We first noticed the arrival of a pair of turtle doves on our property around three years ago. Since I knew the species isn’t native to Tasmania I wondered where they’d come from. Their distinctive cooing call reminded me of visits to my grandmother’s home in the south of England when growing up. The birds weren’t common in the North, or not where we lived anyway, so hearing the gentle coo coo always takes me back to the lush rural landscape of Highclere, in the UK.
Nowadays though that pair of turtle doves has grown to over 20 birds, so as well as being successful in the breeding department, they’ve clearly worked out where their bread is buttered. Or where there’s likely to be a feed of grain. It no doubt comes with having a few chooks, and the doves – along with various parrots, eastern rosellas and sparrows – have clocked on to when breakfast is served at our place.
Finding food in winter is always a challenge for many bird species, especially those who rely on seeds, flowers or insects for their sustenance. These are all scarce during the colder months, but even so we can’t remember quite so many birds turning up at chook meal times before.
I’m conflicted about feeding wild birds regularly, although have been obliged to turn a blind eye to John feeding the small troupe of magpies on a daily basis. We inherited the magpies with the property thanks to the previous owner feeding them. At least I’ve encouraged him to reduce their feeds to once a day rather than two.
But as it’s winter, and recognising finding food is tough, we’ve relented enough this year to buy a bag of seed designed for wild birds. To be honest it looks pretty similar to the mixed grain ‘muesli’ seed the chooks have, but at the moment after I’ve walked Della dog, I now juggle two containers of grain in my hands each morning. One for the chooks, and another for the doves, sparrows and rosellas that are swinging on the wire and waiting patiently and optimistically for their share. At least there’s no squabbling and they all seem quite happy to mingle as they peck away.
Humans could learn a lot from their behaviour.
For almost the first time ever our chooks have continued to lay eggs throughout the winter months. It’s not quite the first time, because when still living at our previous property there was a year when I followed the instructions given to me by a friend, who assured me hens would continue laying eggs in the winter months if their diet included some seriously hot and spicy ‘porridge’ two or three times a week. I was sceptical, but it did actually work – although it was a bit time-consuming to make. The girls kept right on laying, although not every day. Some element in the ‘hot and spicy’ apparently triggers the desire to lay an egg, but cooking up food scraps with oats, bran, bread crusts etc, and then adding generous pinches of cayenne, chilli, black pepper and curry powder into the mix did rather stink out the kitchen. It worked though!
However spiced porridge isn’t the reason the girls have kept laying this year. I’m not actually sure of the reason they’ve done so, but my theory is it’s due to either rivalry, or peer pressure following the addition to our small flock with a ring-in.
Earlier this year, as our neighbours prepared to put their house on the market, they rounded up their free-ranging hens in order to rehome them. Despite assuring his wife he’d corralled them all, it seems Rob couldn’t count. A renegade turned up a few days later. Although she’s a different breed, and larger than the bantams we have, we offered to take her if Rob was able to catch her, and hopefully she would be accepted by our girls.
Rob’s mission was accomplished, and fortunately ruffled feathers weren’t an issue, so Henny-Penny was soon happily pecking away with our chooks and doing what hens do best: laying eggs. But perhaps being of a breed that keeps on laying regardless of the season she kept on laying even as the weather cooled, and when most hens take a break for a month or three.
Which brings me to my rivalry theory. Our chooks were not going to be outdone by an uppity newcomer, so anything she did they were going to do also. Who knows if I’m right, but the egg supply has barely missed a beat all through winter, to the point where we’ve even had enough eggs sometimes to give the occasional six or eight away. What a bonus just for giving an unwanted hen a home!
Chooks usually get a bad rap when it comes to intelligence, and I’ll admit they’ve never struck me as being the smartest of birds – although there is evidence to suggest that, like sheep, which also have an unfortunate reputation when it comes to intelligence – chooks are a lot smarter than they seem. But over the years we‘ve kept chooks there have been a few who have stood out as definite personalities, and some can certainly have distinct characteristics. There have been some that proved permanently flighty, and overly protective of their chicks, while others have been pretty laid back about the whole mothering experience. Interestingly these are often the ones who prove to be the most successful mothers, as well as the ones whose offspring tend to be the most laid back. Nature or nurture?
A surprise this season has been witnessing the cooperative approach to motherhood displayed by two hens who decided to share the nest and so were both involved in hatching the very few eggs we left them. Of the two chicks that hatched, only one has survived – we think the other was probably inadvertently squashed by one or other hen – and parenting duties have been shared, resulting in what I think is a ‘smothering’ and it will be interesting to note how this chicken develops once the mothers abandon it, which they eventually will do.
This season we have a population explosion resulting from several chooks going bush to lay their eggs, and our failure to find them in time, but among the crowd Sandy Chook stands out. At least she does at the moment as the berries are ripening. She just loves berries, and is wise to the time when I start picking them. Needless to say the boysenberries, strawberries and raspberries are all covered so neither she, her feathered cousins, or the tiresome, invasive and determined blackbirds, can get in to nick them, but she always has her eye to the main chance and would be in like Flynn if she could. As would the blackbirds who are cunning personified when it comes to locating the smallest hole in the netting in the hope of sneaking a feed. I do give Sandy Chook the ones that have been half-eaten by the expletive blackbirds, and naturally enough she’s wise to this too so hangs around in daily expectation of such largesse.
For the rest of the year she’s mostly indistinguishable from all the other chooks when it comes to personality, although she always stands out due to her colour since most of our chooks are predominantly black, but come summer and berry time I can guarantee there will be a loyal, hopeful and expectant follower on morning berry picking tasks.
A month on and we still have 11 chickens so all three mothers have done well. Being an old hand at parenting Granny Chook has abandoned her brood already so the oldest teenagers now have to fend for themselves. They’re all proving to be skittish, but the rather daffy, and the only brownish-coloured one in the trio is the silliest, and barely has the courage to join the others at breakfast time, or any other time when food is scattered their way.
The younger teenage trio are a bit braver, but they are also having to learn to be independent of mum, who has recently started to take less notice of them, leaving them to fend for themselves for much of the day. They seem to be taking growing up in their stride though, and unlike their older cousins certainly aren’t proving backwards in coming forwards when wheat, bread or veggie scraps are on offer.
As for the ring-in, the pretty black and speckled grey chook with a very pert tail, who was abandoned at a nearby rental property and is still very flighty, well she’s managed to keep five out of the six chicks that hatched, but my goodness has she proved to be an over-protective mum. She’s improving slowly, but for the first few weeks she kept them so close and hidden, we doubted any would survive. Death from starvation was the likely outcome as we had endless trouble on a daily basis finding her little family among the long grass and shrubs, and she was – and remains – so quiet we could never hear them cheeping, or her clucking, such was her apparent terror of anything or anyone considered a threat.
Thankfully in the last week she’s relaxed her attitude, and now joins the early morning breakfast scrum, and appears to be a bit more sociable throughout the day. Just what psychological damage she might have imparted to her chicks as a result of her bizarre isolationist stand remains to be seen though!
Whether any of these chicks are males, and therefore unlikely to survive long-term, is still unclear, but hopefully their gender will soon be identifiable and most will prove female and thus able to enjoy long and productive egg-laying lives – if not with us then with some of our friends who’ve already put up their hands to give some chickens a home.
Following a quoll attack last year, (or that of a feral cat; the jury is still out on that one), we were down to just three bantam chooks, one of whom is ‘Granny’ and well into the equivalent of chook menopause. Or so we thought. We saved a young bantam rooster from certain death a few weeks ago, thanks to a neighbour’s generosity, and acquired another bantam shortly afterwards after other neighbours left her behind when they vacated their rental property.
Granny surprised us by producing eggs again, and when it became clear she was preparing to sit, we asked Rooster Boy’s former owner if we could buy some fertile eggs to put under her so we had a chance to increase our little flock, and its genetic diversity. Although five hatched – almost six but one died trying to break out of the egg – the hazards of free-range living were soon apparent. Granny did her best, and she is a good and vigilant mother, but she lost two chicks almost immediately, probably to a hawk or a raven. She still has three though, which are now growing apace, and which she’s keeping close, so fingers crossed they will all survive.
In the meantime one of Granny’s flighty offspring has also hatched five chickens, but is proving to be a negligent mother. She barely batted an eyelid, much less raised the alarm or put up a fight when a raven swooped twice in one day and picked off two chicks, no doubt to feed its own hungry family. We know from past experience that once these predator birds know where to find breakfast they will return to pick the chicks off one by one, so we aren’t anticipating this little family will grow up to adulthood.
As for the orphaned bantam, well she’s still an unknown quantity. She’s been sharing a nest with Sandy Chook, the third of the survivors, but appears to have won the battle for sitting rights. In a few days she will emerge with brood number three, and time for her parenting skills to be put to the test. Fingers crossed she will prove to be a feisty mother willing and able to look after her chicks. Time will tell.