Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Chook Poo on your Shoe

We have this little place in our garden we fondly call the 'chook nook' and it's where our four chickens live. We made it last year using mostly recycled material and it has become an essential element of our Permaculture system. Applying the principle that every element supports many functions we tend to our chickens, provide  them with food, water, shelter and a happy healthy life and they in return provide us with eggs, manure, compost material, a soil aeration service, pest management and companionship. They are an integral part of a sustainable cycle that works to create a richer habitat for our plants which in turn provide us with food and food for the chooks as well.

One of the key functions of our small flock is to provide us with eggs for food. Just like our fruit and vegetables, it’s a very good feeling knowing exactly where our produce has come from, how it’s been grown and how those plants and animals have been looked after throughout the process.  Somehow this is very comforting and is one of the very reasons we’ve gone back to a simple way of living.

But looking after chooks, feeding them, tending to their health and cleaning their pen is a commitment and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. Owning any animal requires some work and we tend to our chooks every morning as part of a daily routine.
For those of you who might be thinking about getting some chooks, I’ve come up with a list of a few hard and fast rules to think about before you take the leap.
  • Don't get chooks (or any pet) unless you genuinely have the time to take care of them. They are entirely in your hands.
  • Once you have taken on an animal you are responsible for it for the rest of it's life. Make sure you have a backup plan for when you go away or if you start to wonder what on earth you were thinking. It happens. But unlike an icecream machine, you can’t just shove it in the back of the cupboard and forget about it!
  • You must provide the essentials. The absolute minimum is clean water, ample food, adequate shelter and protection from predators. You (and your kids) will be devastated if there’s carnage and with good planning and design this can mostly be prevented.
  • You need to have a plan in the event there is an outbreak of disease or you get a sick bird. Check beforehand that your local vet can or will deal with chooks or birds in the event one of them needs immediate attention or even worse, needs to be put down. Of course this is something none of us want to think about but you need to be prepared because there is no excuse for unnecessary suffering. Unfortunately chooks and birds can be sick long before you realise and often by the time you do, it’s already too late.
  • Read and learn as much as you can about looking after chickens and how to recognise when there’s a problem.
  • You'll need to get a minimum of two chooks. They are social animals and it’s cruel for them to be alone.
  • And finally, are you prepared to deal with chook poo on your shoe!
Most people will think this is all just common sense but you know what, as an animal lover and working with native animals in my job, I’ve come to realise that in some cases common sense does not exist! People can get themselves into all sorts of trouble owning animals and I’ve seen my fair share of ugly situations.

For us the addition of chickens was an easy transition and our animals live like kings. We can't help it, it just happens, just ask our dogs Digger and Shadow. We’ve enjoyed learning how to care for our chooks, getting to know their funny little personalities, working out their hierarchy and for me I’m fascinated in the language of chooks and I think I'm finally onto something. We’ve sorted through some food issues and decided to change their main diet this year to an organic scratch mix which they love. We leave this out for them to range on all day and no, they don’t overeat. Only us humans do that. They also get a variety of vegetable and fruit scraps collected twice weekly from our local green grocer and the odd treat of leftovers or sunflower seeds but these are rationed because they are more like chook chocolate.
On the days we work they spend most of their time in the ‘chook nook’ which is a large fully enclosed pen. The entire front and sides are hard wire which provides protection from our local predators: foxes, quolls, dogs and raptors. The wire also provides good ventilation during our hot summers but also allows the beautiful low winter sun to penetrate deep into their pen during the day. At night as the temperatures started to drop they were quite exposed to the elements so we decided to winter-proof their sleeping quarters for extra warmth and comfort. Kings I tell you!

As chooks have their own downy sleeping bags permanently attached there was no need to go too crazy but a few simple things like adding deeper litter to their roosting areas and nesting boxes and temporarily boarding up the open wire sections to prevent cold air blasting through their perches has made the world of difference, if only to my peace of mind. In the last 4 weeks we've also increased their leafy green intake just enough to keep up with their energy and egg laying needs.
It’s winter in Sydney and we’ve just passed the Winter Solstice so the days are short. Whether it’s just luck or good management I’m not really sure but we smile every day knowing that our hens are happy, are helping us maintain our sustainable cycle and as a bonus are giving us 3 golden eggs a day. I can’t help but think…how lucky are we!
Stay tuned for my next post when I’ll tell you how we went about introducing new chooks to the flock.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Xanadu for Hens

Stickybeak and Noodle are our two 20 month old Isa Brown chooks. They've been living with us for 6 weeks now and have produced a total of 61 eggs between them. That's incredible and we couldn't be happier. Noodle is the most reliable layer, she's curious and confident and seems to have sharper eyesight but Stickybeak is definitely the boss chook. She tends to be a little more sensitive and has gone off the lay on the odd day here and there, especially when the weather's been hot.
One of our concerns was how our dogs Digger and Shadow would behave within close quarters of the chooks. Much to the relief of everybody, including the chooks, they've been very well behaved and all seem comfortable within each other's company.
Digger the Dog on Chook patrol
Being a working dog, Digger is always alert when around them, waiting like a coiled spring ready to jump at the first command. Shadow is much more relaxed and happily walks around in their pen, helping with the chores, seemingly oblivious to their existence.
When we started to realise how much chooks actually eat, I knew we'd never be able to keep up with their insatiable appetites and we didn't want to rely totally on pellets, so we decided to approach our local green grocer for scrap greens and anything else suitable they were throwing out. It seems that I'm not the only one taking advantage of the enormous volume of fruit and vegetable waste that gets dumped each day as they keep prepared boxes out in the back cool room so I just swap the box over each time. On the days I've missed out,  they're more than happy for me to go through the bins stored under the shelves in the shop. It's where the offcuts are thrown as the shelves are packed and presented for sale and there's lots of goodies in there.
Free chook goodies, slugs and all
As you probably already know, we don't have a lawn at our place so our chooks aren't able to freely range in our backyard, not unless they're under direct supervision. And that has it's problems because they can't be trusted! Not that they'll take off but because they'll peck wildly at lettuce, beans and anything tempting along the way and before you know it, they've shredded the plants to death.
For some time I'd been thinking about creating a temporary release area for them and finally came up with the simple idea to use cheap hessian and star pickets. We already had a stack of stakes and the hessian was about $35 for 10 metres, 2.8m wide.
After belting the stakes into the ground and cutting the hessian into 2 strips 1.4m wide, it was easy to temporarily attached the material to the stakes with some string. We propped a folding wire gate that Chris found in the October Council cleanup against two of the stakes as a door and within about 10 minutes, we created a pretty neat, simple but effective day release area. We call it the 'Summer Palace'.
The Summer Palace
It's a gorgeous shady area with a spectacular view and we've put their mower catcher in there and of course there's always fresh water.  The chooks go in there most days after work and I can see them from the kitchen window. It provides a change of scenery and a safe area where they can stretch their legs and scratch through the layer of leaf mulch and humus and they love it.
That is of course until Noodle Houdini discovered she could go under the hessian where it was loose and before I knew it the two of them were making a B-line for chook Xanadu, our herb garden!
Heads down tails up
It was their excited chortling that gave them away, I watched as the two cheeky chooks disappeared behind the lemon balm, thyme and basil with fluffy bottoms high in the sky. I imagined this is where the saying 'head down, tail up' came from.
One of my colleagues, Dani is a brilliant animal behaviourist and ran a city farm in Sydney for many years. At one stage she was required to breed chickens for demonstration purposes and after a while became quite an expert on chook behaviour.  When I told her we were getting a couple of chooks the first thing she told me was that I'd have to train them to follow me so that I'd always be sure they'd come when I called them, especially given we don't have fences. Well I've learnt that chooks don't just take off like a dog on a scent, unless of course there's a dog on their scent, but they can get easily distracted in their hunt for food and before you know it they can be a few garden beds away, buried up to their ears in worms. So Dani's simple instruction was to get a small shaker, like an empty drink bottle, fill it with a special seed mix, and whenever you need to get their attention, shake the bottle and call 'chook, chook, chookie' or something like that.
Following the shake and call
But like a dog, you must reward them every time so that they always associate the sound of the shake and call with food. It took me no more than 2 short sessions to train them and I can now lead them from their 'Chook Nook' along a garden path, up a series of steps and into the Summer Palace which is about 30 metres away. And who said chooks were dumb!
The actual egg count should be at least 63 eggs in 6 weeks as we've discovered 2 remnant egg shells: one in the Summer Palace and one on a ledge in the Chook Nook. We must have missed the one in the Palais which I found sitting under the little compost tumbler. It seemed to have collapsed with all the rain we've had this week.  But I'm particularly suspicious of the one I found yesterday in the Chook Nook as it had sneaky rat fink written all over it. I suspect it's a little native rattus fuscipes or bush rat because he's managed to carry the egg about a metre from the nesting boxes. He'd better watch out because if I catch that little scoundrel he'll soon become a flattus rattus fuscipes!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Insistent friends are the best of friends

We'd waited months. Were given snippets of clues. Butcher's paper arrived with texta'd hints. Still no idea. My guess was a sun dial. WRONG! They said we'd never guess and they were right.

Our good friends Andy and Tanya had promised that a gift was coming. It was a gift for our surprise wedding, which we held back in March last year. I think they'd forgotten that one of the very reasons we had a 'surprise' wedding was because we didn't want any gifts! Having a surprise wedding meant that we could avoid all the fuss and bother and expectation and worry of presents and unncessary spending. We have everything we need. But good friends are like that aren't they. Insistent! And I've learnt in life that sometimes it's better to roll with it rather than fight it.

Anyway, we had the regular gang over for dinner for Chris's birthday. The Robot was there, Luke and Roz, Andy, Tanya and Hanna, Mad and Jez. There was plenty of excitement in the air as everyone gathered together especially when Andy arrived with a flat cardboard parcel tucked under his arm. It was covered in brown paper, beautifully decorated with texta colour, masterfully done by 5 year old Hannah. While food was being prepared, we propped it up against a chair with the promise of a grand opening, but not before an obligitory visit to the Permaculture garden.

We'd forgotten all about the visitor that arrived that morning, but everyone was delighted to discover him while touring around the garden. At some time during the day he'd made his way from the deck above to the outside corner of the Chook Nook where he lay, perfectly still, waiting for his unsuspecting dinner to arrive.

He was beautiful, a very large very adult diamond python with shiney perfectly patterned scales and glistening black eyes. And he waited so patiently without even the slightest hint of movement. He'd cleverly positioned himself above a native bush rat camp, with just enough coil to strike the first rat that appeared from beneath the corrogated iron sheeting. He'd done this before, but not under our watch as it was the first time we'd seen a snake this size in our garden.

At some time during the night, faster than lightening, he siezed his victim into the clutches of his jaw, swallowing him whole after paralysing him in seconds in a vice-like grip. 

Although we could have stayed all night watching him under torchlight, Hannah and I decided enough was enough. It was time to drag the boys away - there was a present waiting to be opened and it could wait no longer.

When everyone was positioned, we carefully peeled away the tape, pulling the cardboard packing apart to find inside a rusty old sign that said 'CHOOK NOOK' and above it sat a laser carved chook. How positively gorgeous. How thoughtful. How....perfect!

We absolutely love it and have attached it to the side of the door where it sits proudly, ready to be admired by all entering the Chook Nook. Our very own individualised Chook Nook sign! How lucky are we.

Thank you to three wonderful friends. You shouldn't have but thank you for being so....insistent!

Friday, 18 November 2011

A Cosmic Connection Between Barack Obama and My Friend the Butcher

Barack Obama doesn't know it but yesterday he wasn't the only one engaging in a 'chin wag' full of Aussie vernacular.

I stopped in to see my friend the butcher only to discover that six months down the track, I'd found myself once again, talking with him and the same woman I'd met at the same spot back in June. How funny.

Before she recognised me, I could hear the two of them talking about her broody hens and how the recent change in weather had sent a couple of them 'berko'. She'd tried everything known to man and woman to lure them out of their nesting boxes and she'd become reluctant to go near them in fear of being pecked.

While trying to conceal his excitement, I noticed the butcher's eyebrow lift conspicuously. I could tell he had a trick in mind and was dying to reveal it and before she had a chance to finish he jumped in and suggested that she purchase a few fertile eggs from a chicken farmer out the back of 'woop woop'. He'd done it a few times himself and found it worked a treat, not only to appease his hen's broody needs but to add a couple of extra chooks to his collection and from time to time he selected breeds specifically for their meat. It was obvious the woman hadn't thought of it and the butcher was suitably pleased with himself. I'll be honest, the idea had never occurred to me and I too thought it was a brilliant idea, especially given that you can't legally keep roosters in our area. I'd give my eye teeth to be able to raise a couple of chooks for meat as well as eggs, providing it wasn't me who had to do the deed.

And then, last night when I was catching up with one of my favourite blogs 'Down to Earth', Rhonda Jean tells us how one of her lovely readers sent her half a dozen fertilised eggs in the mail for one of her broody hens! What a lovely gift.

The butcher said he'd found a home for his six chooks including his beautiful Australorp and although he didn't want to part with them just yet, he'd surrendered to the pressure to convert his hen yard into a backyard swimming pool for the kids. He told me as soon as the pool and landscaping were done, he'd be planning a space for some new chooks, once he had approval from the 'cheese and kisses'. It was at this moment I caught myself smiling as a I thought back to the President's earlier speech. 

The butcher asked me about my girls and I explained how we'd decided to adopt a couple of Isa Browns from a friend, especially given we haven't had chickens before. He seemed to like the adoption idea and I got the feeling it chimed with his reluctant decision to find a suitable home for his own beloved chooks. 

Just like my Dad, the butcher's favourite chook of all time was the black Australorp. He said it was a 'corker' of a bird but his Barred Plymoth Rock and Silver Spangled Hamburg were 'rippers' too and looked just like a Dalmation dog! I think he meant that the feather's were spotted and not that the chicken actually looked like a dog.

What I would have done to take his Australorp but we weren't quite ready to introduce a new chook to 'Stickybeak' and Noodle just yet. I still haven't figured out whether we've got enough room and as I'm 'flat out like a lizard drinking' myself, the last thing I need is a hen pecked chook to worry about.

And besides, I suspect the broodiness has been bred out of Isa Browns given they've been bred as battery hens. No battery hen has time to go broody. And while our girls are laying well, in their prime, Isa Browns reliably lay an egg a day but are soon given the death sentence after a year short career. Our hens may not be up to incubating a fertile egg, but at least I know they'll have a long happy, well fed life in their comfy new home, the 'Chook Nook'.

My friend the butcher is a 'top bloke' and he said 'no worries' as I thanked him yet again for his advice.   We said our goodbyes and as I turned to walk away he called out 'hooroo'. It was a fitting end to another memorable meeting.


P.S. Message to self.....edit first post on 'The Chook Nook' to include extra dot point....butchers think silver spangled hamburgs look just like Dalmations!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Butcher's advice

After months of tireless work, the 'chook nook' is just about ready for the arrival of our adopted chooks.

On Saturday we visited them at their current home, firstly so they could get to meet us and secondly, to size up their current living quarters and to see how it compares to their soon-to-be new environment. While they currently have a grassed backyard to occasionally run, scratch and peck in, they don't always spend time free-ranging and are often confined to their fenced yard and hen house.

We decided that our fenced chook yard was considerably bigger and would offer them a new experience in that it's a totally secure environment, fully fenced top and sides. We live on the edge of a national park and a roof was essential to provide security from the likes of dogs, foxes, predatory birds, quolls, snakes and cats including black panthers. Okay, they may not be real panthers and more likely very large black feral cats and although cats have been domesticated for over 4000 years, the hunting instinct is still strongly imprinted in their brain and dominates their existence when they go feral. A vulnerable chook or two would be easy prey for these quiet predators, not to mention a cunning fox so our solar electric fence will be deployed as an extra deterrent.

Safety and security are important features of any chook nook no matter where you live. I've known people to 'come home' with a chook or three, totally unprepared and its usually a disaster for a few weeks while they play catch up trying to build a chook house and yard.

Although you don't need anything too elaborate, you do need to be ready with some essentials prior to their arrival. This includes a secure, warm, dry permanent structure where they can sleep, roost, feed and lay their eggs and of course, hide if necessary. They need a fresh water supply and lots of food, and as ours are already laying they could need up to a kilo of food each per week. So over the months, we've been preparing our chook nook to provide all these things and more.

A slinky black panther roaming on the edge of our permaculture garden is one thing but to be honest, my biggest concern is the two dogs over the road who are young, stupid and apparently deaf! We do want to allow our chooks to free range across the terrace beds occasionally and as I watched the two of them tear down the side of our house the other day with their owner in hot pursuit, I got thinking they're going to be our biggest worry. It will only take seconds for a dog to kill a chook or two. And while their young owners are trying hard to train them, from my observations they still have a long way to go before they will actually 'stay' or 'come' when told to do so and once they get the scent of chooks in their nostrils nothing is going to stop them.

I am slightly sympathetic because we also have two dogs but the difference is our mutts are adorable, well trained and highly intelligent and they'll be trained up and spooked right from the start to ensure they clearly understand that chooks are scary and out of bounds.

Although the chooks have been somewhat dogerized they've also had their wings clipped which may be a problem given that flying is a very handy escape mechanism to have when being pursued by a dog.

As for what to do about the dogs over the road, I may just have to call on my friend the butcher for some expert advice!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Butchers Chook

There's a sub-culture of chook lovers in Sydney, I just know it. I was at the butchers yesterday after work and I overheard a conversation between a customer and one of the younger butchers. The language was even in code and went something like this....

'Your girls off the lay?' he said. 'Yep, what about yours?' she said. 'Same. Too cold'. 'Yep, too cold to lay'.

It was 10 degrees C outside and it had been a frosty day in Sydney and I knew from my recent research that they could only be talking about one thing....the humble backyard chook.

I interrupted them and apologised for eavesdropping but I couldn't miss the opportunity to join their conversation. I introduced myself and told them excitedly about my plans to build a 'chook nook'. With raised eyebrows they both leaned closer as I started to ask a zillion questions. I had to make it quick; I knew I'd only have a few minutes before the next customer arrived.

With lowered voices, trying to disguise their excitement, they began to tell me their stories and I soon realised I was in the presence of two very experienced chook raisers.

During those few minutes, I discovered a number of important things.....

  • Butchers love chooks
  • Dogs and foxes eat chooks
  • Foxes rip the heads off chooks and leave their bodies (I don't think this is true all the time)
  • Foxes can stake out pens for days on end before they go in for the kill (sounds more like a crocodile)
  • Survivor chooks are called chickens because they hide in their houses after an attack and won't come out for days
  • Neighbours with dogs that attack chooks don't care much for chooks or neighbours
  • Chooks do amazing work in vegie gardens but not while there are vegies in the vegie garden (I think I get it)
  • Chooks are entertaining, lovable and provide food, eggs and manure
  • Chooks have personalities just like people (I know a few people who have personalities like chooks)
  • There are at least 2 people in the Hornsby area that already have adorable chooks and there will soon be 3
  • The butcher recons Australorps are the best layers, are comfortable and relaxed in your arms, are great with kids, and are the most beautiful birds he's ever seen!
  • Backyard chook's eggs are by far the best!

This was only the beginning but it was reassuring to know that there are other chook lovers out there. I'm starting to realise what amazing resources we have in our local community including the many experienced and interesting gardeners and backyard farmers, each with their own unique story and advice they're only too willing to share.

There was a sense of impatience growing among the increasing line of customers so we left the conversation there. As I said goodbye to my new friends, the butcher called out to me to make sure I came back at any time if I needed any further advice.

As I smiled and walked off I wondered if he knew anything about compost.