Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A lesson about patience

These chooks are reminding me of my children at the moment: pecking each other in the head one minute and curling up together sweetly the next.

I don’t know if there is a head of the pecking order, as each morning it’s a different chook doing the chasing or flapping, but they all seem to be equally assertive when it comes to competing for Lily’s leftover weetbix and the boys’ leftover porridge. They enjoy this breakfast meal more than all the vege scraps we also throw in each day and if, by chance, the children don’t leave leftover cereals, all three chooks squawk at the gate whenever any of us step outside.

Everyone is enjoying the new routine: Stuart opens the coop as he is always first up, Ned feeds them the breakfast scraps and has a chat in his “happy place” as he calls it, mid-morning they have a little chat to me while I hang the clothes out, late afternoon they watch the kids play and at 7pm on the dot (it’s uncanny) they put themselves to bed. All three huddled together on the perch in their coop. The perch Stuart built... The not-so-handy-man who said worriedly ‘I hope it holds all of them’ when I told him how all three were squashed together.

So far it has held all of them and despite the moments of fighting (or is it arguing or gentle teasing? It’s so hard to tell with kids...) they seem very happy in the middle of the city, in a backyard surrounded by three houses. They eagerly shoo the neighbourhood cats away and chase the pesky minor birds out of their run. You could say everything for them is perfect. Except for a certain lack of eggs.

Where are the eggs?! They have reached their laying age yet so far not a single egg. Stuart is perhaps the most concerned; his fantasies about an eggy Christmas breakfast and pavlova dessert are quickly evaporating. He is getting desperate. I even found a brochure in the kitchen the other day titled Tips for Rearing Layers.

“We’ve done everything right!” he exclaimed that night during dinner.

And according to the brochure we have. We even gave them a fake egg to practice sitting on in their nesting box. A couple of weeks ago, the fake egg would be kicked out, down the ramp most mornings but for the last week, it has stayed in its nest and the nest has been left undisturbed.

“Could that be a sign?”, Stuart wondered. “They must know that it’s a special place they can’t sleep in. It must be good they have stopped kicking the egg out”.
“Hmmm, but shouldn’t they at least feel the urge to sit on the egg now they don’t want to kick it?” I added trying not to laugh.

He looked perplexed.

“You know, the eggs have to come out eventually, it’s not like they can choose to not lay.” I said hoping to make him feel better.

On Sunday, while he cleaned out the coop out I heard him ask the chooks what was going on. They didn’t answer him – surprisingly – but then he overheard a conversation over the fence.

“The chooks on the other side have gone off the lay!” he exclaimed. “I heard the woman tell her friend that they haven’t laid for a couple of months now.’

“Why would that have anything to do with our chooks?” I asked.

He shrugged, “something in the air?”

Or maybe just chooks who, like our three children, definitely know their own minds.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Holidays Collide

I've been thinking a lot about holidays this last week. Yes, I know I'd have to get someone to look after the chooks... Perhaps reminiscing about previous holidays will have to do for now. And this is the one I keep escaping to in my head...

The beach was huge and deserted – aside from the massive driftwood logs and the colony of seals living at one end – and all we could hear was the wind whistling between the cliffs and our children’s delight as they explored the wide expanse of sand. It was my fantasy Australian summer holiday; a beach to ourselves. Only it was autumn and we were in a tiny Californian coastal town.

Our wooden cottage stood at the top of the hill, surrounded by tall grasses, looking down over the ocean. The shingled restaurant sitting on the edge of the cliff was empty except for us and the waitress.

After dinner, the kids tucked in bed, I went searching for wineglasses and a corkscrew in the kitchen. On the bench sat a black, hardcover journal with ‘Guest Book’ embossed on the front, one I hadn’t noticed earlier. Tucking it under my arm, I ventured back to the lounge imagining I would quickly flick through seeing endless entries of names, remarks about the weather and home cities.

When I did close the journal, the bottle of wine was finished, the sky pitch black. I lost two hours inside those pages but I had found so much more.

Here it was; the guest book I’d been waiting for all my life. Entries that went on for 10 pages: the soldier back from fighting in Iraq who couldn’t get over the quietness here, who could still hear gunfire and bombs in his head but who found the beach and the ocean healing. Every morning he’d walk along the beach and stare out at the open expanse, marvelling at nature and questioning his involvement in manmade destruction.

There was the couple who came here to try and save their marriage, who had managed to find the time and space in this little cottage to actually see each other properly for the first time in years. After two nights they left feeling stronger in their desire to stay together. Did they?

Soon followed the man who brought his girlfriend here to cook her a romantic dinner of pasta followed by strawberries and chocolate and who joyfully left at the end of the weekend with a fiancée.

Then there was the family with teenage children and an old Labrador who had been holidaying here for years and had recently discovered their beloved dog was dying of cancer. This weekend was the last holiday for this old dog and the family delighted in watching him run along the beach he had always loved and playing in the long grasses surrounding the cottage. It was bittersweet, the family unsure they would ever be able to return to this little town without their dog.

But I think the story that caught me the most, the one I kept returning to, was written by a woman on her honeymoon. Only a couple of days before, she and her now-husband ‘got all dressed-up in new party clothes’. With their kids they ran down to the San Francisco registry office, had lunch at a very ‘swanky’ restaurant with their families and close friends, all stayed the night at ‘an even swankier’ hotel before piling the kids and dog into the car and driving to this tiny town to stay in this little cottage.

Their days had been spent relaxing, playing on the beach and enjoying becoming a family: ‘all of us here together, my wonderful new husband, his two young sons, my little girl, and the new baby we’ve just discovered is growing inside me.’

It was the baby, such a symbol of lifelong love and hope that captured my imagination the most and who I kept thinking about long into that night. A baby who would by now be a preschooler, a baby who cemented two families together forever.

The beach didn’t feel so deserted the next day. The driftwood and colony of seals were still there but I could also see that soldier, sitting on a rock just next to me lost in his own private hell; there was the old Labrador bounding past, flicking sand up joyfully as he discovered a new lease of life; the unhappy couple tentatively holding hands at the water’s edge; the newly engaged couple lying on a rug away from the rest of us. And there were the newlyweds; watching their children build sandcastles alongside my own; his hand resting protectively on her stomach.

A new beginning for them all.

And a beach that was never really just to ourselves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Re-establishing the pecking order

Until having our own girls, I never noticed how many English idioms and phrases relate to chickens.

While they cluck and scratch I peg the clothes on the line feeling like Henny Penny and my children run around like chickens with their heads cut off. While I don’t like to hen-peck as I know Stuart is busy scratching out a living for us, creating our nest egg, I do sometimes feel that help around the house is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Why don’t those little boys, in particular, want to take more care feathering their nest? Why don’t I make them take more care – after all, who rules the roost?

Have I been too much of a Mother Hen? What comes first anyway, the chicken or the egg? No, I won’t count my chickens before they hatch. I’ll give them another chance to hatch a plan for how they will tidy up, or their floor will get tidied up into a garbage bag. They had better not put all their toys into one basket, either.

Who says hanging out the washing is boring?!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thank you You Tube

'Make sure you don’t clip through the living part of the feather. It will start bleeding and that can be potentially fatal.’

Not the comforting words we wanted to hear on a Sunday at 9.30am. It had been a calm morning up until that point. Mum had popped over with coffees, the kids were playing upstairs and we were sitting on the deck.

All of a sudden there was the sound of wings flapping and we saw Chippy sitting on top of the paling fence. Yes, the boundary fence into next door’s garden. Her head kept turning to look on our side of the fence and then the other. Was she thinking about which way to jump, was she as bewildered as we were that she could get up that high, or was she just trying to grab our attention?

If it was for attention, it worked. After she cleverly chose to jump down back into her own run, conversations were flying around about chicken wire on the paling fence, perhaps some rolled on top of the wire fence.

‘It will look awful!’ I moaned.

‘But it will be the best way to keep the chooks in,’ said Stuart, not the aesthete. ‘They can’t be flying into next door and we can’t be worried about them being safe all day every day.’

‘Fine,’ I muttered. ‘You can clip their wings.’ I stomped inside to get the computer hoping this experience wouldn't end the same way as much of Stuart's DIY.

We watched four videos on wing clipping; the first with Iowa chicken farmers who talked too much about blood and fatality to warrant a second viewing. The second with English farmers who also had chooks escaping over the back fence but after they admitted they had never clipped wings before AND numerous minutes were taken up with them trying to catch their chicken, we decided to leave them to it.

Then we watched a very knowledgeable New Zealander talk about the theory of wing clipping but it soon became hard to hear her over the squawking hen on her lap.

‘Don’t let the children watch us do this,’ said Mum.

Confidence was filling the air.

And then we found her; Suzie who runs Golden Valley Poultry. She was going to show the proper way to clip chicken wings, step by step.

‘It’s just like doing your nails’, she said calmly holding a docile chook in one arm and a big pair of scissors in the other.

Once she explained the flight feathers at the top, the warm feathers and the separating feather, confidence really was starting to fill the air around us.

Stuart held Chippy and mum held the scissors. I held onto the i-pad in case we needed Suzie again. And then it was over. Black feathers on the grass and a very calm Chippy.

We clipped all three chooks and Suzie was right; just like cutting your nails.

There was no pain, but I think their pride was hurt. Once all three were back in the run, they took themselves off to bed for a while.

By 6pm, we were back on the deck enjoying drinks with friends when there was sudden flapping and a loud bang into the fence. Chippy tried to fly up to the gate but got no further than halfway.

What is it with 6pm?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A change of name

What is it about 6pm? It’s been four days now and each evening at 6pm, Chippy and Axy jump the gate. It’s like they’re flying home to roost – in the wrong direction. At no other time of day do they attempt the crossing from the run into the garden.

It’s not so stressful for me anymore: they don’t venture far on our side of the gate and they don’t attempt to fly anywhere else. They also don’t do much digging when they are out. But they do poo a lot.

I wonder if it has become a game for them. I’m sure Chippy waits until she knows we can see her. It’s become her party trick. Chirp still has never attempted to jump or fly and I can’t help feeling an extra soft spot for her.

‘I think it’s because she’s the biggest’, said Stuart one evening. ‘It’s probably too hard for her to jump up.’

‘Maybe she’s just well-behaved’ I answered looking Chippy in the eye while she stared out from behind the gate.

The boys were leaning over the fence making their own observations. ‘Look Ned,’ whispered Louis, ‘Axy likes digging a lot.’

It was true. The last few days had seen Axy digging a little hole for herself under the tree then sitting in it. Later she would get up, scratch the dirt back over the hole and make another somewhere else. Their little personalities were starting to emerge: Chippy the escapee (or cheeky Chippy), Axy the digger and Chirp the quiet, good girl.

The children discussed over dinner how ‘amazing’ it was that the hens’ personalities mimicked their own. Not that Louis did much digging and sitting in holes, but we all agreed that if Ned ever flew the coop, Louis would be right behind him.

Before bed, Louis had an announcement. ‘I don’t want to call my chicken Axy anymore. She likes digging so I think we’ll call her Diggy!’

‘Are you sure?’ asked Stuart sounding disappointed, possibly knowing how pleased I would be to no longer have a chicken called Axe-man.

He nodded, ‘I like Diggy much better. Good night.’

It wouldn’t be long before Diggy’s name changed again. And again. And again. I hope she has never realised. The last thing this house needs is a chook with an identity crisis.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The excitement from the night before

Stuart left for the airport at 5am. It was the chooks second morning here and my first morning of letting them out. I dosed until daybreak, dreaming about the chooks running up and down our street dodging cars. I woke with a start hearing strangulated clucks – oh god, the chooks! What’s wrong with the chooks?! It was a few seconds before I realised the strangulated clucks were instead a magpie screeching.

I forced myself up, fuming. Why do I do this to myself? It’s hard enough having three children! Why do I need to worry about three chooks as well? But as I walked into the kitchen I saw two little boys in their dressing gowns sitting on the window seat looking out the window. Their little heads were so still; there was no talking.

‘Good morning’ I said as I switched the kettle on.

‘Hi mum’, replied Ned not turning around.

‘What are you looking at?’ I asked.

‘We’re waiting for the chickens to get up’, Louis said.

That’s right, I had to go and open the coop. Lifting the roof, I saw the three of them perched and fast asleep. The sound they made was a cross between a purr and a hum. It was soft and content. I opened the doors of the coop and walked away.

The boys didn’t leave their post. The girls didn’t attempt to leave their perch. We all ate breakfast watching and waiting for the chooks to appear. Lily finally appeared rubbing her eyes. School lunches were packed. Uniforms were found. There was a lost sock search and still the chooks slept.

Stuart sent a text from Melbourne: ‘Has everyone woken up ok? How are the chooks this morning?’

It was 8.30am. ‘They must really be tired after their adventures last night’ said Ned shaking his head, packing his schoolbag.

‘Let’s give them some lettuce’, I suggested.

We could hear the quiet clucks – Clucky already at the door of the hutch wide awake. She came out for the lettuce and wandered around the run; the one chook who hadn’t attempted an escape. Axy soon followed her.

While awake, Chippy refused to budge off her perch. She still looked tired.

Poor Chippy. Four jumps over the gate was obviously more taxing than she expected. But would that be enough to keep her wings by her side for evermore?!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cheeky chickens

Ned came running up to me as he left the classroom after the bell went. With his huge smile and arms outstretched I felt touched that he was so pleased to see me on a Monday afternoon.

‘Yay! I’ve been waiting all day to get home and see the chickens!’

Ok, so not so much about me...

‘Oh yeah,’ said Lily absent-mindedly, ‘I forgot all about the chickens.’

As we walked home, Louis and I told them about the chooks’ day. A bit of scratching, a lot of eating was all that seemed to happen.

The kids gave them some vege scraps and we all got on with the afternoon. When Stuart came home, we stood in the garden watching the ‘girls’ thinking how easy it all was.

Too easy.

I went to pilates at 6pm and once home I noticed the side gate had chicken wire all over it. Strange. I was pretty sure it wasn’t there before I left.

I walked into the kitchen to find Stuart making dinner. ‘Why is there chicken wire on the side gate?’

He stopped stirring, looked at me and smiled. ‘It seems our chooks aren’t as docile as you thought. Chippy is quite the escape artist actually and Axy enjoys copying him.’

Hang on, which one was Chippy again?

‘Four times he jumped over the fence’, Stuart continued, with slightly too much glee I felt. ‘Don’t worry they didn’t go far and then tried to get back into the run through the wire.’

‘We might have to get their wings clipped,’ I said over dinner, still surprised that they had flown the coop. The breeder said he’d only ever had to clip one chook’s wings it was so unusual.

Stuart nodded. ‘Yeah, I was thinking I’d have to do that.’

Hang on. Surely not...

‘It’s not that hard. I’m sure I could find out how on the internet.’

Oh no. This could be a disaster. As much as he is amazing at many things, fixing things is not one of them. In this house, shelves have fallen down, as have pictures off walls. While putting together the flat-pack chicken coop, he split the wood and broke the roof.

‘I think we should go back to the breeder for that...’

‘Don’t you think I can do it?’ he looked surprised.

‘Maybe it was a one-off’ I said, ‘Let’s not worry about clipping any wings unless they try escaping again’.

I looked out into the quiet, dark garden hoping those chooks could sense what’s good for them.


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