Saturday, April 28, 2012

Monarchs of the ’Dale




Monarch butterflies made a surprise visit
to the garden in early winter, last June.
 The Monarchs of the ’Dale are not to be confused with the nineteenth-century painting by Edwin Landseer, Monarch of the Glen, nor the Highland TV drama of the same name. 

These monarchs are in my backyard in Avondale, Auckland and they’re light and bright: fluttering butterflies rather than tawny beasts with heavy tread or Scots with smouldering good looks.

A colleague gave me seedlings of the monarch caterpillars’ favourite food, swanplant, a few years back. I’ve seen lots of butterflies in the garden since — when it’s warm, even (occasionally) in winter. 

Monarch caterpillars’ feast ...and
 famine. The stripped stalks below
are all that remain of their food.




A Precarious Hold on Life
It’s hard not to worry about them, whatever the weather. They might be called monarchs but any creature with a more precarious hold on its existence, let alone its environment, is hard to imagine. 

The caterpillars in their striped body-suits are no match for wasps. What’s more, their limited diet and voracious appetites at the larval stage mean they quickly empty nature’s larder.

If they make it to the next level, pupation, they attach themselves to anything convenient while they make their transformation. Often that’s the plant they’ve fed on, but it can be something less suitable. 

The year that predation levels outdoors prompted me to start a caterpillar creche in our kitchen, we ended up with chrysalises high (the top of the window frame) and low (the skirting board). One caterpillar chose the electric kettle as a staging post on its pupational journey, and that particular life cycle came to an abrupt end. 

Recently when Carol picked some rhubarb leaves from the garden, she found a monarch chrysalis attached to the centre of one. So I pegged out the leaf (sans stem, which we cooked with the others) on the clothesline. 

The rhubarb stayed put but a wind that’s good for drying clothes will buffet a chrysalis to oblivion, I learned. Though I searched among the strawberry plants below the line, I never did find where this one went once its silken tie gave way.

This autumn, on clearing a long, lean tangle of kikuyu grass between the glasshouse and the swanplant stalks (all that remained), I found a number of young chrysalises that I must have dislodged, and felt obliged to ‘rehang’ them. The glasshouse offers good possies for pupae, and I carefully taped these ones to the edge of a shelf. They hatched, though not all lived long enough to fly

A newly emerged monarch butterfly
in the glasshouse. With effort, it soon

expanded and straightened its wings.
A butterfly first emerges with crumpled wings; it clings to its empty chrysalis, taking time to pump the wings, straighten and dry them so they become the marvels of engineering that we later see in flight.

Where Do They Go?
Now it’s getting colder, the monarch caterpillars are no longer to be found in my garden but the butterflies are still about. Where do they go in winter? A project run by the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust and primary school science teachers is trying to find out, undertaking an ambitious tagging programme. It involves tiny identification labels rather than the felt-tip pens and sprawling scrawl that we often associate with tagging these days.

Unlike the famous migrating American monarchs, it seems our butterflies don’t go far. In a 1960s–70s monarch study by Auckland Museum entomologist Keith Wise, who sadly died this year, 6500 butterflies were tagged. Of the 1011 recovered, only 28 had travelled more than 20km.


In the current project, monarch trust secretary Jacqui Knight says, many butterflies are being tagged right now, and there are sightings of tagged monarchs. If you find a tagged butterfly and report it to the trust, a volunteer records the length of time between tagging and sighting, the distance flown, and other details.

New Zealand monarchs do cluster during winter like the ones we see on nature documentaries, Jacqui says. “We’re just trying to find out more of their overwintering habitats.”


Mating monarchs.
Bringing Butterflies to Your Garden
The trust has devised an online course for people interested in attracting butterflies to their gardens. It starts May 1 (another intake is in July), takes about an hour a week for five weeks and offers information about various butterflies that most urban New Zealanders might expect to attract into their gardens.

These include not just the high-visibility monarchs and cabbage whites but also yellow and red admirals, coppers and blues. “We also mention two moths: Cinnabar and Magpie Moth which many people think are butterflies,” says Jacqui.


The trust’s website is extensive, with very active forums. You can get information there on everything from emergency food supplies to butterfly first aid.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Picky Eater


It’s one thing to know the theory, that cats are fussy about their food. It’s quite another — and very frustrating — to have first-hand experience.   

Cosmo lives under the house. Despite being a beggar with no right to be a chooser (he moved in uninvited and pays no board), he has eschewed eating out of cans. He requires fresh meat at least once a day.
 

Anyway, after several meals of the inferior fare attracted mainly flies, I gave in. At the supermarket I swapped the remaining unopened cans for one pot of JIMBO’S, the fresh catfood I’d been told Cosmo liked. Initial responses to the new menu were positive, so I’ve offered it ever since.
 

This brand is hellishly expensive. And its catfood costs about three dollars more than its dogfood, just as ‘budget’ haircuts for women are sometimes dearer than those for men. Surely that’s unfair.

But as a matter for popular outrage and public protest, discriminatory price differentials within the petfood category can’t compete with fracking, the loss of the Denniston Plateau or the End of the World as We Know It (EWWKI), otherwise known as global warming. 

So rather than march up Queen Street chanting slogans against fat-cat capitalist petfood manufacturers, a few days ago I quietly bought JIMBO’S dogfood for Cosmo.
 

In fact it was a happy accident. I must have focused so much on selecting the best ‘best before’ date on the lid that I forgot to check the catfood label on the side.
 

So did the cat.

Friday, April 13, 2012

All in Good Time

It’s a little overdue, my recognition of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Although I’ve gathered photographic evidence of seasonal change in my backyard over several weeks, I’ve resisted posting it on Egg Venturous. This may be partly because people seem to prefer the chicken posts; another just-as-likely reason is that I didn’t want summer to end.

Some Aucklanders claim we didn’t have a summer this year. It hardly ever got hot, really hot, and according to most accounts it’s been a shocking season for tomatoes — the home-grown ones, anyway. Nevertheless the flora and fauna have produced and reproduced, albeit in a somewhat straggly fashion.

While resisting the changing of the seasons I’ve discovered that in some ways, they are resisters too. Seasons are not cut and dried.* They refuse to stay tucked into discrete boxes, unlike the days of the week on a manmade calendar. The garden shows this: I sampled a juicy strawberry from the backyard just the other day, though the laws of commerce decree that the harvest of this summer fruit ended long ago.

Oh, I know that one strawberry does not a summer extend, and maybe this is an especially late variety (I don’t know what it’s called, but its fruit are long, thin and so glossy you’d think someone had gone around varnishing them). I still contend that seasons will not conform exactly to our expectations year in, year out.
 

The apple tree mentioned in my first post, more than a month ago, is still appling. Eventually I took a leaf out of the backyard birds’ book and tried some of its fruit. Now, like them, I’m a convert. 

These apples look pale and impoverished next to the berries above and the apples you see in supermarkets — mine are blemished, bruised and in need of a good scrubbing — but they’re a great deal better in crunch and juicy exuberance than their shop-bought cousins. I’ve chomped through some, Carol’s stewed and frozen others, and tonight I’ll juice those shown here in our laundry basket. Still others we’ve given away, and a lot more remain on the tree.

Meanwhile, our feijoa tree has begun lobbing its green grenades. Just one, falling from above, would stun one of my chickens if it weren’t for the predator-proof netting across the top of the run: feijoas, though small, are solid; they pack a punch. But the chooks enjoy any split, spilt or exploded specimen I offer.

Feijoas are less a forbidden fruit than a foreign one. Nobody outside New Zealand or South America knows about them, and I’m told they’re an acquired taste; if that’s the case I acquired it too long ago to remember — and when I try to describe the flesh to newcomers, words fail (or I do): creamy beige that browns easily, slightly gritty in texture, aromatic... does this sound like something you’d like to try? Didn’t think so. Some of us love it. 

The feijoa, native to tropical South America, is named after Brazilian naturalist J. da Silva Feij√≥, who lived 1760–1824. The tree is from the same family as our native pohutukawa, which explains why its leaves, flowers and bark are similar to those of this iconic New Zealand (North Island) tree. 

Pohutukawa at Waiomu beach, Thames
Coast. Not flowering right now: ’tisn’t
the season. (This was Christmas Day.)
Feijoa trees flourish here. That’s part of the reason Auckland poet Michele Leggott’s ‘Nice Feijoas’ expresses this time of year in our town — when summer and autumn meet, around Eastertide — so well. (Part of the reason. Mangroves, swimming, changing light and a much-loved pet also come into it.) Her poem, like something burnished, reflects the changing light and lingers in the mind. I can’t get enough of it, just as I can’t get enough feijoas.

So what was I trying to say? That seasons overlap. That endings and beginnings aren’t necessarily separate, and they don’t always happen when people think they should. That nature may not be neat and tidy,** but by and large it gets things done. That summer isn’t completely gone; it’ll be back.

 


* The idiomatic expression “cut and dried”, meaning “completely settled; finally arranged”, relates to human dealings with another natural product. According to Brewers Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, “The term arose in the early 20th century from an earlier literal sense applied to herbs sold in herbalists’ shops, as distinct from fresh, growing herbs.”

** The “tide” in Eastertide and the “tidy” in “neat and tidy” are related: they concern time. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins says that in Old English a tide was a period or season; people linked it with the sea only in the later medieval period. Middle English “tidy” meant “timely, seasonable, opportune” until the early eighteenth century.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Birds of a Feather


Alice the Australorp, seen far left with stickybeak Victoria, is just beginning to moult. Her neck feathers have been the first to go, and she appears to be impersonating a vulture, like the turkey vulture pictured near left.

As she’s never clapped eyes on such a scavenger (note she’s facing the other way), she’s not doing too badly. I’m no judge, however: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in the flesh. They don’t hang out in Kiwiland. 

Victoria’s moult is also on the way. A few of her grey feathers fluttered to the ground this afternoon and she hasn’t served up any of her green-shelled eggs for several days.

Of the flock of six, that leaves just one hen a-laying Henemoa (left). I’ve never regarded her as especially reliable in the egg department, so it seems an apology is called for.

Sorry, Hen. And thanks. May nobody knock you off your perch.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Queen, the Bearded Lady and the Easter Egg Chicken

Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
Of my backyard flock of six birds, five have already been introduced here: Alice, Amelia, Emmeline, Henemoa and Vanessa. The only exception needs, in some ways, no introduction. One doesn’t introduce the Queen; one has an audience with her — if one is deserving, well bred, or very lucky.

Victoria is so named because she was (fairly) victorious at the Kumeu Show, not long before she took up residence in the palais de poulet at Avondale Heights, as we call my suburb at times of class self-consciousness. She came second in her category.

“Victoria” has proven to be apt in other ways, too, because this little grey hen will stand no nonsense, just like the Royal Highness for whom we named her. Though shorter than those around her, she will quickly put others in their place. (Ever heard a chicken yelp?)


She loves mash and greens — woe betide any bird that gets too close to her food — but she’s not nearly so stout as her predecessor. Victoria II is more angular and less rounded than the other members of my flock, most of whom have those comfortingly familiar mother-hen curves.

My bearded lady.
Exotic Flair
She looks unusual, and thanks to her breeding, she is: she’s an Araucana, a type of chicken first associated with Chile’s Araucano Indians, and reported as early as the 1520s. That accounts for her headdress, which has a certain exotic flair, though she could also be said to resemble a decidedly non-exotic 1970s governor-general’s wife, hatted but handbagless. There’s something else that tips the scales in favour of an “exotica” label, however: the fact that this hen wears a beard. 

Yes, my Queen Victoria is a bearded lady. It’s not conspicuous; I only noticed the other day when I read about this characteristic and took a closer look at her, below the beak. 

She has another difference from your average backyard chook, whose red headgear with perky points is called a single comb. Victoria’s comb is flatter and has the bobbled look of an over-worked piece of macrame — its called a pea comb.

The Easter Egg Chicken

Possibly the most interesting thing about Victoria is that she lays green eggs. Or blue ones. (Opinions, rather than her eggs, vary.) The fine specimen pictured in the top right-hand corner of this page is one of hers. It’s an achievement that has given rise to another name for her kind: the Easter Egg Chicken, which seems especially appropriate as I post this, a day before Easter weekend. 
Victoria’s eggs are only green
on the outside (but don’t let the
truth get in the way of a good story).

I can’t yet confirm whether Dr Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) was inspired by Araucanas when he wrote Green Eggs and Ham. The summaries I’ve read so far suggest he was focusing on a vocabulary challenge set by his publisher — to use few words, and very simple ones — rather than any particular chicken. However, the extra-extraordinary appearance of some Araucanas is quite Seussian: they have ear tufts, and many of the creatures that Dr Seuss has brought to our attention do, unquestionably, feature tufts in various places. 

Rumpless or Rumpled?
Some Araucanas are also “rumpless”, lacking a rear end, or at least a tail. (Feral chickens find this a useful trait because it makes them harder to catch.) Which leads me to wonder if birds with rumps, such as Victoria, are rumpled. It’s an amusing thought ...except, no doubt, for Araucana breeders, who seem to take such things terribly seriously.

There’s quite a bit of controversy about exactly which birds meet the official standard for Araucanas; what
’s more the UK has different rules from the US, which has a sort of spin-off called the Ameraucana. For instance, beards are sometimes acceptable in the UK; I’ve read they are required for rumpless birds there. In the US, a beard brings a place in the naughty corner — Disqualification.
 

What’s a True-blue Araucana?
Apparently, true-blue Araucanas — officially sanctioned ones, rather than a named variety lay blue-shelled eggs. Any that lay green or turquoise ones are hybrids, or “mutts”, as members of BackyardChickens.com called them during an online kerfluffle in which feathers flew. Shell colour seems to be important wherever you are: the Araucana Poultry Club of Great Britain website states that “More egg colour charts have just been successfully printed for those of you who have been waiting.” Perhaps the Brits paint their Araucana eggs?

Victoria is rumpled, bearded and pea- rather than single-combed. She has no distinctive ear tufts, and she lays greeny-blue eggs. According to my now voluminous reading, all these things suggest that her pedigree is less impeccable than it might be. But I don’t give a fig for the standard: in my backyard Victoria’s still the Queen.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Hen

Where did I go wrong? (And would you buy
a used egg from this chicken?)
When do you take a chicken to the vet? This might sound like a variation on the joke about the one that crossed the road, but for some chicken fanciers it’s a Serious Question.

For those who name their chooks, who don’t require them to pay their way, and who find the idea of “culling” weaker members of the flock distasteful at best, the idea of anything going wrong is scary.

A lot of us, new at poultry keeping, are learning as we go — frequently on the internet, from fellow hobbyists. We ask a lot of questions and these have a degree of urgency, though the reasons are not always apparent. “I need to know if my chicken has a tongue,” writes LittleLady98 on the “Random Ramblings” forum of BackYardChickens.com. “Alot of different people have different answers. Help please!!”

On the same site, Poppy-the-Hen heads her question, “Is this normal? (photos included)”. She wonders whether her bird is
perspiring or if her photo shows “the symptom to some sort of developing illness”. She adds that the diagnostic enquiry is not related to her earlier one: This is a different chicken.”

Poppy sounds kind of high maintenance, but I know how she feels. Those of us who hope for a better-than-battery-operated existence are disturbed when one of our charges even slightly resembles those smuggled out by animal activists. Yet things often go awry in the world of chickens. Often, the only clues are a sackcloth-and-ashes appearance, isolation, lack of appetite, and nastier-than-usual poos. While in humans these suggest a choice of ascetic lifestyle, in chickens they can indicate problems ranging from trivial and temporary to terrible and terminal.


Is she plucked?
Or plucky?
Lately I’ve been keeping an eye on a hen who suddenly resembled an escapee from the chopping block. Well, Vanessa’s head was still attached to her body, but half her feathers weren’t. It was as if she’d had her neck wrung and been partway through the plucking process when suddenly, regaining consciousness, she decided she had higher priorities than ending up on a plate, and took off. (My partner tells such a story, which she swears occurred with a chook in her childhood.)

Anyway, Vanessa the White Leghorn subsequently hid under the chalet de poulet for three days. At mealtimes I pushed food in her direction, as far as I could, like the hired help who leaves a laden tray outside a room whose occupant is either sulking, working all hours or undergoing some unimagined and monstrous metamorphosis.


It was the end-of-summer moult — I knew it was — but it was more drastic than that of other flock members, and even after Vanessa emerged with the beginnings of a few new feathers, she looked increasingly miserable. Her interest in food was less than desultory, her ridiculously large red comb took on a shrunken, dry look and she hunched in a corner. Was it time for me and my hen to visit the vet?

Every time this question occurs to me, I think of Mustard Seed. This is less of a leap than it sounds: Mustard Seed, named after a minor character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (long story), was a Buff Orpington hen in my first flock, some years ago. She became ill after the kikuyu grass she ate became tangled inside her and refused to budge. I took her and her encumbrance to the vet.

One surgical procedure and $250 later I took this chook home again with a small packet of pills on which was printed her name, Mustard Seed Gummer, and some dispensing advice. She died, all the same, and I’ve never lived it down. 


White Leghorn, pre- and
(we hope) post-moult.
This week, Vanessa didn’t visit the vet. (She’s been before, but that’s another story.) Instead I accepted reassurance from fellow travellers. Even reading about other people’s poultry panics was helpful: it turned out I might not be the worst mother hen in the history of the universe. In addition, I indulged my White Leghorn with various treats. The sweetcorn kernels went down particularly well.

Now she seems less miserable; in fact she’s looking better every day. When her new covering of feathers is complete and she’s messing with other hens again, I’ll know she’s fine and dandy.