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.

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:

Brush turkey mathematics

Four hens + eleven teenaged brush turkeys + several decoy eggs in the henhouse = one fresh chicken egg a day.  I can’t quite nut out this equation.  There are three intractable maths problems here.
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One is agricultural-cum-mathematical.  Why are three of our pampered pets failing to lay eggs?
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The second is at the point where philosophy meets mathematics, along the lines of “how many angels can dance on the head of pin”. Just exactly how many brush turkeys can occupy one suburban backyard?  And why are there so damn many of them?
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And then there’s the ethological question.  Given the apparently infinite number of turkeys, and clear evidence that they are unrepentant egg eaters, why are we enjoying any omelettes at all?
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What with the festival of poultry diseases we have been hosting lately, it’s not a big surprise that only sprightly Shyla continues to lay a regular egg.  She’s an Australorp, a new fangled breed, presumably with disease resistance as one of her mod cons, while, say, Treasure with her tedious moulting and brooding, is a Light Sussex, a breed that’s been around since Roman times.  I reckon that kind of pedigree is going to her a proclivity to old fashioned things, like the distinctly medieval-sounding fowl pox.

Being Top Chook doesn’t hurt Shyla’s capacity to pump out eggs. She makes sure she gets the best snacks by belting up to the garden gate as soon as she hears me coming and bounding in the air to grab scraps before I get a chance to dish them out.

But I’m not sure the other girls are getting quite enough to eat.

Now, I’m not saying that they’re wimps.  Even ancient, diminutive Snowball the silky bantam will frighten off nosy megapodes that try to butt in while she’s in the middle of breakfast.  But the trouble is, the chooks never sit down for a three course meal.  They’re snackers.  A few minutes of frenzied eating, and they wander off to nibble grass, have a dust bath, or in Shyla’s case, follow me around hoping I have better treats – say, limp grapes or weevil ridden grain.  If that’s not forthcoming she’ll taste-test the wet washing or have a red hot go at pecking my butt.

Shyla’s certainly not one to let starvation diminish her egg supply.  But by the time the other hens realise seconds wouldn’t go astray, it’s a teeny bit late.

No-one is 100% sure why there are so many damn brush turkeys in Brisbane and the northern suburbs of Sydney.  “I’m supposed to be the expert on brush turkeys and I still can’t explain why that’s going on,” commented Professor Darryl Jones of Griffith University, talking to the ABC.  He reckons numbers in Brisbane have increased by 700 percent in the last 20 years.

In the early 1990s, scientists thought moggies snacking on the unprotected chicks would put a stop to the urban invasion.  Nope.  The cluey babies will listen out for the alarm calls of just about any old bird, and as long as there’s enough cover they’ve got a chance.  Fox and dingo baiting mean grown-up life has been less brutish and short, and the water-wise mulching habits of modern gardeners have made mound building in suburbia extremely convenient.  The odd gormless adult bird might be taken by an ambitious powerful owl, willing to have a go at prey “at least 103%” of its own body weight, according to the remarkably precise estimates of scholarly birdwatchers.  But let’s face it, these owls are just not powerful enough in the brush turkey execution caper for my liking.

If anyone knows about megapodes it’s Dr Anne “Brushturkey robochickGöth, working down the road from here at Macquarie University. She’s explored every aspect of the weird story of how brush turkey babies, all on their own, dig their way out of their giant natal compost heaps – “the most nonavian life history you can get among creatures that are still feathered and lay hard-shelled eggs” – and then figure out without any parental guidance what they should eat and what will eat them, not to mention what the hell other brush turkeys look like without a glimpse of their parents or siblings.  Its no wonder they have a thing about mirrors.

Dr Göth’s erstwhile colleague up in Queensland, Prof. Jones, comments “fortuitously her arrival [in Sydney] coincided with a marked expansion of populations in the vicinity of the northern suburbs of the city” (2007, 3).  Mmmm.  Coincidence, eh, Dr Göth?  The gardeners and chicken keepers of the north shore are deeply, deeply suspicious.  Anyway, whether or not she has been deliberately breeding an evil army of brush turkeys in her secret underground lab, Dr Göth is on the money about the cause of the population explosion in my back garden – the ready supply of chook food.

So onto the final maths problem.  If there is an apparently infinite number of megapodes in our backyard, how come they haven’t spotted Shyla’s daily egg, sitting there, sometimes all day, next to its plastic companions?  Can’t brush turkeys count?

Rumour has it domestic chickens are a dab hand at maths.  Three day old chicks can figure out where to go left or right for a bigger pile of edible stuff even when items are added one by one, and each pile is hidden behind a screen.  This research by Rosa Rigosa from the University of Padua has been reported in the Telegraph under the headline “Chickens are cleverer than toddlers”.  But on my reading, 3 day old chicks should be put in charge of pairing our socks after washing, as they seem to a better grip on arithmatic and object permanence than the adults in our household do.

I have looked and failed to find for research on megapode counting skills. Dr Göth obviously hasn’t started work yet on this critical issue in animal cognition.  So I can’t tell if our continuing egg supply is a consequence of brush turkey innumeracy or if they are just lulling us into a false sense of security before brutally snatching away our remaining hope of home grown-protein. I guess we’ll have to see how this one plays out with our convenience sample in the back yard lab.

And if 1000 words on brush turkeys is barely enough for you, why not go read some more?

  • Goth, Ann and Maloney, Mary. Powerful Owl preying on an Australian Brush-turkey in Sydney [online]. Australian Field Ornithology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Jun 2012: 102-104
  • Göth, Ann and Uwe Vogel (2002) Chick survival in the megapode Alectura lathami (Australian brush-turkey) Wildlife Research 29(5) 503 – 511 Published: 30 December 2002
  • Göth, A., Nicol, K.P., Ross, G. & Shields, J.J. (2006). Present and past distribution of Australian Brush-turkeys Alectura lathami in New South Wales – implications for management. Pacific Conservation Biology 12, 22–30

The Problem That Has No Name

Betty Friedan’s analysis of the psychological consequences of compulsory happy housewifery for  1950s middle-class American women may not cut much ice in the twenty-first century, when two incomes drum up barely enough cash to rent a cardboard box under a Sydney bridge.  But in recent weeks I’ve started to wonder if Her Indoors in the Henhouse may still, even in this day and age, struggle with The Problem That Has No Name.

Treasure has just spent several weeks in the nest box, trying to hatch baby Light Sussex chicks from golfballs.  At about 11 am every day the frustration seemed to overwhelm her and she would leap from the coop, galloping madly around the yard, finally throwing herself into the nearest patch of scarified earth for a frenzied roll about.  And then, after an orgiastic dirt bath, back to the nest for another thankless 23 hours of golfball-warming. After a month or so of this, she seems to have given it all up as a bad joke: she’s spending her nights with the other girls now, out on the edge of the fig tree barrel, in the rain.  But she’s emerged from her confinement looking disturbingly downtrodden and scabrous.

Just to ramp up the poultry-keeping anxiety, we’ve also had an egg strike.  Snowball occasionally pops out a pocket-sized effort which we have a slim chance of collecting, if we leap up the minute it’s been laid and leg it down the yard, hurling any object at hand at the awaiting brush turkeys.  But otherwise, nada.

We have had these health concerns before.  In the past our concerns about the wasting disease fatally undermining the chooks’ productivity has usually ended with a discovery like this:

After extensive searching of the spider-rich environs around the yard, a mother-lode of eggs has yet to be found, though  I have come to the conclusion that “exclusion netting” may be something of a misnomer.

Could an infestation of red mites explain Treasure’s sorry state and the recent lack of omelettes?  Oddly, Friedan’s account of housewives’ distress in The Feminine Mystique never references insects.

The henhouse has been duly scrubbed and even sprinkled with wormwood, allegedly a natural insecticide.  If it doesn’t kill off the annoying bugs, perhaps we can set up a still in the woodshed, chuck in the left-over wormwood and help the chooks drown their sorrows with absinthe.  What with the late Victorian bohemian vibe, I think chickens wasted on absinthe would have higher self-esteem than your hen zoned out on “mother’s little helpers“.

Not entirely persuaded that the beverage of choice of the nineteenth century Parisian art world would also do a good job with the modern mite, I also cracked out some evil commercial pesticide and gave the very indignant Treasure a good dusting.

In the spirit of equal opportunity ignorance, I’d been doing my best to avoid reading the manual or asking for direction.  Eventually I cracked and consulted other, wiser chicken enthusiasts.  Almost immediately I found out from Tim-the-Chicken that your broody light Sussex often sashays straight into the egg-free zone of the annual moult.

It’s The Problem That Has No Name no more. It has a name, and its name is moulting.

I’m not sure what insights I’ve offered into twentieth century women’s history here.   Can we read the rising popularity of the bikini in the the 60s and 70s as some kind of symbolic human female “moulting”? Will we see birth rates and valium consumption rise again with the increasing popularity of the retro one piece swim suit and the burquini?  Who can say.  I’m simply hoping, like a scary social conservative, that Treasure will come to her senses, cover up those naked bits, stop running around the town and get back into the henhouse.

The Broody and the Bustin’: daytime drama on Chicken TV

I witnessed the Tiff of the Uber Femmes in the henhouse this weekend.

Snowball the silky bantam and Treasure the light Sussex have both gone broody.  Their steadfast commitment to their chicks-to-be is in no way diminished by the fact that they are sitting on two golf balls and a couple of plastic Easter eggs in attractive shades of green and pink.  The fakes aren’t there just to mess with their minds:  they were slipped into the coop to thwart the Phantom Egg Eater (golf balls being both hard to break and to the best of my knowledge flavour free).

The other new girls are still sleeping alfresco, but with a dramatic drop in the egg-count we suspect they’ve also been forced by Them Indoors to find some new and obscure location to lay their eggs.  Now: documentary evidence of desperate chickens turned out of their coop by feathered home-wreckers. Shy Abbey makes a frantic dash for the nestbox but is thwarted, not once, but twice, by Snowball, the Fluffy Ball of Fury.

There’s a picture burnt into my brain: poor Abbey “crowning”, an egg half out of her cloaca, trying to beat off the rageful Snowball for long enough to drop her bundle.  No photo – perhaps a good thing.  Having shoved Snowball out the door, I thought Abbey deserved a moment or two of privacy to finish her business.  But as soon as the deed was done, Abbey was out of there and the indignant bantam was back in the coop, carefully gathering and nurturing her beloved plastic brood.

I don’t think I could psych myself up to lay under these circumstances either. So this week’s job: stalking the homeless chickens until we figure out where they’ve hidden their egg stash.