Saturday, February 22, 2014

The motherlove of Esme, the masculinity of Geoffrey, and the unexpected arrival of Pamela

Last November, our darling Esme, all of eleven months old herself, decided it was high time for her to propagate some youngsters. She sat for weeks, a devotion that finally culminated in Geoffrey. Just three months later, with Geoffrey now an independent young person of almost 11 weeks age, Esme has decided to give parenting another red hot go. She is sitting, as I type, on a pile of straw, fluffing herself up ferociously whenever anyone tries to steal the nothing from beneath her. I made a token effort to get her some fertilised eggs. In fact, I phoned these breeders, idly imagining Esme mothering a clutch of Barnevelders and Coronation Sussexes, but the fertilised egg people advised me that it was too late in the season: the roosters can't be relied on beyond early February to do their roostery thing. Which makes me wonder why noone sent Esme the memo.*

Shirley offering family planning advice; Esme facing the wall.

Meanwhile, there's Geoffrey. Geoffrey has been quite a shy chick, certainly when compared to Henry, a wee bantam cockerel who grew up in our backyard, spent his youth sitting on our heads and teapots, mating with my hand (true), and generally being Captain Charisma. Geoffrey, on the other hand, still refuses to take delicious kale from my hand and requires me to tear it into small pieces and toss it in her/his general direction. It's this shyness, and the fact that Geoffrey still has no comb at 11 weeks (Henry had the first signs of a comb at 18 days), that has made us suppose Geoffrey's a young pullet. Only, this morning, Geoffrey crowed. The briefest and most un-voice-broken of upple-doodle-ups, followed by another attempt half an hour later, but still, not the vocalisation of a hen in the making.

Geoffrey, perching with great aunt Agatha.

It's not easy finding good homes for young roosters. We're not allowed to keep one in the 'burbs (sadly), and country people with chooks usually can only keep one rooster at a time, because roosters (as my mother discovered when she had a few young cockerels cohabiting in her garden) have a tendency to kill each other, bloodily and brutally. We found a wonderful home for Henry in Tyaak, where he inherited an instant family of 12 hens and won the hearts of all who met him, but at that point I think we exhausted our rooster-rehoming options.  So we made a decision, when we gave Esme her eggs in November, that we would give any little boys who hatched as good a life as we could, a life of being raised by a loving parent (or two, given Shirley's and Esme's co-parenting program), of foraging, and delicious vegetables and insects and branches to perch on, and when they started to crow, we would kill them, swiftly, by night when they were asleep, and Tim and/or Harriet and Bea Cat (the three resident omni-/carni-vores) would eat them. Now that it seems like we're going to have to follow through, of course, the thought is appalling, as I guess we knew it would be. I am keen to put it off as long as is neighbourly. The crows so far have been scarcely loud enough to trouble neighbours - quieter than a hen announcing that she's laid an egg - and I think we can let Geoffrey stay a little longer, take a bit more time to peck at grass and chase earwigs and become a little bit less the baby of the backyard. But all the same, typing this, I know it's time to start preparing mentally for her - his - end.

In further chook news (yes, indeed, there's more), last night a couple of neighbours knocked on the door** and presented me with this lovely bird, who we're calling Pamela:

Pamela spending her first night on top of the washing machine.

Pamela was found not very far away in a sidestreet consisting mostly of auto-repair yards. Tim walked up to investigate while I acquainted our starving visitor with food and water. We now think that she might be an escapee from a cull. She's a former battery hen (as her blunted beak indicates). One of the mechanics in the street is known to have had "about thirty chickens" (in the words of an informant), but when Tim peeked over the fence there were no chickens, just a large empty roost. I'm guessing that a flock of "spent" hens were bought from a farmer, kept for perhaps a year for eggs, and then, their egg-laying dwindling, killed for soup. Our heroine somehow escaped and wandered the streets until a neighbour stumbled upon her.

If she does stay, then she'll have come to the right place, I think. Our post-henopausal chooks lead a leisurely retirement, supping meditatively on dew drops, snaffling magnificently just-ripe raspberries from the cane, meeting regularly with the Senior Hens' Synchronised Sunbathing Guild.

L to R: Daisy, Griselda, Agatha

They haven't been very hospitable to Pamela so far, so for now she's hanging out in the living room while I type, pooing on a temporary carpet made of local newspapers and Mega-Supa-Shoppo-Fun catalogues, and gobbling down chook crumble like she hasn't eaten in a week. Which, besides dinner last night, perhaps she hasn't. When she's less disoriented and more herself, I hope she'll be able to meet the others without being put in her place too aggressively.

All those chicken metaphors - from "mother hen" to "pecking order" - they're happening right here.

* I have the same question apropos our Granny Smith, who, last Autumn, covered herself in blossom, which of course the bees fertilised, so that runty little nuggets of apples sat on the tree through the first half of Winter, before dropping off in despair. Could it be that the apple (and Esme) register the relief of rain and 20ºC weather after a droughty heatwave as Spring? season of chicks and mellow blossominess?

** which was wide open, of course, because, hey burglars!, would you like to steal our ... erm ... prize collection of jam jars? how about the coffee table I found on the footpath? or the CD player that's been kicking around since 1996? (All right, sorry. I'm showing off now.)


  1. Oh. Such a hard decision. And I find myself hoping that Geoffrey has permanent laryngitis. Wussy I know.
    And I hear you on the pecking order front. The birds who visit us can be incredibly aggressive to each other. One of the corellas regularly drags other birds across the feeder by their tail feathers before dropping them off the side...

  2. Very nice of you to provide your homeless hen services and poultry aged care facility. There is a gap in the system for such things.
    On the Geoffrey note, it will be difficult, but I think you're right in saying its about getting into the right headspace. Its hard when you haven't known if Geoffrey will be saved or slaughtered until he started showing crowing tendencies. But what is the alternative? If there isn't one, that's it. I think you've been able to do as much for him as you can. Provide an environment where he can have a happy, healthy adolescence. It's nature and laws of genetics which have led him to this point. Unfortunately, but there it is.
    That said, I hope he's tasty.

  3. Permanent laryngitis would be a great outcome, Elephant's Child. There is a very slight possibility that G is still a girl, just testing out the full repertoire of potential genders. Our Daisy regular attempts to mate (not very politely) with Shirley - a behaviour that would normally be assigned to roosters. And elderly Agatha has grown spurs as long as your thumb.

    G has just spent the morning hanging out with her/his mother as she lays her egg and attempts to sit on it. This is appallingly cute behaviour, and makes me keen to put off decisive action as long as we can.

    I haven't spent much time with corellas, but we did used to have cockatoos visit my childhood home, where they taunted the dog without mercy. Adorable (if destructive) lovelies.

  4. Thanks, Bek. There's a limit to how many aged poultry we can care for (esp. as we do want to have at least a couple of chooks laying eggs). I'm extremely fond of all the senior chooks, but when I start thinking about how many we can have without causing dust-bowlification of the garden, I find myself hoping that they don't all live extravagantly long lives. Our eldest, Agatha, is probably six (she came to us in 2011, in the last few months of her egg-laying career), and she's in braw good health.

    Thanks for your thoughts on Geoffrey-eating. I don't eat meat, but there's another person here who does, and I'm pretty sure that Geoffrey will have had a better life (and I hope has a better death, when the time comes) than most of the meat he eats. So, there we have it.

    Btw, I wish I could bring myself to eat snails. That would kill a lot of ... um ... gastropods with one stone.