the world’s largest herb, three long years ago, I didn’t order any of the more intriguing possibilitiesBluggoe or Blue Java or Goldfinger – but just common or garden dwarf Cavendish – the world’s most widely grown variety.

It wasn’t always so.  In the early twentieth century, the dominant variety was the Gros Michel – by all accounts sweeter and more flavoursome than the Cavendish (if less productive).  Your grandparents were right – everything did taste better in the good old days.

But in the middle part of the twentieth century Panama Disease, a fusarium fungus, wiped out most of the commercial plantations of Gros Michel in Central and South America.  Panama disease is a doozy – transmissible through infected soil, water or equipment and impossible to eliminate or treat.  Once the ground in an area is infected it stays that way for decades.  Over the years, the big banana producers kept moving from country to country to keep the banana plantations going but eventually, thanks in part to multinationals and agricultural monocultures, the disease had spanned the globe.

So in the 1950s, the world switched over to a less tasty variety of banana – Cavendish – more resistant to Panama disease, or at least its early twentieth century incarnation, Tropical Race 1.

It’s not just Panama Disease.  There’s Black Sigatoka, as well, and Bunchy Top, the latter hard to take seriously since it sounds more like a Loony Tunes character than than a devastating agricultural blight.  Bananas are particularly susceptible to disease because we’ve bred them to be sterile: seedless mutants that replicate through their genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters”.  Commercial bananas have three sets of chromosones – they’re triploids, just like our old friends, the herpes-ridden Pacific Oysters of Broken Bay.

Genetic mutations can happen without sex but it’s a painfully slow process. And retrofitting disease-resistance without recourse to selective breeding is equally tricky, unless you want to go GMO. An article in Conservation Magazine described an attempt to do it the old fashioned way:

Every day for a year, workers laboriously hand-pollinated thirty thousand banana plants with pollen from wild fertile Asian bananas. The resulting fruit, some 440 tons, had to be peeled and sieved in search of any seeds. “I’ll let you guess how many seeds they collected,” says Emile [Frison, head of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome]. “About fifteen. And of those, only four or five germinated.

Those of us who enjoy a banana with breakfast should really be fearful of an attack on the clones.

And sure enough, Tropical Race 4 Panama disease, unstoppable killer of Cavendishes and pretty much every single variety of bananas and plantains, appeared in Asia and the Northern Territory in Australia for the first time in the 1990s.  And in March this year, it turned up  in Tully in far north Queensland, the place that around half Australia’s bananas call home.

The fact that TR4 attacks so many varieties of banana makes it a threat not just to first world breakfasts but to hungry people across the globe, for whom plantains, in particular, are often a staple.  After a couple of decades in a holding pattern, TR4 has in the last year cropped up for the first time in the Middle East and in Africa, which is worrying – if you have any mental space left for additional worry about the general direction the world is going.

Given the kick-arse nature of Tropical Race 4, perhaps my unimaginative choice of varieties and ad-hoc acquisition of plants isn’t such a big deal.  Newcastle may one day be a commercial banana growing area – in fact, this would seem an entirely appropriate fate for the world’s largest coal export port.  In the meantime, moving these suckers around isn’t a criminal offense like it would be in Queensland, where your backyard banana should spring from a test-tube and come with a permit from the Department of Primary Industries.

I may be the handmaiden of monopoly capitalism, monocultural agriculture and globetrotting disease, but despite all that I think I’ll chill and allow myself to enjoy however many bland tasting Cavendish bananas escape the indiscriminate attentions of the possums, the fruit bats and the grasshoppers.

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:

How to exploit your termite work force

One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers.  It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails.  Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).

Sometimes it works.  Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs.  This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.

Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics.  My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?

Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects.  I’m baffled.  How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?

The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites.  What can a permie do with them?

Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation.  It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.

Termite eat artichokes – who knew?  Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.

But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce!  We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“.  Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.

When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there.  Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.

The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate.  Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch.  RB wanted to investigate.  Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals.  But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.

Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus.  It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house.  As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland.  What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.

Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers.  Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber.  But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing.  Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.

But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough.  The walkway had to go.  Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend.  There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.

But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place?  Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe.  And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.

So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden.  As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes,  I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics.  Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.

If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way.  Good work if you can get it, lads!

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.

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?