Category Archives: magpies

Life with the Zoo – 2: The guys, the gals & the birdies (18)

We had a rather run-down chook-pen at the far north corner of our block so when our friend, Yvonne, moved out of her house in a rural area and into Boonah town, she asked us if we’d adopt her hens and a couple of roosters. Never having had chooks before, we nevertheless decided to take them on to join our existing menagerie of 3 cats and 1 dog, plus the odd wallaby which bounded around our paddock, hotly chased by our Jack Russell.  We thought it would be a doddle when we went out to Yvonne’s rural property to pick up the hens and roosters.

Our home up Mt French - you can see the peak of the mountain behind.

Our home up Mt French – you can see the peak of the mountain behind.

WRONG!  The guys and gals objected strongly to being caught and we were hot and sweaty by the time we’d finishing chasing after them, catching them and stuffing  the six hens and two roosters into the cage Bryan had constructed.  We drove back to our block on Mt French, chucked the chooks in their shed, and left them there overnight to settle in.

Luckily, the cats and dog were profoundly indifferent to the sudden presence of feathered creatures. But mayhem ensued because the boss cocky rooster, Oscar, hated the younger rooster, Clarence, and kept bashing him up all the time. We’d hear screeches, yells, see feathers flying, the girls would head for cover and poor old Clarence would stagger into view, looking utterly depressed, while Oscar screeched his winning notes. One morning I walked into the pen and thought Clarence had died because all I could see was a bundle of feathers in one corner with the young rooster’s head stuck down a hole. But this had been Clarence’s bolt-hole from being duffed up again by Oscar and he eventually emerged looking even more bedraggled than usual.

In our ignorance, we decided we’d buy another six hens to try and divvy up the girls between the two boys. We saw an ad for chooks being sold by a barn operation so hopped over to the chook farm one morning to pick up some  more girls. If you think you’re doing the right thing by buying barn eggs instead of battery eggs, forget it. Stick to free-range eggs where you know the hens have had a good life out in the open poking around in a natural environment. The hens were packed into the barn so tightly they could hardly move and yes, they were on the floor but they were an utterly miserable sight. They had had their wings clipped and when we got our six girls out into the sunlight, they blinked nervously because they’d never seen the outside before.

When we got them back to Mt French, the fun well and truly started. I read in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love” that the way to introduce new hens is to put them in at night when the original girls had already roosted so that when they all woke up the next morning, they’d forget they hadn’t been together the night before and get on well together. It was daylight when we put our six, very twitchy “new” hens in with the “old” girls who absolutely hated the newcomers and attacked them at every opportunity.

Added to that, the new girls didn’t want to leave the shed because they’d never been out in fresh air, had never fossicked in the earth and grass, and were scared silly of the wide open spaces. Every morning Bryan had to gently pick each one up and put them outside until they realised it was okay to be out in the open and learned to hop over the entrance bar.  Eventually the girls settled down together but alas and alack! it didn’t solve the Oscar/Clarence situation since Oscar decided to enlist the new girls into his harem and continued bashing up poor old Clarence at every opportunity.

The new girls, all eventually a lovely glossy black, fell in love with Bryan. Along with the original chooks, they would follow him around the block, peering closely as he dug into the earth, catching worms, and generally having a good time. The other chooks would follow too, including the two roosters, and you’d see Bryan wandering around the grounds of our block followed by about 14 chooks, 3 cats and 1 dog. He looked like the Pied Piper.  In the evening he’d go out to lock up the chooks for the night and the black ones would fly towards him, because their flight feathers had grown back, cluster around him and follow at his feet as he led them to the chook shed.

Unfortunately, we lost one hen to what is called “the scours”, and another hen, Whitey, also disappeared but strolled out of the high grass a month later. We figured she’d gone broody but probably lost any chicks to foxes or dingoes. We got up one morning to find a big hole dug under the wire and into the chook shed and Goldie crouched looking completely traumatised.  We reckoned a monitor lizard (which can grow well past six feet in length) had dug in under the wire, probably to nick any eggs but  also to try to catch a chicken.  Poor old Goldie was in very poor shape, so we kept her in a cage, and I gave her Reiki regularly until, eventually, she came good and joined the rest of the flock again.

The time came when we sold the property up Mt French and, sadly, we had to say goodbye to our girls and boys.  Luckily, for his own safety and well-being, Clarence went back to Yvonne who had bought a house with space for chooks, and Oscar and the rest of the girls went to my father’s home which was also on one acre so they had heaps of space.  One by one they eventually died,as is the way of chook life, but poor old Oscar met his come-uppance by a close encounter with Mr Fox. My father came out one day to find feathers all over the place, signs of a struggle and no rooster, so it was good-bye Oscar.

On the monitor lizard front, we went up to the top of Mt French early one morning and could see these huge lizards pounding around in the undergrowth, a quite amazing sight. I was down in Boonah one day and when I got back, Bryan said a six-foot monitor  lizard has stomped along the pathway beside our house, climbed up the railway sleepers which formed the wall and disappeared up the hill.  He said the dog and cats just stared at the lizard, too terrified to even bark or hiss. The video below is of a monitor lizard in Thailand but it’s pretty much the same as you got up Mt French, although we’ve seen bigger when we were on the summit:

I decided early one morning that I would go for a walk at the top of Mt French as there’s a parking area and walking trail.  As I was walking along the dirt path, I wondered why people would bring bikes up Mt French to ride around as I could see all sorts of paths wound in the dirt. Then I realised – DUH! – that I was looking at snake trails so, trust me, IAustralian Brush-Turkey walked much more careful after that. But I didn’t get far. I was looking at a magpie on the ground digging around when, all of a sudden, a damned great brush-turkey rushed out from the bush and headed towards me, head down with a vicious look in its beady eye.  It obviously didn’t have kindly intent towards me and luckily there was a fallen bough near me which I grabbed to ward off the homicidal turkey.  I had to back slowly all the way to the car, fending off the turkey all the way, until I was able to jump in the car and hare off home.

Bryan looked surprised when I got back in such a short time, until I told him what had happened. And then he started laughing his head off, rotten sod, and repeating over and over with great glee: “Which one’s the turkey, then?  She’s standing right in front of me, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble”! Brush turkeys, by the way, are a protected species and the male builds great mounds of material where the female lays her eggs. They can be a real pest if they decide they like your garden as their happy hunting ground because they’ll wreck anything that grows in it. We watched a documentary once of a collective of Buddhist women, devoted to peaceful intent, trying to cope withe the presence of two brush-turkeys in their carefully tended garden.  It was really very funny to see the peaceful women descend into aggro and violence towards the brush-turkeys and trying to reconcile their desire to wring the birds’ necks with their Buddhist views. The birds won, by the way!

One of the great thrills of living up Mt French was to see the big wedge-tailed eagles circling and soaring on the thermals high above us. They were so majestic and we spent many a long time just watching them lazily waft around in the skies. One day there was a kerfuffle outside and the cats and dog ran into the house with their hair standing on end, Bryan heard the beating of wings and went outside, to find all our chooks hiding under bushes. They had nearly become eagle tucker as an eagle had swooped down to try to grab one of the chooks or small cats or dog.  The farm next to us lost their puppy and the family finally resigned themselves to it being snatched by an eagle.

Wedge-tailed eagles

Wedge-tailed eagles

And if you think that’s a bit far-fetched, I once visited the north-west of Western Australia, and my friend was driving me around showing me the various sights. We were barrelling along a long, straight road in his sturdy 4-wheel drive truck, with no other cars in sight, when he suddenly slowed down and started crawling along. I asked him what was going on and he told me a wedge-tailed eagle was on the verge ahead having a feed on road kill. If you went towards them at too fast a speed, they assumed you were attacking them and after their prey, so they in turn would attack the car.  Not only did it kill the bird, it caused considerable damage to any vehicle unlucky enough to be attacked by a kamikaze eagle. And I do have to say, when we drove slowly past – and we were in a high, big SUV – the eagle’s head was on a par with my eyes and it just stared coldly at us as we crept past.  An awe-inspiring sight!

We also loved the butcher birds and magpies which were in big numbers around our block. Butcher birds have a beautiful, liquid, single note which is quite enchanting. The song varies along the east coast of Australia from flock to flock, but it’s their way of communicating within each community, and the song changes slightly over time.  Here’s a link to a video of a butcher bird and its song, interestingly, it is quite different to the song of the butcher birds up Mt French:

Magpies have a beautiful carolling song which also is quite fascinating. When I broke my leg and ankle and had to spend time on my own up Mt French, the songs of these two birds on a lovely winter’s day, with bright sunshine and temperatures around 23C, were really quite magical, soothing and healing. Here’s a link to a video of magpies carolling:

One particularly enchanting sight was the echidna we spotted slowly making its way up the sloping block, muttering away to itself, until Rosie made a sudden move towards it when it rolled into a tight ball with all its spikes sticking out. Here’s a lovely little video about echidnas:

Not so enchanting were the paralysis ticks and mosquitos which inhabited our environment. Paralysis ticks are nasty little buggers which will attach to humans and make you feel pretty sick, but they will kill cats and dogs within a few days if their presence goes undetected. You wouldn’t believe such small creatures could be so deadly.  I had noticed a couple of lumps on the face of Daisy, one of our cats, and assumed she’d been fighting, because you didn’t come across paralysis ticks in inner-suburban Fremantle where we’d lived prior to moving to Queensland.  She began to look a bit woozy and started staggering so I called the vet who told me to bring her in immediately.  She actually had three ticks on her and as the vet started injecting various drugs he told me her chances were 50/50. I was shocked as I had no idea how dangerous the ticks were and the vet apologised as he said he should have warned us as he knew we weren’t local to the area. At one stage, I could feel Daisy’s energy fading until the vet injected another antidote and then I felt life returning to her. The vet told me she wouldn’t be able to walk for a couple of days but would likely survive. But good old, feisty Daisy – I went down to see her the next day and she was yowling her head off in the cage and stomping around looking most put out at her confinement.  So I took her home and very happy she was to back in her home environment.

We also used to get dingoes hanging around, mostly at night, because they used to drink from the dam at the bottom of the hill on which our house was perched. They never bothered us and I never heard of any stock getting killed by  dingos in our area. One night the Rottweiler dogs at the farm at the bottom of the hill started barking which was really noisy and kept us awake.  All of a sudden we heard what was most likely an alpha male dingo let out a huge roar and howl, which made us jump, but after that we never heard a peep from the Rottweilers, just dead silence!

Most oScotch grey mosquitof the mosquitoes up Mt French and in Boonah where we later moved were annoying and pesky critters but there was a particular breed of mozzies which really was quite daunting: Scotch Greys. They were very large mozzies, they would dive-bomb you with a really loud buzz and give you a really nasty, itchy bite if you didn’t manage to spray them with mozzie-killer first. If you batted them away, they would go right off their rocker and start attacking you quite venomously.  We went for a walk one night and then Bryan suddenly noticed that a heap of these huge Scotch Greys had landed on my back.  He batted them off but we both had to literally run home as it was like a hoard of kamikaze Stuiker fighters strafing us as the mozzies went utterly ballistic.

We left Boonah in 2002 to return to the UK where we lived for two years and one night we decided to watch a TV programme about an English couple considering the purchase of a property on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. They were there in winter which has a quite delightful climate – warm, dry, sunny days and cool  nights, hardly any rain. And we were sitting there shouting: “No, don’t buy now. Go back in summer when it’s 36C, 95% humidity, the snakes, mosquitoes, paralysis ticks, spiders and every other creepy-crawly is out and about. THEN make up your mind!”

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