Saturday, May 26, 2012

From Go to Mow

It’s been a long time since our grass received some attention, but with the early winter rain it’s been looking lush — like pasture — rather than suffering from the sort of straggled neglect you might see in summer. 

This morning Josiah the lawn tamer came and toiled for more than an hour to cut it down to size. And now everything’s gone quiet, the way it does once the job is finished and the mower’s been put away. The male blackbird has been out to make his inspection, and a flock of sparrows has descended on the piece of shorn lawn that’s most densely covered in kikuyu grass. There are 20 or 30 of them, but even they make no noise: they’re working.

The sparrows are seeking (and most definitely finding) food, though I don’t know what. The intensity of their endeavours makes me think of migrant workers harvesting crops, but the analogy is poor. In horticulture, hand-picking is reserved for the delicate produce that needs the lightest touch, whereas the sparrows’ job involves much tugging.

Freshly mown grass is
the best convenience food.

Whole weeds need a “drag
and drop” approach.

They’re not the only birds to profit from the maintenance of the lawn. The chickens, once recovered from the shock of the roaring, devouring machine, tend to revel in eating the bits it spits out.

Fresh lawn clippings are possibly the chooks’ favourite kind of green salad. The weeds that I deliver whole are hard for beaks to tear into bite-sized pieces as they’re no longer rooted to the spot, but the stuff from the lawn comes shredded and pre-mixed: true convenience food, without even the nuisance of packaging.

The months since the last mow have created a veritable grass mountain for my girls. Surprisingly, only Alice and Henemoa have shown real interest today. 

The latter’s appetite is intact despite her moult, which has revealed body parts that nature never intended me to see. These include the parson’s nose, called that only in a culinary context (it’s “the fatty extremity of the rump of a cooked fowl”, says the Oxford D of E). I’ve sampled a few such tidbits in my meat-eating moments, so for me it’s a particularly disconcerting sight, this naked tail end of a BFF. 

Henemoa, naked and (like Lady Godiva)
unashamed. Alice is nearby, while Emmeline,
Victoria and Amelia have turned their backs.
Henemoa is not disconcerted at all — and unlike some of my previous moulters she’s shown no inclination to go into hiding. The only real concern has been the colder nights we’ve had of late: she’s been relegated to the end of the perch, pushed up against the thin wall of the chicken house.

Soft-hearted human that I am, the last few evenings I’ve snuck in and repositioned her in the middle, between two better-feathered fowls. It’s a small and possibly foolish act, but it helps sustain me in the illusion that I can rule the roost the backyard, and beyond.


1. “From go to mow” — inspired by “from go to whoa”, which Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable describes as “colloquial Australian and New Zealand English ... first recorded in 1971. It means from start to finish”.
2. Thanks to poet Laurie for the image of the lawn tamer.
3. BFF: Best female friend? Or best feathered friend? Either will do. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eggs All Year: A Trick of the Light

In the suburb where I live, even the traditional quarter-acre section is critically endangered, so perhaps it was unlikely that the local PaknSave would stock New Zealand Lifestyle Block.*

Nevertheless, when I went there today for half a dozen eggs, I was surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t also pick up a copy of this magazine.

Why shop for eggs when I have my own manufactory (or more appropriately henufactory) on my back doorstep, in the backyard? Because production there has ground to a halt. Even Henemoa’s seemingly endless egg supply has stopped.

Henemoa (foreground) and Alice enjoy an
after-dinner drink. Henemoa, who started her
moult this week, has joined the rest of the flock
in taking an egg break during the shorter days.
“Today’s consumers expect eggs to be available on demand,” writes Annie Potts in Chicken, her book about the lore and lifestyle of chooks, “but until relatively recently eggs were plentiful only for a few months of each year. 

It’s natural. With the days getting shorter in the lead-up to winter and its solstice, poultry moults: no eggs; ’nuff said.** And in the coldest season when the light is further reduced, hens may already have been graced with a fine new covering of feathers but they are still not in the least inclined to incubate or have babies.

Easter, which the southern hemisphere has in autumn, was first a festival of the northern hemisphere where, with perfect timing, it marked spring and new life — especially in the form of the egg, which hadn
’t been around for a while. With spring, the egg was back and people celebrated its return, sunny side up.

Year-round laying enables you and me to nip down to the supermarket for a carton of eggs. But it’s a trick of the light switch, something achievable only with artificial illumination. That’s the focus of the Lifestyle Block article that I was so keen to see. In the May issue, Sue Clarke writes about “How to use a lighting system to extend the working year for your hens”.

It turns out that this is more complicated than leaving the light on. “Just leaving hens living on a 16 hour day for all of their adult life is not going to work”, she writes. “If you intend to keep birds for longer than a one year laying period then you will still need to give them a ‘winter’ to give them time to moult and refresh their metabolism.”

Commercial farmers manage by culling those they call end-of-lays: birds that have provided eggs for 12 to 14 months get the chop. (Such hens are “spent”, I’ve read elsewhere.) It’s uneconomic for these farmers to feed hens for the two to three months of a moult without getting eggs in return, writes Sue: “It’s much cheaper to buy in a new batch of ready-to-lay 4–5 month old pullets.”

Backyard chicken-keepers can “simulate summer” and keep their hens laying longer, but 10 months of the year is the limit, and the article sets out a timeline with specific feed, light-time, and even bulb requirements for this to occur without harming the health of your flock.

Available, just possibly,
from a supermarket near you.
It’s fascinating, but for me it all feels a bit hard. Do I really need to extend my hens’ working year? The answer is no. I’m happy for Henemoa et al to have a long holiday and for nature to take its course, more or less.

In reality, the chickens in my backyard are pets or companions, not economic units. I’m not pretending to be a farmer, and I don’t even desire a lifestyle block. Here in suburbia, all that’s available is a lifestyle square, and that’s more than enough for me.

 Oh, and how do I know what Sue Clarke says in the latest issue of New Zealand Lifestyle Block? I bought it at another supermarket not far from here. There must be some aspirational lifestylers living in the area after all — people more aspirational than me, perhaps.


* lifestyle block (NZ) a rural or semi-rural residential property providing opportunities for small-scale farming, horticulture, etc. — The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary.

** I’ve said plenty about the moult in other posts, such as Amelia on the Outer and It Shouldn
’t Happen to a Hen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Keeping a Clean House

More than a spit and polish: the palais
de poulet gets its seasonal clean-out.
When summer was ending, and before the heavy rain came, I cleaned the hen house — with a thoroughness that is so infrequent, it always comes as a surprise to all concerned.

Most days of the year, I collect the detritus of the chickens’ daily living and put it in the compost. But now and then something more is called for, and the change of seasons always feels like The Time.

First I empty everything out. Then I scrub the walls and floor.

Years ago when I first kept chickens, I used bleach for this job, to deter the wily mites that I’d read about: surely they inhabited every nook and cranny of our DIY construction. These days I still don’t know a huge amount but I do things differently. With ne’er a sign of such parasites, this time I added only some vinegar and a bit of dishwashing liquid to my bucket of water before starting on the scrubbing. I thought it would be kinder to the earth beneath, where much of the water would be absorbed. It certainly smelled better.
In her rush to reach higher ground, Alice
(in black) almost displaces Henemoa.
The next step is to deploy my secret weapon: the water-blaster. The chooks don’t like this at all, even though I have no intention of turning it on them. 

This time, three hens huddled in the farthest corner and thought about moving to higher ground: the top of the nesting house, nearly 2 metres up. When they decided to act, Alice, the largest, got there last; her more problematic ascent toppled Victoria, and almost Henemoa.

By now the hen house was almost sparkling, as befits a palais de poulet, and some interesting critters had come out of the woodwork. Most were spiders but there was also a weta — goodness knows where it had been hiding. For people unfamiliar with this New Zealand insect, it’s related to (but much larger than) the common cricket.

The nesting house or chalet de poulet then received an external clean, mostly on top. This is the sparrows vantage point when they’re looking for any spare chicken feed. 

Vanessa (top right) and Emmeline feast on worms
that emerge when water saturates the ground.

With the water-blaster out of the picture (elbow grease only was required to scrub the chalet), the chooks regained their composure. And now it worked to their advantage to be present: water ran down the sloping sides of the construction and into the soil, and the worms emerged. Emmeline and Vanessa had a field day.

As time wore on, the palais dried out and I covered the floor and droppings board with untreated sawdust, bought from the Cypress Sawmill the week before. This family company in Kaukapakapa (just north of Auckland) specialises in supplying macrocarpa wood for various uses, then bags up the sawdust to sell as a byproduct.  

Fresh, untreated sawdust lines the floor of the
clean, dry hen house — and it has other uses too.
The fresh, sharp pineyness is fantastic. It seems to deter the flies in summer, and it’s a quick fix for the occasional ‘farmyardy’ smell. In the winter when the ground in the chook run is getting mud-puddly, I apply sawdust for a cleaner, drier surface. The small amount that finds its way into the compost bin after chookpoo-pickups is also a good thing: its carbon content balances the nitrogen that the manure contributes. 

This year, I’m also experimenting with leaves, wheelbarrowing a multitude to the chicken coop from the front of the quarter-acre. They’ve fallen from what I think is a rubber plant (Ficus elastica) escaped from the confines of its pot, and now about 10 metres tall. The chooks love to scratch around in these gigantic leaves looking for food, and perhaps they will help make healthy humus.

Chooks, eggs, manure, sawdust, leaves, compost, garden greens: they’re all part of a cycle that seems entirely satisfactory. Even the cleaning feels worthwhile. 

  Most photos this post: Carol Bartlett.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Furry Friends, and Neighbours

deawiTh  tHe  raToR  thE couNcil  wiLL  Be  callED

The note in the letterbox didn’t look quite like that. I’ve taken liberties with the type, and in fact it was handwritten. It’s tempting, though, to think of it as above: akin to a blackmailer’s threat or a kidnapper’s ransom demand. The senders hadn’t splashed out on stationery, and the note wasn’t signed. It didn’t need to be: we knew who it was from.

Plenty of people have neighbours with whom they don’t get on; I just never thought I’d be one of them. Our neighbours, the ones whose bane we are, are neat and tidy and concerned about home security — they called the police when, during our absence, our home suffered a break-in — so it stands to reason that WE must be the problem. Their gazillion calls to Dog Control over the years suggest it. The rats simply confirm it.

We were already dealing with these rodents, as it happened, by trapping and poisoning. It’s just that good things take time, as the man on the Mainland Cheese ad says. Eventually we eliminated the colony. To be absolutely sure, we maintained our assault even after the body count stopped increasing.

That was two years ago. Recently the rats came back, so I’ve been leaving poison-laced baits in all their favourite places.

New Zealander Gavin Bishop
produced a wonderful picturebook
about a rat problem.
Animal behaviourist Anne Hanson, on her extensive website about Norway rats — the kind we have in our backyard — says that “Today the natural habitat of the wild Norway rats is wherever we are. Human settlements are now the ecological niche of the wild rat.” But though they’re far from being the only creature that hitches a ride on our civilisation, people have a particular dislike of them. On the net, they feature in pest disposal discussions much more often than they do in fan sites.

Have hens, and it’s quite possible you’ll also have rats (just Google “rats” and “chickens” in a single search), though the two can be mutually exclusive. My first awareness of rats moving in came more than a decade ago when our first hens were in residence.

As our flock dwindled, with its remaining members aged and frail, rodents intent on the great grain robbery took to scampering about the chicken run in great numbers. When you’re a householder pondering health, hygiene and neighbourly ill-will, any more than two in plain view seems like a multitude.

We “dealt with the rats” then, too. Dispatching the feral ones is a civic duty — the city council distributes a brochure saying so; the regional council used to give out free rat poison. Killing anything larger than a mosquito is not nice, especially when you’re a city-dweller who seldom stumbles upon death, but I’m quite good at doing it in cold blood,* not to mention disposing of the bodies. People express surprise at this, as I’m a vegetarian, but it’s not as if I eat them.

It turns out that I’m also good at cornering live rats. Last Friday I caught one of the latest arrivals by the tail as it attempted to escape from Colditz, which is what our chicken run has become. (Getting in is easy; it’s getting out that’s the problem.) Soon afterwards, I caught another the same way.

I drowned them. That’s the part where I always start to wonder if I’m really an undiagnosed psychopath. Then I put them in bags — one with the Living and Giving store’s distinctive branding; another that of a petfood business called Dog’s Breakfast — and put them in the bin outside.

Four more dead or dying have appeared since then, thanks to the poison. Its ingestion probably causes as much discomfort as drowning, if not more. By laying it, I place death at one remove, but I am probably just as guilty of murder. 

This hole in a corner of the
chicken run is a doorway
to an extensive rat tunnel.
My last rat discovery was yesterday, curled up in its death nest of dry kikuyu grass in the top of the compost bin. I’m hoping, now the rubbish has been collected, that that’s the end of the matter. 

We’ll see. By my count I used 28 poison baits. I found and disposed of six fairly small rats. Are there more dead bodies, or did those six gorge themselves in a great Last Supper? Perhaps they stashed some leftovers away for later: a nice tunnel-warming present for the next new arrivals.

The rats come and go. Our neighbours are stuck with us.

*It’s interesting that doing something in “cold blood” is bad while having “sangfroid” — from the French for “cold” and “blood” — is admirable. Compare the “composure or coolness shown in danger or under trying circumstances” of sangfroid (Oxford Dictionary of English) with the ruthlessness and absence of feeling or mercy that we associate with “in cold blood”. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that in medieval physiology “blood was naturally hot, so this phrase refers to an unnatural state in which someone can do a (hot-blooded) deed of passion or violence without the normal heating of the blood.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pecking above Her Weight

Victoria is a dedicated forager, even mid-moult.
As one hen holds out against the autumn moult, another takes it in her stride.

The Rhode Island Red has so far declined to experience this altered state. One by one the other five in the flock have succumbed and stopped laying, but Henemoa is unruffled. 

Her feathers, all intact, retain their lustre, and she continues to deliver her daily egg. For some weeks now, she’s been the sole provider.

To say that her colleague the Araucana has succumbed is perhaps misleading. Victoria has undergone the obvious physical changes of the moult but otherwise she is undiminished. This is perhaps a good thing, as she was already the smallest.

This Araucana may be small but she’s feisty,
pecking above her weight. Here she’s with the
recently refeathered Light Sussex, Emmeline.

She hasn’t chosen, or had imposed on her, the isolation that seems to go with this process of shedding and regrowing feathers. Nor has she lost her appetite, like the four hens before her. Most noticeably, her ferocity runs at full capacity: she still pecks above her weight.

While eating her standard-issue mash or pellets Victoria will sometimes tolerate the company of another bird (the New Hampshire Red, Amelia, in particular). But like Greta Garbo, she Wants To Be Alone. Feeding times at the beginning and end of the day are punctuated by the cries of those who came too close and were reprimanded as a result.

Outside these official feeding times, there’s often more food — enough to keep all the girls happy for hours. This afternoon, several piles of freshly pulled weeds did the trick. Such servings are what I call their “green salad”, as are piles of clippings from the newly shorn lawn. Today’s biggest treat, however, was some dead stems of cherry tomato from the glasshouse, their leaves long shrivelled and fallen but bright red berries still intact.

These plants had self-sown. Apart from harvesting them occasionally in the summer to add brightness and a certain zing to my own salads, I’d neglected them, even unto death. The chooks didn’t mind; they grabbed the fruit, sending juice into the air like blood spatter as their beaks snapped shut.

Victoria, shown here in 2010, is particularly fond
of grass. Alice the Australorp is in the foreground.

Victoria is less inclined to peck her fellow hens over fruit or foliage than when she guards her mash or pellets. This does not indicate a lack of interest on her part. I’ve read that Araucanas are born foragers; if so, then she’s true to type: she simply hoes in. 

Eating her greens (and today’s reds) is her vocation, whereas for the other hens, it’s a hobby. They’re no threat there’s no contest.