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: www.limestoneisland.org.nz/npages/2012-Ranger-03-March.pdf.

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.