Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chicken Karma

Vanessa, bless ’er.
No, I haven’t thrown a limp dishcloth over the white chicken’s head. That’s her comb. She’s attached to it, and any attempt to make her part with it will end in tears.

Compared with the other five hens in my backyard, Vanessa is tall and slim in appearance — even elegant. This is attributable to her breeding, specifically her Italian heritage. She’s a Leghorn, and that name I understand to be the English approximation of Livorno, the Italian port from which these birds first migrated to America in the 1830s.

Sadly, Vanessa’s breeding lets her down when it comes to her unruly comb. Its long floppiness undermines her confidence, because she can only see out of one eye at a time. It cramps her style. Instead of carrying herself proudly she seems to cling to the ground when she moves, as if the fabled Henny Penny’s fear has come to pass: the sky has fallen — on her head. It must be exhausting to lug around. She probably gets headaches.

Leghorns do have large combs but Vanessa’s doesn’t meet “the standard” for her breed. Leghorn fanciers seem to feel the need to speak out against excess in the comb department, which suggests that my chicken is not the only one thus afflicted. Here’s one judge
’s comment: “In Leghorn females, two points I notice immediately are a neatly folded firm comb, not overdone and obstructing an eye or loose and being tossed to either side...”

Henny Penny, part of a childhood
collection of chicken memorabilia.

Oh, Vanessa. It’s enough to make me weep. Or it would be if the aforementioned judge didn’t go on to critique the tail. “So many Leghorn females fail by being too tight and narrow in tail giving the impression of it being snick onto the end of the body,” he writes... And he’s lost me. Breed standards have never been my thing.

I feel like quoting: as you sow, so shall you reap. Unnatural selection means that the narrow-minded among breeders of birds and other creatures get what they deserve — complete unsustainability. But Vanessa, too, is punished.

If it weren’t for people selectively breeding to accentuate this or that eccentricity, she might be a happier hen (or she might not exist). At least, given her accommodation in a secure facility, she won’t be carried off by some predator. Neither will she reproduce. And fortunately she has no desire to be a mother: that instinct has been almost entirely bred out of Leghorns.

Meanwhile, my White Leghorn has been experiencing another kind of chicken karma, not to be mistaken for korma, the lightly spiced curry sauce. Recently she started tormenting poor Amelia, the New Hampshire Red, pecking her after Amelia began to moult, a natural process that happens at summer’s end. Suddenly Vanessa herself is moulting, in a Big Way.

Overnight, she lost all the feathers from her back — and that coincided with the unseasonal bad weather we’re having this week, the wind and driving rain. The rest of the flock took up residence under the palais de poulet. As well as keeping relatively dry there, they can move about, and check the weather forecast. 

The Leghorn, presumably cold as well as mortified, crept into darker, more cramped quarters. She spent most of yesterday alone and in hiding, under the chalet de poulet.

Oh, Vanessa. 

Is her tail “snick onto the end of the
body”? Worse things have happened.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Moa in My Backyard

Henemoa (right) as a beaky teen
and moa lookalike. Left of her is
Alice. They’re atop the Mark 1
chalet de poulet

Or, Hen of Mystery

Most of my six chickens take their names from strong women. So it would make sense for Henemoa, the Rhode Island Red, to claim connections with Hinemoa, from the great Te Arawa story. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale but it’s Maori, with a more outdoorsy heroine and a happier ending: brave Hinemoa defies her family, improvises flotation devices and swims Lake Rotorua to join her darling Tutanekai on an island paradise.

Great idea! Sadly, the greater inspiration for this hen’s name was a pun on the word for one of New Zealand’s extinct flightless birds. My Henemoa was a late developer, and when she was a pullet her ridiculously curtailed rear end made her look like a miniature moa, an ostrich lookalike whose various species died out perhaps 500 years ago.

Even the present arrangement of Henemoa’s tail feathers might not win her any prizes at the Kumeu Show. The other hens have celebratory tails; they end on a high. Henemoa just doesn’t, most of the time. Not that I worry about that. These birds aren’t here to be showgirls or to strut a catwalk.

Henemoa (centre), Emmeline (left)
and a hen from Hawke’s Bay. The two dressed
in white have decidedly better taste in tails.
I have a soft spot for Henemoa. In a species popularly thought to be not very bright, she seems a bit more scatterbrained than most. She makes a lot of noise (empty vessels, remember?) and after she joined the flock, I noticed she had one toe missing. Perhaps her gaucheness and another tendency — to inhabit the wrong place at the wrong time — had resulted in an accident in her very early life. Henemoa also reminds me of Henny Penny, the storybook chook who was convinced the sky was falling.

This hen of mine does, perhaps, show a hint of the original Hinemoa’s determination. When I arrive with food, she’s the one who leaps up to knock the container out of my hand, thus getting an early start to breakfast. And as I go about my chicken-run chores, her curiosity (or perhaps her appetite) often prompts her to jump up on a branch so she can observe at close quarters.

She’s also, despite everything I’ve said, no Plain Jane. I liken her to the brunette who passes unnoticed much of the time, only to shock you suddenly with her good looks. Her near relative, Amelia the New Hampshire Red, is appealingly nutmeggy in appearance — the hen next door — but Henemoa is surprisingly glamorous. Her dark feathers gleam; she’s quite the auburn beauty. She has depths that I can only imagine.

Just catch her in the right light and, like me, you’ll know: Henemoa is a hen of mystery.




Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Patrolling the Perimeter

My observations on Cosmo the cat and the unnamed thrush who shares his meals elicited a warning from one reader: not to get soppy about... well, if not cat–bird friendship, then at least apparent non-enmity. Any cat is a predator when it wants to be, she said.

Don’t I know it.

When we adopted our chickens towards the end of ’09 they were a bit on the small side, tending more towards chick- than pullet-hood. The run had been built for larger birds but the palais de poulet where these six growing girls slept, though roomy, was not large enough for them to spend every waking hour there. We needed to deliver them the world, or at least a bigger bit of it.

So any broad-mesh wire that was within fluttering distance we lined with layers of finer stuff that the girls couldn’t wriggle through. The thick broad-mesh wire already went high enough (seven feet or so) and low enough, too, to prevent opportunistic dogs or cats from gaining entry.

Houdinia the First, the largest chick in
the flock, and an escape artiste.
One chicken managed a brief escape — from that point we called her Houdinia — but then we rechecked and sealed all potential exits. I patrolled the perimeter. Feeling that the pen was secure, and the flock safe enough for us to leave it, we went out for a while.

We came home to five chickens, not six. Houdinia must have got out again, I thought. We searched the environs, asked our neighbour, called Chook, Chook, Chook. Nothing: not even a feather.

My partner Carol was upset. She had especially selected Houdinia (Houdinia the First, not the Light Sussex introduced earlier as Emmeline Houdinia) because she saw a promising future for this chicken — one involving a lot of eggs. Australorps are good layers. Nevertheless we still had five birds in hand, and none of the others had shown an inclination to venture into No Chook’s Land. Just in case, we constructed further fortifications.

Dorothy the Gold Laced Wyandotte may be
kicking up her heels — boot-scooting, even —

in Kansas.
Days later, we went for a drive in the country. When we came home, the flock was four, not five. The missing member was Dorothy, a Gold Laced Wyandotte and beautiful to boot. Perhaps she’d clicked her heels, wished to be in Kansas, and magicked herself there.

Or perhaps we had a predator. I’ve said our wire walls were enough to deter opportunistic cats or dogs. Opportunistic ones, maybe — but not the truly determined. Within hours of Dorothy’s disappearance I saw a loitering cat: a grey and white creature whose dimensions have since grown, in my mind at least, to those of a small panther.

Certainly it was willing and able to scale the sturdy posts that held the wire in place, because I saw this too. I chased the cat away, locked the remaining four birds into their now somewhat roomier palais. Carol was very upset: we’d lost our only Gold Laced Wyandotte.

The next morning she and a friend strung bird netting across the top of the run, securing it with wire ties. This reversed the viticultural practice of using it to protect vines against birds, keeping the latter out. Carol planned to protect the birds against a clever climber by keeping them in — and to make sure that that cat had grabbed its last chicken takeaway. It had.

But I saw the grey and white monster frequently after that. It would nimble along the fence between our place and the neighbour’s, its tail in the air. From inside my own palais I would shout, and bang on the window. The cat would stop and stare, then resume its patrol of the perimeter.

Oh, yes: I know what cats can do.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Cat that Brought the Birds

I worried when Cosmo, an elderly tabby cat, took up residence under our house. Our backyard has an abundance of birds, not just the six chickens. A cat would ruin the ambience, I thought, and result in some untimely ends.

Cosmo, named by our neighbour, had lived under her place for years, but she couldn’t take him with her when she moved to the retirement village. Her son kept calling in to feed him.

After the builders made their presence felt next door, Cosmo turned up here one morning, announcing his arrival and his breakfast order with a scratchy-sounding miaow. He’s never left, so now we have an amicable arrangement with our former neighbour: she covers the catfood; we dole it out.

The chooks out the back were briefly unimpressed and would cluck their alarm if a whiff of cat went their way, but he’s not interested in them. He seems to have retired from all sport, and from the business of predation (if he ever engaged in it).

Cosmo’s typically feline habit of leaving bits of his meal untouched has, however, enticed the backyard birds. It’s brought them closer to the house than ever before. 

One song thrush has become a regular. He flies up at mealtime and “pip, pips” (a greeting? I’m sorry, I don’t understand thrush), then waits while I feed the cat. As Cosmo wanders off, the thrush hops up to the bowl and helps himself.

This I find absurdly pleasing. I relish it more, I think, than Cosmo and the thrush do their shared meal.

On Blackbirds and Thrushes

A copy of Falla, Sibson, Turbott’s Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (1970 edition, now jacketless) has been in my possession since childhood. Somehow, though, I forgot — until I consulted my bird books just now — that our introduced blackbirds and thrushes are closely related. They’re from the same genus.

It makes sense: they’re similarly shaped and sized, with similar habits and habitats. The international Thrush family to which both belong is “a big group [more than 300 species] of plump songbirds”, according to a more recent field guide, Heather and Robertson’s.

‘My’ song thrush fledged only this year, I thought — he has the unsleek, downy look of one fresh out of the nest, with the spots down his front relatively indistinct. The yellow in his beak made me certain. But I’ve a lot to learn. Perhaps he
’s moulting. And even adult song thrushes have a conspicuous yellow gape”, I read, so “...this cannot be used to age birds”. It’s also quite possible that he is a she.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Emmeline Undignified

It’s really not fair. This is the poultry version of one of those paparazzi snaps: the celebrity on her way to the dairy for a packet of fags, with no make-up, jeans worn for a week, and a hangover her only matching accessory. Yes, the Light Sussex chicken mid-moult is undignified, abbreviated, undone. Usually the largest of my six chickens, Emmeline is a lesser hen right now.

She’s named for Mrs Pankhurst, first female lead in the famed British family of suffragists, and I’ve had cause to regret this. Quite often Emmeline goes broody (which means she’s planning her own family), and that’s when she shows her feisty side, shrieking at me and pecking if I go to remove her from the nest. She asserts her reproductive rights with the same determination that suffragists expressed in their “Votes for Women” campaign. Confined in a makeshift pen within the run, she engages in such daring escapes that I have bestowed on her a suitable second name, Houdinia.

Why not simply let her brood? Two reasons:
1. Though fertile eggs could be arranged and Emmeline Houdinia would doubtless make a very fine mother hen, I am less certain of my own ability to manage the family for which I would then become responsible.
2. It’s most unsettling for the other five hens to have Emmeline hogging that particular nest. Though there is a choice, they all like to lay their eggs there. And unfortunately broodiness goes on, and on, and on.

I believe that in my backyard, the best response to broodiness is to Stop Things Going Too Far. Fortunately, a new addition to the accommodation enables me to do just that. I simply restrict Emmeline to the communal sleeping quarters — the palais de poulet, as this structure is known — while allowing other flock members the freedom of the run (including the nesting structure, which we call the chalet de poulet on account of its sloping roof).

It may sound cruel, but I don’t think it is. I indulge her with treats to distract her from her plight, and her dreams of motherhenhood disappear remarkably quickly. She may briefly inhabit a gilded cage smaller than the one I call the chicken run, but it’s better than the practice that supposedly gave rise to the expression “mad as a wet hen”: dousing one’s broodies with water to shake up their ideas.

My Light Sussex has recently shed her maternal instinct and many of her feathers. She has lost her looks and her wholly admirable attitude. But these setbacks will be temporary. With some — perhaps not all — of those attributes restored in the near future, Emmeline will rise again, resplendent. Let’s see what the poultry paparazzi make of that.

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3. I’ll send you by return post — possibly even by airmail — something as light as a feather.
Gone are the days when a white feather in your letterbox carried connotations of cowardice. Wear your white feather with pride, and think of Emmeline Resplendent.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Amelia on the Outer

If you think the New Hampshire Red hen in this picture falls short in the wings and tail department, you’re right. Amelia is named after the aviator Amelia Earhart (a similarly glorious redhead) but she can’t fly right now: she’s lost her finest feathers in the annual moult. 

Since then she’s become a scaredy-chook, scuttling away from me and her five run-mates. So if you think she looks a little solitary, you’re right about that too.

It’s hard to blame her. Several of the others (not moulting yet) seem to sense that as she’s grounded, she’s vulnerable and therefore fair game. My White Leghorn, just visible at the top of the photo,
is usually at the bottom of the pecking order but has been taking this opportunity to lord it over Amelia.

The hierarchy in our chicken run is intriguing. It doesn’t go in a single straight line from top to bottom. Instead it features a complex network of relationships and alliances. It also changes — it almost has a life of its own.

Amelia has coasted along since she was a pullet two years ago. She doesn’t regularly pick on others, and has remained largely unmolested herself. But as a chick she went through a bad patch: the last to develop her adult plumage, she suffered severe pecking, particularly from a run-mate who was a rooster in the making (and who soon went west as a result). 

Amelia on the outer, the first time (2010).
For her own safety I had to separate her from the others while she healed. Her flocking instinct meant that this isolation distressed her almost as much as the attacks.

Now she’s big enough to look after herself, though I’ll admit that her latest demotion has prompted me to supervise some mealtimes, to ensure she gets enough to eat. Moulting is a stressful time for chooks and producing a whole new covering of feathers is energy intensive, requiring a plentiful intake of protein.

I predict Amelia won’t be shunned for much longer. My Light Sussex hen has joined in the moult, shedding her white feathers so swiftly that the ground looks as if it’s had an unseasonal snowfall — and she appears half plucked. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the flock follows suit. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hickety, Pickety, My Black Hen

This is Alice the Australorp, photographed the other day in the chicken run in my backyard. The photo doesn’t capture the beautiful iridescence of her plumage nor her entirely satisfactory plumpness, and it’s not as sharp as it might be: do you have any idea how hard it is to photograph chickens? But it’s still quite nice.

Alice is attending to a piece of Golden Delicious apple, one of several I scrunched up for her and the others. Apples are in season at the moment, and the gnarled old tree next to the chicken run is chucking its fruit all over the furthest-back part of the lawn. (Backyard birds of other kinds are having a field day with those apples, and I don’t see why my chooks shouldn’t get a share.)

This fine figure of a chicken is one of a flock of six. You’ll meet the others presently.

A Rhyme Misremembered?
The title of this post comes from a nursery rhyme, which initially I recalled as ‘Higgledy-piggledy, My Black Hen’. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes set me right with ‘Hickety, Pickety...’, whose first known publication date is 1853.

Hand-me-down rhymes with a communal history have many variations, and
mine may be one from long ago, but “Higgledy-piggledy” seems unusual here because this sixteenth-century word for “a haphazard arrangement” (my definition — I like its contrary nature) probably first described the herding together of pigs, according to other Oxford sources. Back then, chickens didn’t come into it.

Alice the Australorp isn’t like the black hen of the rhyme. She doesn’t lay eggs specifically “for gentlemen”: they don
’t appear in her pecking order. Also, it would be a rare hen that could lay “sometimes nine and sometimes ten” eggs in a day, anyway.