Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Mallardy: Ducks in the Garden

Our house had an abundance of unannounced guests a few days back. Carol entertained a very polite Jehovah’s Witness and his mobility scooter at the front (or rather she didn’t), while at the back, I hosted an equally polite pair of mallard ducks.

During more than 20 years at this address we’ve been visited by numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses – including on a Christmas morning – but these were our first ducks. Or almost our first: about a month earlier, a drake landed in the back garden, took a look around, said hi to the chooks, then flew off. I reckon he may have been the same drake we’ve had this week, doing his preliminary recce.

Perhaps the mallard pair have fled the major work on the nearby ‘Waterview Connection’, the planned link between Auckland’s North- and South-Western motorways. I’d already met such refugees — two people and a cat, who were displaced when blocks of homes were demolished along the Waterview Straight, and who recently rented two rooms from our neighbour. The ducks’ favoured habitat, Oakley Creek, is at least still there. But it runs right by the motorway-related demolition and construction, and part of the waterway itself is being rerouted. It can’t be a great place to live right now.

Picking up food with a broken beak.
Waifs and strays tend to tug at my heartstrings, and as I had the catfood handy (I’d just fed the cat — another uninvited guest), I tossed a few morsels in the mallards’ direction, then scattered some chickenfeed for good measure. They might be thirsty too, I thought, so I lent them Cosmo’s water bowl as well.

Soon I noticed that the female was a duck with a difference: the lower part of her bill had broken off. The drake seemed to be keeping watch; he largely stood by, murmuring (quek-quek-quek-quek-quek...), while his mate grabbed as much grub as she could.

As a species the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, is hardly a rarity. This “familiar duck of parks and farm ponds” was first brought from Britain in the 1860s, with further introductions, breeding and “liberations” though to 1960. 

Mallards interbreed readily with our native grey duck or parera, Anas superciliosa, so hybrids are common. It’s hard to tell what’s what just from looking — even the experts say so — because even the purebred mallards imported over the decades varied considerably in appearance. However, I think at least one of my visitors has a touch of the parera.

The female duck at rest.
Female mallards have bills that are “brownish grey with orange at base, sides and tip”. What’s left of ‘my’ female duck’s bill is pure slate grey. Her legs and feet are more mallardish, and as with her mate, the speculum (panel of metallic-coloured secondary flight feathers) is blue not green as in the purebred parera.

The drake’s colouring confused me initially but my reading indicates he is in “eclipse” plumage, a feature noted in ducks but other birds as well. This figurative term, indicating a loss of splendour, dates back to the 1830s when British naturalist Charles Waterton observed, 

Sackcloth and ashes?
At the close of the breeding season, the drake undergoes a very remarkable change of plumage... [and is] clothed in the raiment of the female... the drake goes, as it were, into an eclipse.

Some may see this as sackcloth and ashes after the busy sinning of the breeding season but I think his eclipse feathers beautiful. The various shades of brown, so much more muted than the usual light grey and glossy dark green, are also good camouflage as the mallards enter a moult that will soon render them completely flightless — and therefore vulnerable to predators — for three weeks.

The broken-billed female is already vulnerable, not to predation but to hunger. West Auckland Bird Rescue representative Lyn MacDonald told me that I shouldn’t expect long life in any duck without the lower part of its bill, as this bit is needed to obtain food easily in the wild.

Waterproofing work, with the speculum feathers of
each duck on display.
f ducks and related birds,

Encyclopaedia Britannica
says: The bill is used both
to stimulate the oil gland (situated above the tail)
and to spread the oil. Rubbing the chin and throat
on oiled areas also helps the process. Preening
occurs at the same time, the fine structure of the
feathers being nibbled into the interlocking position
necessary to prevent the entry of water.
When the ducks have visited — several times now, and always around 4pm — I’ve seen the female work extra-hard for her food, using her tongue as a not very efficient shovel. The time she turned up without her partner, the sparrows and pigeons kept up the pressure, although I tried to do drake duty by shooing them.

That day my duck was on edge and didn’t hang about for her preening routine (which is more important than it sounds). The multi-tasking required when she was on her own was just too hard.

Should I try catching her and taking her to a rescue centre? Apparently they would put her to sleep, so Lynn MacDonald implied I might as well continue the “ideal” diet of layers’ pellets* and shredded raw meat. Euthanasia was the likely fate of another New Zealand mallard with no bottom bill, until his rescuers made one out of wire (not number eight, but something finer): ‘Beaky’ was lucky to be plucked off the death list and is now making his way up the pecking order at the SPCA shelter where he will spend the rest of his life.

The feeding of a commonplace exotic bird that is sometimes termed a “nuisance” brings up interesting ethical issues, especially when our native birds are endangered and in need of support. I’m also aware of how easy it is to focus on individuals when, really, populations should concern me. The exotic/native debate gives particular piquancy to the question of individual versus population interests.

Still, I feed the ducks.  

* Pellets and other foodstuffs are on the modest wishlist of the Bird Rescue website.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chickens in the Library

Put these dates in your diary. Better still, come along.

Out of the Jungle and into the City: Chooks in Our Backyards
10.30am, Thurs 22 Nov, 93 Rosebank Rd, Auckland
The human relationship with chickens goes way back, and they’re part of language and culture. Now more and more people keep chooks... 

*  *  *  *  *

Green Eggs and Chicks: Preschool Storytime
10.30am, Wed 28 Nov, Avondale Public Library, 93 Rosebank Rd, Auckland
Claire Gummer will be a special guest at the storytime session. Songs, stories, dance and fun activities around chicks and chickens.

Friday, November 16, 2012

About a Speckled Egg — A Modest Speculation

Two nests, one nestling, and an egg: those are the fruit that fell from our garden’s totara tree this spring. 

The egg, the latest find, is incomplete. The yolk left to congeal in the shell leads me to think that the chick inside didn’t grow very much, let alone make its own way out.

I’ll admit a certain eagerness for this to be, in urban backyard terms, something interesting and unusual (
from a native bird). But I’m also crossing my fingers that only an unhatched house sparrow, officially exotic yet actually fairly humdrum, came to grief as a result of taking the plunge. That’s not scientific, dispassionate, or kind: why should a sparrow matter less? (And according to the Bible, “not one falls to the ground” without God’s knowing.)

Anyway, to learn about what I’d discovered, I turned first to Which New Zealand Bird?, whose back pages match species to life-sized images of variously coloured eggs. ‘My’ egg seemed most likely to come from a grey warbler or riroriro. These birds are
very common (and plainer than sparrows in appearance); at this time of year I often hear, and occasionally see, a male of the species singing in the crabapple trees outside my window. Weighing just 6.5 g, the warbler is so tiny that its entire body moves to project its powerful, memorable melody.

Despite the efforts of the bird book’s author and publisher (aptly, Crowe and Penguin), it’s hard to match a picture on a page with a real egg in all its three-dimensional glory. But a paper published nearly 30 years ago in the ornithological society journal, Notornis, described grey warbler eggs as having reddish-brown speckling that varied:

from almost none to intensive, and the blotches ranged from minute to about 1.5 mm wide.... Speckles were usually concentrated into a dense band at the egg’s larger end...

This sounded just like the specimen I’d collected.

In the paper, one B. J. Gill was reporting on three seasons’ breeding by riroriro across a 30 ha bush area at Kaikoura, detailing not only numerous observations but also the methods and equipment  used. The latter included tape recordings and hair nets to lure and catch the incubating females, of which it was said, “None deserted.” The implication? They were sufficiently unperturbed to see out their commitment to the next generation.

Who was B. J. Gill, and what of his or her subsequent work, I wondered? The end of the paper linked the writer with Canterbury University’s Zoology Department but noted a present (1983) address at Auckland Institute and Museum.

He turned out to be Brian Gill, wh
o recently explained the pied blackbird I encountered at the botanic gardens. That explanation is, to my mind, a major contribution to science, but for anyone who is yet to be convinced, Dr Gill maintains dominion over land vertebrates at Auckland Museum. His new book, The Owl that Fell from the Sky, tells “stories of a museum curator”, and he is credited as the main source of riroriro information in the comprehensive Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand.

With the patience of a saint scientist, Dr Gill examined the photos I emailed and announced that he couldn’t be sure if my egg came from a warbler. It was probable, he said, but several other species (including the fantail, fernbird and — yes — the ever-present house sparrow) also lay white eggs with reddish speckles.

I’m voting for the riroriro. I hope that the other three eggs in its clutch are safe, and that the pipiwharauroa or shining cuckoo I heard a while back hasn’t commandeered its nest — though that could explain the egg I found. It would also render my garden drama much more gripping.

The pipiwharauroa is, like the riroriro, more often heard than seen. The “brood parasitism” for which it is famous involves chucking an egg out of the riroriro
’s nest and laying one of its own there instead, although nobody seems to have witnessed this.

Bird enthusiasts marvel at this achievement, because the cuckoo is more than three times the warbler’s weight, the latter’s dome-shaped nest has an entrance of just 3 cm, and the structure seems unaffected by all this unscheduled activity. After the cuckoo chick hatches, it evicts the remaining warbler eggs or chicks and gets a set of surrogate parents all to itself.

I’ve been castigating myself for my sentimental, unscientific observation of garden life. But if nobody knows exactly how a cuckoo infiltrates the grey warbler’s domain, perhaps it’s not a crime for me to speculate about a single speckled egg.

Pictured left: Dr Gill’s drawings of grey warbler nests he observed, as published in Notornis (Gill 1983), but shown here rather smaller. Reproduced with permission from the author and publisher.

Dr Gill lists the warbler’s nesting materials as: moss; cobwebs; spider’s egg cases; lichen; sheep’s wool; hair of horses, cows, deer and humans; feathers; leaves, pine needles and leaf skeletons; scales and fibres from ferns; twigs; bark; rootlets; thistledown and willow catkins; decayed wood; scraps of paper; fine creepers.

Pictured below: riroriro / grey warbler. Reproduced with the permission of Steve Attwood,


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Down Will Come Cradle

A couple of weeks ago ­­it seemed too early in the season for nestlings to fetch up on the ground. Now I’ve found one, and as in most cases, it’s fallen from Fortress Totara, the big tree in our front garden. 

This particular baby was accompanied by its cradle: that’s what a nest is, essentially ...or is a cradle really a kind of nest? 

It looks like the work of a blackbird. I can’t tell from the dead nestling (it has only a few tufts of nascent feathers) but the weave of the nest suggests it.

From my perspective the nest is small — it would easily fit in my two hands. Alongside the spilled contents, though, it’s monumental, and the tree is the world.

An old nursery rhyme comes to mind: 
Rock-a-bye baby on the tree-top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
Down will come baby, cradle and all.

When I mentioned these lyrics to a new mother, she responded by wondering: who would sing their child such a lullaby? It’s the stuff of nightmares. Nevertheless, for birds, the events it describes are far from unusual.

*  *  *

My previous post sentimentalised about how a tiny hen’s egg and a very small bird’s nest, found the same day, “might have been made for each other”. Nature, however, is more practical.

That nest, light grey, is made largely from the silken innards of a moth-plant pod, so I’d puzzled about why numerous fine black particles of dirt were falling on to the sheet of paper below. It turns out that the nest has been the ideal incubator for someone else’s eggs: those of an unseen insect that laid them within the weave. Small white larvae have hatched and are
producing droppings.

Nature abhors a vacuum.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nest + Egg

I just got back from the windy city — Wellington — only to find that the weekend weather in my neck of the woods had been just as bad ...or worse, if the leaves, twigs and other debris in the garden are anything to go by.

Usually the spring and summer storms result in broken birds’ eggs and unfledged nestlings (unfledglings?) on the ground. As the totara tree in the front garden is very tall and the landing pad beneath is concrete, the chances of survival are zilch.

The work of a blackbird?
The Nests that Flew 
It’s probably too early for that kind of tragedy, but I have discovered a couple of nests that have taken flight and fetched up on the ground, where they can be of no further use to their creators.

One, quite large and sturdy-looking, is made of woven grasses, leaves and the like, with some mud helping hold it together. Perhaps it landed heavily on the grass verge where I found it yesterday, as the circular construction has quite a dent in it. 

This nest, I think, belongs to a blackbird. Certainly it matches a description I found of blackbird nest design: “an untidy cup built... from vegetation, such as grass and twigs, and bound together with mud and finer grasses”. 

My second discovery, made today beneath the totara tree, must have been built — if that’s the right word for something so slight — after Saturday’s storm: there’s no way it could have survived nature’s thrashing. Initially it wasn’t recognisable as a nest of any kind; I thought it a wind-driven ball of fluff until, on picking it up and turning it over, I found its cup-shaped hollow.

A bird’s nest masquerading as a ball of fluff,
and coming apart already.
This nest, much smaller, is woven of materials so delicate that after minimal human handling, it is coming apart. Perhaps it was incomplete when it fell? 

The main fabric is from inside a moth-plant (Araujia sericifera) pod — the silky white stuff that bears black seeds along the lightest breeze. The bird that selected it has carefully dispensed with the seeds themselves. 

I’ve found a ranger’s reference to the use of such ‘kapok’ for lining a silver-eye’s nest.* As silver-eyes visit our garden most days, perhaps one of them is behind this particular design.

The products I am able to inspect may be seconds and throw-outs, but nest-building is a skill I find admirable, and I’m not alone: Australian art historian Janine Burke has dedicated a book to the subject.

Hen and Nest

Gallus gallus domesticus, commonly known as the chicken, doesn’t much bother with making nests, as far as I can see. Those of us who accommodate a flock of chooks tend to furnish the place where they lay their eggs. It is preferably in the dark, involving some kind of box that we make cosy with wood shavings or the like.

The closest my hens have come to making a nest is really just a gesture, and it only happens when they’re going broody. Now and then they’ll pick up a scrap of dried vegetation such as straw, then drop it to one side — an act that appears either dreamy or ritualistic. A seriously broody hen, claiming for herself the straw-based nest I’ve provided for all, will pluck out some of her downiest feathers to warm or pillow the egg she intends to incubate.

Emmeline, my Light Sussex, did this a few weeks back but didn’t get far with her parenting plan before I shut her into the palais de poulet (a nest-free zone, unlike the chalet de poulet opposite). No hen was harmed in the enforced isolation that briefly followed. Emmeline stopped laying for a couple of days and is now back on schedule, surrendering to me her beautiful eggs: pinkish beige, with random small splashes of white.

Vanessa’s double yolker dwarfed other eggs,
including her own (the adjacent white egg).
Large and Lilliputian Eggs
She’s been the only broody so far this spring, but two members of the flock have laid unusual eggs. Some days ago Vanessa, the White Leghorn, laid the biggest egg I’ve ever seen from a hen, and only the second double-yolker I’ve ever received.

Giants like this can result in serious problems such as prolapse in a hen, but Vanessa seemed unperturbed. Perhaps she was making up for an earlier season, in which her laying was unreliable and resulted in a number of soft-shelled eggs — a problem remedied with a calcium injection from my knowledgeable vet, plus a better grade of chicken feed.

Amelia’s tiny egg with those of fellow flock members
Alice (or possibly Henemoa) and Emmeline.
Amelia the New Hampshire, on the other hand, has been laying smaller eggs than usual. She generally makes just as much fuss about them, but today’s egg was apparently produced without her noticing, as I found it discarded amid the litter of the chicken run. 

It’s the smallest I’ve ever seen: the size of a small garden bird’s egg, and certainly insufficient for an omelette (except one served at a dolls’ luncheon). I doubt it contains a yolk.

Crook Chook
There are several possible reasons for the altered state of Amelia’s eggs. Perhaps my inadequate provision of water one day, a couple of weeks back, is a factor. However, I think a nasty respiratory infection she caught at the end of winter may be the underlying cause.

Amelia was a crook chook for several days, and again the vet was involved. Although he made no guarantees, she made what seemed like a full recovery, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, the nightly ‘inhalations’ I administered on the vet’s suggestion (stationing two gently steaming flasks of hot water safely below the sleeping birds’ perch), and Amelia’s own constitution. But she was the last to resume laying when the weather warmed, and her eggs have been small ever since.

Evidence of Vanessa’s Herculean effort.

The Perfect Complement
Vanessa’s double yolker was cooked the day it was laid, becoming a key ingredient in a delicious egg-based dish with leeks, cream and cheese. I’ve been less certain of what to do with Amelia’s tiny offering — but that’s exactly where the miniature bird’s nest comes to the party.

It reminds me of the AA Milne story in which two gifts were not quite what their bearers intended. Winnie-the-Pooh planned to give Eeyore the donkey a pot of honey for his birthday but he ate the honey on the way; Piglet was taking Eeyore a balloon but he stumbled and it burst. All was well, however: the presents now complemented each other perfectly.

from Winnie the Pooh

Neither Amelia’s egg nor the silken nest is fit for its original purpose, and each has been abandoned by its maker. In nature, purpose is important, so each bird will try again. To me and to many others, beauty is also important, and in a sense this nest and this egg are flimsily, fleetingly, perfect — they might have been made for each other. Together, theyre a work of art. 


* the moth-plant nest lining:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dealing with a Drinking Problem

Vanessa and Henemoa (front) are with Amelia, Alice
and Victoria (obscured) at the freshly refilled drink
dispenser. Vanessa is tilting her head back to swallow.
One of the many things I’ve read about chickens is that they Will Not Drink Dirty Water. Numerous websites, including the SPCA’s, link this with the commandment, “Thou shalt have plenty of fresh, clean water available for the chooks at all times.”

Chooks are certainly great drinkers, especially when the weather warms. They’ll cluster around the water dispenser like blokes around the beer before six o’clock closing at the Public Bar. God forbid that there be an even slightly inadequate quantity of the wet stuff.

In my experience, chickens are far from picky about the purity of their vittles and drink, but particularly enjoy helping themselves from a natural platter. It’s much more fun to scratch and peck at the ground for food than to eat nutritionally formulated pellets out of a receptacle that’s raised, hygienically, off the ground.

Alice the Australorp (above)
goes for drops spilt by others,
while Emmeline drinks from
underneath the dispenser
Likewise, in my backyard they’ll bypass the plastic water dispenser to help themselves to the miniature mud-pond in a large leaf; hoover up (before the earth can absorb it) any dirty dregs I’ve tipped out; delicately sip the dew that rests in the chickenwire on a damp new day; even drink up the drops from the underside of the dispenser. I try not to give them such choices but hens are crafty and, like necessity, they are mothers of invention.

My last flock, I’m ashamed to say, had a water bucket that cultivated algae of an interesting hue (it also drowned the occasional sparrow). Those chooks drank dirty water more often than not — i.e. when it was the only sort I made available — and I think it’s no coincidence that their poop was far less impressive in appearance than what my present pets produce. 

Manure may not make a chicken as “manners maketh man”, but it can indicate its health. My last lot squirted out ... well, I won’t go into details. They’re dead, and it was a long time ago.

I’ve learned a lot about hens since then. I am conscious now that just as in wartime “careless talk costs lives”, so (at any time) dirty water spreads disease
How to Care for Your Poultry, the excellent book jointly authored by New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine’s editor and hen expert, tells me so. It has no fewer than five index references to water requirements, and the number-one question in the poultry management chapter relates to water: “Would you drink the water in your hen house?” it asks, pointing the finger as severely as the military man in the recruitment poster that reads, “Your country needs YOU.”

Thus motivated, I declare war on Bertie Germ in my backyard, scrubbing out the chickens’ water dispensers and refilling them about once a day. I’d be reluctant to drink from the dispenser when the girls have just been scratching up a storm and flinging dirt everywhere, but on the whole I can answer the good book’s question in the affirmative. The present contingent in my coop have clean water “on tap”, and that’s what they drink (unless they can get what’s fallen from the sky, or mucky stuff they find on the ground). 

Victoria the Araucana, like most hens, isnt big on beak
hygiene. Here she gets down and dirty in a search
for worms and other delicacies.
As a result of this, and of better treatment all round, they give me ...yes, lovely eggs, but also large droppings of the correct colouring and consistency. One such deposit, gently steaming like a Christmas pudding, is beautiful to behold; a multitude is manure from heaven.

The attention I devote to chicken poop may be similar to, but more insightful than, that of doctors to King George’s porphyria-blighted (blue) emissions in the Royal Chamber Pot, some 200 years ago. Or perhaps I am the poultry equivalent of the Plunket nurse who analyses everything about her charges, even their excrement.

I see myself channelling the Plunket Society’s famous founder, Dr Sir Frederic Truby King, to help the hens and save the eggs. I try to administer food as the doctor ordered, at about the same time every day. Fortunately I don’t expect of my hens the perfectly timed bowel motions that he specified for human babies, or I might require committal to the modern equivalent of another institution in which King had a leading role — the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Chooks follow the call of nature rather than any clock: they just poop and poop and poop, and there’s no stopping them.

Am I over-conscientious? I don’t think so. Many things can harm a chicken. Looking at what it’s chucked out its rubbish chute gives me the opportunity to see warning signs and act on them before it’s too late.
How to Care for Your Poultry describes droppings, healthy and otherwise. Paying attention to these beats the post-mortem examination on which the book also advises readers under the heading “CSI Henhouse”. The latter involves poring over the poor creature’s entrails like a holy man, but one informed by science — anatomy, physiology, pathology.

The first half-dozen eggs this
spring once everyone began laying.
On the matter of water, one day this week I was a Bad Hen Mother. I left too many hours between refills. Luckily, it isn’t high summer and the girls didn’t conk out; they simply clustered around the replenished supplies for longer than usual, and with greater enthusiasm. Whether my neglect has disrupted their laying cycle, a fragile thing, remains to be seen.

Last Words on Water
- keep it clean, and keep it coming;
- chickens need to be able to drink often;
- lack of water kills more quickly than lack of food;
- double the quantity of water is needed in summer;
- laying hens drink twice as much as non-layers;
- by providing food and water in more than one place at a time, you can
outsmart the pecking order and enable each hen to get her share.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Pet Cricket and Other Stories

It was a mouse: the droppings on the kitchen bench said so. Such creatures do come in (they’re called house mice for a reason) but not often since our kitchen’s been renovated, and almost never if we’re careful about crumbs. So this mouse must have been desperate, because we were leaving nothing out ...and why did it choose to deposit those tiny black sausages in the same spot every time? Rodents are not usually toilet trained. 

Be not afraid! This is a kitset weta, available
from museum stores, toy shops and the like.
Then, one day, I spied our visitor, a weta clinging to the small forest we call a house plant, right there on the bench. Weta are insects from the Orthoptera order, and thus related to crickets, but reputedly larger and uglier. 

Although they can bite, I’ve never met anybody who’s had that pleasure, and generally they are harmless. All the same, they scare so many of us so much that I’ve chosen to humanely euphemise the title of this post. “My Pet Cricket” is less offputting than, for instance, “How I Learned to Love the Weta”.

Many Kiwis would rather die than approach a weta. It’s ironic, considering that the beaky bird for which we’re named gets as up close and personal as possible: far from being put off by the impressive armour that weta wear, it eats them.

A weta wreck, pictured on our driveway. Not so
different from the car wrecks that some people
keep in their front yards, but on a smaller scale.
I used to be one such Kiwi — the terrified sort rather than the culinarily inquisitive sort. One of my earliest weta memories is of my English godmother, Mrs Curtis, bludgeoning one of the beasts to death with a hammer while my mother and I, aghast (at the weta, not its demise), looked on from a safe distance. We thought Mrs Curtis very brave, exhibiting the best of British sangfroid.

Another time I discovered, on a childhood visit to the treehut in the bigger branches of our garden’s old puriri, that it had become a nursery school for weta. 

The hut had been one of my favourite retreats; I’d secretly fantasised about “running away from home” to live there and steal into my mother’s kitchen late at night for supplies. After the unexpected encounter with those tough-looking juvies I don’t think I ever climbed into the treehut again.

The landmark totara tree in the garden that I enjoy as a grown-up is a weta metropolis whose citizens treat our adjacent bungalow like a second home: the aging timber of both must appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities. So in the last decade, sentences like “I think there’s a weta on me” (uttered in the seemingly calm manner that belies complete terror) and “Stay very still...” became commonplace within these walls.

This one crawled out of
the woodwork when
the henhouse was
Once, in the dark middle of night, Carol wanged her nose — hard — with an agitated hand after she woke to feel something crawling across her face. I turned the light on, searched, and was about to give up 10 minutes later when I discovered the culprit beneath the bed. In retrospect, given weta size relative to the average human adult, it was probably more stunned than Carol had a right to be.

On another day, we brewed tea to celebrate the arrival of family members, only to be perplexed when the teapot wouldn’t pour. Then we noticed the antennae sticking out of the spout. A weta had lodged itself there, finding the long narrow space and the brown hue of the pot a splendid substitute for the more usual hole in a tree.

Weta infusion might be suitable for a wild foods festival but not for a home brew of chai, so we removed the impediment, rinsed, and started over. Carol’s sister and brother-in-law were none the worse. The weta, now stewed, was beyond assistance.

My feelings about these native insects have changed in the last few years, in what I can only call a desensitisation process. Probably the last two steps were:
- attending a talk and slide show by wildlife photographer Rod Morris on the unique wildlife of the Denniston and Stockton plateaux. Weta, including previously unseen species, were a recurring motif;
- watching the irrepressible Stephen Fry encountering New Zealand’s more reclusive and peculiar inhabitants on a BBC doco, Last Chance to See. Sirocco the kinky kakapo stole the show but weta had their moment in the sun.

As a result, and without expecting to, I’ve now felt fondness for my “pet” weta in its pot plant home, and I’ve even handled a living specimen without fear. Granted, it was a little subdued — it was among various invertebrates, mostly spiders, that had made a hasty exit when I waterblasted their home, aka the palais de poulet or henhouse. This was an end-of-summer cleanout in the chicken coop, not waterboarding at Guantanamo, but the effect was no doubt similar. I then terminated our relationship by feeding the weta to the chooks who, having recently fled the waterblaster themselves, enjoyed the distraction.

I fearlessly handle
the henhouse weta.
Sadly, as with many pets, the pot plant weta came to a bad end. I put the plant outside for a while, hoping Willie (as we called him ...or her: I didn’t see if there was an ovipositor) would go to greener pastures. But some days after we brought it back in, we found him on the kitchen floor, looking pale and emaciated, and wriggling feebly. I suspect his limited diet of pot plant leaves — I saw the holes in them had led to severe malnutrition.

Carol assessed his condition as terminal, so she kindly chopped his head off. This didn’t appear to end his misery, as a few hours later he was still moving. I finished him off.

I’m quite interested in weta now, and I’ve borrowed most available library books on the subject, almost every one aimed at children. Perhaps any residual fears I have will melt in the presence of facts and full-colour photos of these creatures at several times their actual size.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone, and knowledge isn’t always power. An acquaintance of mine, seeking to overcome her own weta phobia, learned all there is to know about weta lifestyle (also through library books), but the mere
soupçon of a weta in her beloved garden still prompts her to scuttle away until her partner sounds the all-clear.

Weta Wisdom
It’s not necessarily a good idea to stew weta or feed them to the chooks, as I did. Some of them are rare and endangered.

Essentially there are five types: tree (the kind most people find in their gardens), ground, giant, cave, and tusked weta. Taxonomically we have two basic weta families with, between them, numerous species, of which scientists keep discovering more.

Weta is a Maori word. These insects do occur in other countries, with different names, but New Zealand has more types than anywhere else in the world. Unusually, some of our native weta live in alpine areas. These include the mountain stone weta which can freeze, thaw, then get on with life and a cave weta known as the Mount Cook flea.

Andrew Crowes book (pictured, with a Little Barrier giant weta on the cover) is a good guide to New Zealand insects generally, with several pages on weta. Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand also offers weta wisdom, and theres a great page of articles on them at the New Zealand Geographic magazine website.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Afternoon Tea at Alberton


There’s a new book on the block, and it’s all about me, heaps of other people — and more importantly, 200-plus chickens. Urban Chicks has profiles by Renée Lang with photos by Trevor Newman, and I’ve contributed a sprinkling of hen-keeping hints at the back.

The only appropriate way to celebrate such an initiative is with a hen party, so that’s what happened. On a fine spring afternoon at Alberton, one of Auckland’s finest historic properties, invited guests roamed the Mt Albert house and grounds, heard pianist Billy Farnell tickle the ivories, bid for chicken-related items in a silent auction, sipped tea from fine china cups, and sampled a spread of Renée’s superb home baking. 

We were a mixed bunch, from Pat and Lovest Reynolds who’ve kept hens in Howick for half a century (all their flock are named Katie) to the family who called in with Cocoa, their special-needs bantam (geriatric and blind), on their way home from a weekend at the beach. And a former Mr Gay Auckland, MP David Cunliffe, financial advisor Greg Moyle, food writer Julie Biuso. Yes, they all have chickens in their backyards too. 

I won’t begrudge David Cunliffe the hand-painted teapot (starring chickens!) that he scored in the silent auction: he simply outbid me. Nor will I hold it against fiction publisher Harriet Allan that she won the coveted Grandpa’s Feeder (a clever ‘help yourself’ device for hens) in one of several raffles — I didn’t really need it. 

The proceeds from those fundraising activities are going to a north-of-Auckland charity that finds homes for downtrodden chooks and other hitherto unlucky creatures. The owner of the Animal Sanctuary attended the launch in a wheelchair, as the previous week she’d broken her ankle in the line of duty, during a rescue. 

Alberton, owned by the Historic Places Trust and managed by chicken-keeper Rendell McIntosh, was a fitting venue. The ballroom, which is smaller and more intimate than the anonymous expanses at today’s five-star hotels, easily accommodated all of us for the speeches, and doubled as a gallery for an exhibition of art by another chicken-keeper, Billie Harbidge.

 At the back of the room, protected by a glass cabinet and propped up against an ancient cardboard box bearing the legend “EGGS”, was a certificate for first prize. It had been awarded to one of Alberton’s first inhabitants by the Auckland Poultry, Pigeon, Canary, and Dog Association.  

The initial description for Sophia Taylor (1847–1930) in the Dictionary of National Biography is “Hostess, suffragist, landowner” but as this and other records note, she was also a poultry fancier, and a very discerning one. The faded script of the certificate is hard to read in the dim light of Alberton’s ballroom but it appears that the winning bird on that occasion was a Pekin duck. 

At least one of her 10 children seems to have inherited Mrs Taylor’s ability: an Auckland Star report of the 1893 Auckland Agricultural Show held at Potter’s Paddock lists V Kerr Taylor of Alberton — probably Sophia’s daughter Violet — as the winner of two categories for poultry and one for produce, “heaviest dozen hen eggs”.

Hens have been around forever but they’re hot right now or, as a range of tee-shirts and aprons has it, “the new black”. The Listener recently showed a gumbooted Kim Hill (the radio presenter) in her garden with a bird in hand — a hen of her own, not one borrowed for effect. She’s sharp. 

The media coverage for Urban Chicks in the last week has been remarkable. My favourite soundbytes were of Edith the white Silkie, chookling quietly as Billy Farnell and fellow hen carer Gail Batten (who runs workshops on chicken-keeping) chatted to the hosts of TV One’s Good Morning show, one of whom also has chooks.

Photos, above and below
1. Alberton that day, with one of its trademark turrets in view. 
2. Alberton’s fine china, set out for the hen party.
3. Afternoon tea spread.
4, 5. Urban Chicks publicist Lorraine Steele (centre) and guests.
6. Sophia Taylor’s “First Prize” certificate. 
7. Tea on the lawn. 
8, 9. The youngest poultry fancier present and possibly the oldest, Pat and Lovest Reynolds.
10. Eco-friendly vehicle (economical, too) parked by a launch participant.