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:

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