Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dear Reader...

Q: What does this bird in my back
yard (^) have to do with that new
book (below)?
A: Turn to page 100 and you will
find the answer.

A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children is now for sale in bookshops (such as The Womens Bookshop) and available to borrow from libraries (such as Auckland Libraries).

Im very lucky to have had a little bit of poetry chosen for this beautiful book. I dont think Im spoiling anything if I tell you that what I wrote was inspired by the view out my bedroom window – of a silvereye or tauhou (stranger, the Maori word for this small self-introduced bird), eating a crabapple. I took the photo in autumn 2013 and wrote the poem shortly afterwards.

The wonderful and apparently inexhaustible Paula Green has taken the Treasury on a tour around New Zealand, visiting schools and organising events for local contributors. She’s also published a whole series of interviews with poets whose work is in its pages. Theyre on her Poetry Box blog: my interview is here.

Congratulations to all who made this book possible, and who made it happen.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Buried Treasure

Nobody had been hanging out in the hens’ nesting house. Nobody, that is, except a rat (identifiable, in its absence, by the droppings it had left behind). And yet Alice the Australorp was late in giving me an egg. 

In 2013 she had resumed laying weeks before the official start of spring, and the same thing the time before. 

Perhaps she had since decided to retire, like her flockmates Emmeline and Henemoa last year, but her ripe red comb and wattles told me otherwise.

A Hen Hermit?
She began spending inordinate amounts of time on her own, under the nesting house. In fact she was so reluctant to leave this retreat that, several days in a row, it was only some gentle but firm prodding with a stick that persuaded her to scramble out to join the others for dinner. 

It seemed unlikely she’d been enjoying a long, relaxing dirt-bath: that’s a summery occupation, and the signs are different. Alice had transformed herself into an expectant mother hen — a broody.

Laws of Physics
It occurred to me then that I should have been looking for eggs under, rather than in, the nesting house. Taking a garden kneeler, I assumed a position of prayer, then bent down to look ... difficult, as the nesting house is an A frame (we call it the chalet de poulet on account of its roof’s steep pitch). If I could just bend a little further  

This attempt to contravene the laws of physics failed. Instead I pitched forward into the manure-enriched mud, which did at least mean that staying clean and dry was no longer a concern. Thus I was able to get down far enough to shine a light into Alice’s hidey-hole and to see that she had indeed started laying on the sly.  

Fowl Play
Hide the Nest is typical fowl play when a flock ranges freely, but it’s not something my girls had been able to do. Here, though, were two or three eggs, at least.

Over the couple of years we’ve had the chalet de poulet, the girls have done quite a bit of excavating beneath it, creating a nice, dry, cave-like area. Leaves added from other parts of the chicken run make fine nesting materials, but they also form a visual and physical barrier, so I needed to do some excavation of my own before I could safely extract anything.

A Hoarder!
With most of the debris cleared away, it was plain that Alice had become a hoarder, rather out of keeping with the ascetic ideals of authentic hermitry. I pulled out egg after egg until eventually I had thirteen, a baker’s dozen. 

They were a bit grubby but none was cracked or broken, and they turned out to be fairly fresh.

My Australorp goes broody at the drop of a hat, but this time her maternal feelings were probably brought on by the wonderful opportunity that her hoard seemed to present.

A hen “usually lays 12 eggs, called a clutch,” writes Diana Toops in Eggs: A Global History, “... and if they are not collected, she may stop laying and start brooding.”

Rejoining the Flock
For Alice, the experience of seeing her buried treasure brought to the surface, boxed and then removed seemed instantly to eject her from her hazy state of broodiness. 

She didn’t resume laying right away — that can take a few weeks — but unusually, she decided then and there that she’d spent long enough in her self-imposed confinement. 

After suitable chastisement from her erstwhile friends, who hadn’t seen much of her lately, she rejoined the flock. They’ve been together pretty much ever since. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Expiry Date

“Important News”, I typed in an email on Monday: “Victoria has laid an egg!”

It had been a long time between green eggs, the kind produced by Araucana chickens. And as this little grey hen of mine was four years old, near the end of egg-bearing age, the resumption of her cycle after winter was real cause for celebration.

In the past, her efforts to deliver have appeared hazardous to her health. This week, however, she seemed to take laying in her stride, and gave me nearly as many eggs as her most productive flockmate – Vanessa, who is younger and from the more ‘commercial’ Leghorn breed. Between times Victoria was, as always, feisty (though quiet) and a determined forager of greens.


Today, Saturday, it was after 9am when I wandered out to the girls in a leisurely manner. Four stopped their foraging to see if I’d brought new treats; the fifth, Victoria, remained under the chookhouse.

It wasn’t the usual time for a rest. On getting closer I could see she was in an unseemly heap, struggling to breathe. She couldn’t stand. 

So I scooped her up, and we went to the vet. Not my usual, who as well as being the nearest is very good, but another decent clinic quite close by that has a “come right away” option for emergencies, as well as avian expertise.

I’d not met the locum before but she and I agreed immediately that nothing could be done. Nothing humane, anyway, save euthanasia. Uneasy at my haste, I rechecked with her, only to regret it. Listening to the careful and comprehensive rationale was taking time that only prolonged Victoria
’s suffering. I signed her life away.

So suddenly my little grey hen is no more. But when I returned to the chicken run, replenished the feed and – by habit – checked the nesting house, I found she’d left something there: a green egg, her last, laid this morning.

Vale Victoria.

Images, taken in the last month (some last week): perching for pleasure; foraging (video); eggs by Alice, Victoria and Vanessa; Victoria at rest with Emmeline and Vanessa; bossing Alice (right) and Henemoa; and scratching about. 

For more information about Victoria and other Araucanas, see my post
The Queen, the Bearded Lady and the Easter Egg Chicken

Friday, August 9, 2013

Concessions of an Egg Timer

Regular as Chookwork 
Alice the Australorp produced her first egg of the season recently, a year to the day after she last resumed laying

It had been an age between eggs. My hens moulted early this year, when the days were still long and hot, rather than when autumn started to make its presence felt. As creating a new feather cloak for winter is about as energy intensive as producing eggs, the egg supply dried up early too. 

A few other chook owners saw a similar pattern with their own flocks, and we speculated that the extraordinarily dry summer might be to blame. “They’ve had a hard time of it this summer with the heat and the endless drought,” wrote a fellow chicken blogger. “It put them off the lay and many began to moult”. 

However, poultry professional Sue Clarke attributes early moulting to “age and from Christmas onwards, decreasing day light hours... drought shouldn’t have made any difference unless they were short of water, feed or it was too hot to eat.” 

Alice: ready, set ...
Winter and Water
Alices first egg this season came some weeks after the winter solstice, when the days began to lengthen again. It was slightly grubby by the time I collected it, an hour or so after it arrived. 

Winter is a filthy business. Just add water, and there on the dirt floor of the chicken pen, all my lovely compost-in-the-making can turn to sludge. I put sawdust and leaves on top to create a clean surface, but mud oozes through in places. 

Alice would have been out to peck and play before she settled down inside to lay. She probably prodded her egg with her muddy toe more than once prior to giving it up and leaving the nest.

From nature’s perspective, eggs exist to hatch a whole new generation. Perhaps even without being broody (eager to incubate), a hen retains some maternal instincts — such as egg-turning. 

Turn, Turn, Turn
This apparently insignificant act benefits embryonic chicks in several ways. It prevents them from sticking to the shell membrane, helps gases circulate, makes nutrients more accessible, and distributes the temperature evenly.

One of the chook books I consulted comments that broodies or ‘setting’ hens turn their eggs by constantly fidgeting on the nest; another claims they turn their eggs up to 100 times a day. If no broody hen is available to do the job, an artificial incubator will rotate eggs several times a day, around 90 degrees at a time.

Here’s one Vanessa (below)
prepared earlier. Note the
non-carbon footprint.
Earlier this year I found a distinctly fowlian footprint on one of the fine white creations of my Leghorn, Vanessa. This suggests to me that a hen will turn her egg even if all the broodiness has been bred out of her: Leghorns typically have no interest in motherhood, and Vanessa is the only member of my diverse flock who’s never gone broody. 

Of course, it could simply be comfort rather than some relict maternal tic that drives such a hen to adjust the hard oval thing beneath her.

The Winner Is...
Leghorns and Australorps are great egg producers. A hen of either breed can lay more than 300 eggs a year. But it is reportedly an Australorp that holds the world record for laying the most (364) eggs in a year, and so far this winter Alice Australorp is my flock’s breadwinner. 

Also ‘in lay’ at present is Henemoa the Rhode Island Red, with one egg to Alice’s nine. But Emmeline the Light Sussex, like Vanessa, seems to have forgotten she ever produced an egg.

Victoria the Araucana is the only other hen to show any interest in our chalet de poulet (nesting house) in recent weeks. She’s peered inside, but has yet to cross the threshold. Perhaps she hopes some rooster errant will carry her.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Let Us Prey: Looking a Mantid in the Eye

It is devout, a diviner, a caring mother. It is abominable, a killing machine, a cannibal. From ancient times until today, the praying mantis has carried much human baggage, both praise and prejudice.

The ‘praying’ description comes from the raised and folded position of its two front legs at leisure, though some people have suggested that ‘preying’ is a more appropriate word. The other part of the name is from a Greek word meaning ‘prophet’: the ancient Greeks are among various groups who have attributed supernatural abilities to the mantis.

I have my doubts that it has super-powers. They
re a lot to expect of something you could kill by stepping on it accidentally. But “mantids tend to attract more than their fair share of public interest and enthusiasm”, New Zealand entomologist Graeme Ramsay observed. Perhaps his 1990 study bears this out: it comes to about 100 pages, the length of nearly 500 adult mantids placed end to end. 

My own interest was piqued by an article in the Forest and Bird magazine. It prompted me to look closely at praying mantises in my own garden, and to go further afield to learn more.

The mantis and the migrant

The world has up to 2000 species of mantises, I discovered, and these insects make themselves at home in many countries. Not the UK, however. On returning here in 1947 as a young teenager, Fleur Adcock was intrigued to see her first praying mantis. More than 60 years later, she’s given it life again in a poem about the unfamiliar new world facing a migrant:

The new collection in which this features, Glass Wings, has a dragonfly on the cover, and also includes poems on bees, beetles, stick insects... Adcock is keen on all of them. One of her most anthologised works, ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ (a favourite of mine, too), has a wise and wily conclusion about kindness to snails.

Not all New Zealand settlers have been as kindly disposed as Adcock is to the praying mantis. The Otago Witness columnist
Entomologist claimed in 1890, “There is no insect more rapacious and more quarrelsome and bloodthirsty than the mantis.” 

The writer labelled it “abominable”, presumably on account of its tendency to eat its prey alive, a process he (?) described twice and in detail. He grudgingly admitted, however, that its predation of some pests meant it was likely to do more good than harm to crops.

What the best-dressed insect is wearing

Another commentator, Eleanor Brown, enthused about mantids in the manner of an early 1900s society columnist describing what the best-dressed people are wearing. “When mature, their outer wings are so like a stiff green leaf, that one can hardly help mistaking them for one; but hidden beneath those stiff ones are a daintier pair (only unfurled for flying) in diaphonous folds of tender green, and radiating tints of pearly grey, set off by the stronger contrast of bright orange and peacock-blue of the spots on the fore-legs.” 

Eleanor Brown illustration, New
Zealand Illustrated Magazine
, 1904.
Such glorious raiment was not Miss Brown’s only focus. She noted that “The maternal solicitude of the mantis guides her to choose and fix upon some well-favoured leaf or branch to attach her frothy egg-cabin to; she so effectually renders it a dwelling of safety for her brood, that I’m sure a bird would scorn to touch such an unsavoury-looking structure.”

Living larders
A bird might not be tempted, but for some tiny parasites, the oothecae (egg cases) and their contents are “weatherproofed living larders”, according to biologist John Walsby. In New Zealand, these parasites are “mostly the larvae of very small wasps, such as Eupelmus antipoda”. The NatureWatch website shows one of the latter on a New Zealand mantis ootheca, ready to lay its own eggs there.

Nor are wasps the only threat to the New Zealand mantis, Orthodera novaezealandiae. Other mantids have sometimes been intercepted entering New Zealand as stowaways, but the South African mantis Miomantis caffra made it through, undetected until 1978 when a schoolboy in New Lynn, Auckland, found some of its nymphs (juveniles). By then the exotic species was already established here, and now it may be overtaking ‘our’ mantis. Of the four mantids I’ve found in my garden since March, three were M. caffra.

Young South African mantis 
(also featured in top photo).

The recent arrival’s winning ways
In a passionate piece of advocacy for the local mantis, conservationist Graeme Hill reported that the New Zealand male can’t tell the females of the two mantis species apart: “He will attempt to mate with the South African but in doing so either wastes his issue... [or] his romantic forays will stop right there due to an infamous habit of the female Miomantis caffra – cannibalism. He gets eaten in flagrante delicto for his mistake. The New Zealand female does not cannibalise her suitor.” Well, never say never... but others contend that it’s rare.

Miomantus caffra female,
very pregnant.
The South African lays many more eggs per ootheca (perhaps that’s why she tucks into a massive post-coital meal). Another advantage for her species is its tendency to shelter under leaves or in long grass, while the local mantis sits on the top of leaves and becomes easy prey for larger predators.

It was Hill’s article in Forest and Bird that alerted me to the competing species. I soon followed his lead, trying to increase the chances of the native mantis in my own garden by eliminating the competition. It may seem mean – the more so given their comical and cute appearance – but I give them to my hens, who love to snack on insects. Death by chicken is usually very quick.

Spotting the difference
Unlike the New Zealand mantis male, I now know enough to distinguish between the two species:
- compared with the New Zealanders, the South Africans have much narrower bodies between the first two sets of legs;
- the New Zealanders are always green; the South Africans are sometimes beige or other shades;
- most distinctively, only the New Zealand mantis has a beautiful purply-blue spot on the inside of each front leg. (It’s not an ear, as some people think, though the mantis has an ‘auditory receptor’ on the underside of its thorax.)

New Zealand mantis in a hurry,
traces of cobweb still on its wings.
The one ‘local’ I’ve found this year was caught in a spider’s web in my front porch. When I came to the rescue, it was in such a hurry to leave that I couldn’t snap an ‘in focus’ photo. 

Still, I was able to spot the difference, and to release it under the broccoli plants, rather than deliver it to the killing machines in the chicken run. 

* * * * *

O. novaezealandiae its past and future
Mantids tend to inhabit tropical or subtropical countries, and New Zealand is the southern limit of their worldwide distribution.

Some theories date the arrival of our first mantis back only as far as early European settlement, suggesting it stowed away on materials imported by ship. What we now call the New Zealand praying mantis was once thought to belong to a species in Australia (which has more than 100 types of mantis), but is regarded
these days as distinct.

In 1990, leading authority George Ramsay concluded that the New Zealand mantis was established here “probably long before human settlement”. A century earlier, ‘Entomologist’ had described it as having “always been very abundant in the most northern portions of New Zealand, and [it] seems of later years to have become very prevalent in the Middle [South] Island.” John Walsby has summarised its present range as “from North Cape to Bluff, but [it] is absent from the high country and rare on the South Island’s wet West Coast”.

That sounds fine, until you read about the spread of the South African mantis. Ramsay wrote that it is gradually extending and consolidating its distribution in Auckland and the north. Miomantis caffra is adaptable, apparently, and better able to survive the Auckland winter than the long-time local mantis. 

“It may well eventually colonise a greater area of New Zealand than the latter species. Indeed, it may even be able to displace it, as in some areas it is now more frequently seen than O. novaezealandiae, which formerly was the more common.”

Mantid hygiene is a priority.
Bits of cobweb on this New
Zealand mantis give it even
more reason to wash.
 Related Reading
Fleur Adcock; Glass Wings; Victoria University Press; 2013; the poem ‘Praying Mantis’ is reproduced on this blog with the kind permission of VUP

Eleanor Brown; ‘A Study of Insect Life’; New Zealand Illustrated Magazine; Feb 1904; c/- 

Adam Dudding; 

Entomologist; ‘Entomology; Otago Witness; 18 Sept 1890; c/-

Graeme Hill; ‘Springbok Invasion’; Forest and Bird; Feb 2012 

Mantids’ in The New Encyclopedia of Insects and Their Allies; ed. Christopher O’Toole; OUP; 2002; c/- Oxford Reference Online
Ramsay, Graeme; Mantodea (Insecta), with a review of aspects of functional morphology and biology’; Fauna of New Zealand 19;

John Walsby; ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’; New Zealand Geographic; Issue 029, Jan–Mar 1996.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stop All the Clucks

A Time to Mourn

Amelia in early life, with Emmeline behind her.
“A chicken?!”

Her words came out as a squawk: the woman at the after-hours service must have missed the class on dealing diplomatically with distressed pet owners, and as a result she missed out on my money. I decided to wait another day and take Amelia the New Hampshire Red instead to my usual, more understanding veterinary clinic – not just for my sake, but for the hen’s as well.

Killing a chook is one of those DIY activities that I feel should be within my grasp. We all had poultry-keeping forebears; ergo we have all inherited the ability to wring a chicken’s neck or cut off its head. My personal experience with living hens – two small flocks, over time – should surely make me an expert in dispatching them.

But I’ve never tried. Though I’ve killed feral rats, killing one of my ‘girls’ seems just too hard. This time I went so far as to research possible methods, consulting my chicken bible and discussing (with friends over dinner) their possible efficacy. My conclusion was that the methods might be failsafe, but I wouldn’t be.

Commercial layers are usually culled after a season or two, as they become less productive, but the term of a chicken’s natural life is eight years or more. Amelia, three and a half, had been unwell for a while with what seemed to be a respiratory problem. Often these are contagious – bird flu, anyone? – but she didn’t pass it on.

’s Labours
Breathing was more of an effort. She drank lots of water, lacked get up and go. I watched her closely for signs that life was no longer worth living, and took her to the vet for treatment when she developed coughs and sneezes. The antibiotics made me feel better but the last two courses that I requested did little for her. Surgery would have been invasive, expensive and quite possibly futile. So Amelia was for the chop, figuratively speaking. It was just a matter of when.

I’m an agoniser, weighing the need to prevent prolonged suffering against the fear that I may cut a life short for my own convenience. With Amelia’s fate hanging in the balance, I was tempted to ring the specialist cat clinic that, I’ve heard, offers clients a Q&A sheet to help them decide when it’s time to euthanise. “Have you got one for chickens?”, I wanted to ask.

Amelia was very poorly when I rang the after-hours service, having decided the time had come. The next day she perked up a little, making some of the right chookling sounds and showing more interest in food (see video below). Her plumage was still beautiful; she wasn’t emaciated. 


It didn’t seem right, though, to further delay her date with destiny. So I placed her in the recycled recycling crate that I use for visits to the vet, draped a towel over it, and off we went.

The clinic that morning was quieter than on my previous visit, when the waiting room was full and 
Henemoa’s and my appointment had been sandwiched between those of a cockatoo (who had come some distance) and Poppy the pigeon. This time there was only one other customer, cradling a cardboard box. From his face, it seemed the outlook for whatever lay inside was bleak, and I felt for the young man. I managed to refrain from telling him that my chicken, too, had been having a hard time.

His pet was, I learned, a bearded dragon. (It takes all sorts...) When my turn came, the vet reassured me that although the creature – Rosie? – had fallen out of a tree and suffered some nasty bruising, she would probably be okay. And then he examined my hen very gently, taking his time. It felt like a ritual, albeit a secular one, to help me cross to the place of no return. We both knew Amelia was in a bad way.


My hen had lost 350g in the month or so since our last appointment, which I thought rather a lot for a 3kg bird. The vet typed “Breathing – dreadful” into her record on the computer. And then he took her away.

I came back to collect the body a few hours later. Amelia had been carefully ‘laid out’ (still in the recycling bin) as if by an undertaker, only without any of the fakery or indignities to which dead humans are subjected – applications of unlifelike makeup and so on. At home, we buried her in the garden. 

Last day.

Some Sorting To Do

The sudden disappearance of one flock member meant my remaining five hens had some sorting to do, a revised pecking order to establish, rather like the reshuffles that occur as a result of restlessness in political party ranks.

My own thoughts were of Amelia’s absence, and that the flock had a hole in it. “Stop All the Clocks,” I thought dramatically, remembering WH Auden’s poem about a momentous death. Embarrassingly, the day my redhead died, I nearly cried down the phone to someone whose book I was editing. She was kind.

After a week or so, it was tempting to try and fill the hole I perceived. I never considered ‘replacing’ Amelia with another New Hampshire Red – that would be disrespectful, hasty, and just a little creepy. Perhaps, though, a couple of new point-of-lay pullets of other breeds could be slipped into the mix.

At Whatipu Lodge in rural West Auckland, following an extraordinarily productive summer – three clutches of chicks! – a few gangly girls of mixed parentage were still available. Their owners were interested in getting them settled in good homes. Wouldn’t this be satisfactory for all concerned (Stephen Covey Habit 4: ‘Think Win–Win’)? 

Emmeline and Amelia as young pullets (above)
and all grown up (below), tucking in to guavas.

On consulting veteran breeder and chicken keeper Raewyn Norton at Heritage Farm, however, I realised that my timing was all wrong. Her pullets and those of Whatipu Lodge were too young, would have difficulty integrating with my existing older flock, and in their isolation would suffer badly from cold during the winter to come.

The Flock Re-forms
Reluctantly, I decided to keep my ageing flock as it was, at least for now. And gradually its composition and its dynamics – or my perceptions of them – underwent a subtle transformation. 

Emmeline, the large Light Sussex, had been an intimate of Amelia since their arrival together in December 2009. Now, Emmeline strengthened her ties with Vanessa, the White Leghorn. 

Henemoa the Rhode Island Red, another friend of Amelia (but darker brown), instead hung out with Alice the Australorp (black). Only Victoria the Araucana seemed unaffected. As always, this fierce little hen (grey) picked – or pecked – any companion she wanted.

Somewhat later than Vanessa, Emmeline, Henemoa, Alice and Victoria, I stopped thinking someone was missing. The flock was whole. Life went on. 

Henemoa (in autumn moult) hangs out with Alice.