Apr 27, 2011

"A wedge tail eagle's got my chicken!"

We love our chookies - not as much as our babies, naturally, but kids and chickens make great playmates and make a great team. From before we had babes we had chooks and once the kids arrived our black hens were delighted to eat up all that soggy early home-made vegetable mush and half chewed rusks to pay us back with great golden yolked eggs. A relationship that has continued in happy balance, give or take the occasional chooky substitution.

Eggs for eating, and eggs for science too.

But at the Mansted Family Project we live on 16 hectares (40 acres) in w-i-l-d surroundings of sub-tropical rainforest. The predators of our humble domesticated chicken are legion.

We have had chooks killed by neighbours' dogs, wild dogs, goannas (hungry for eggs), pythons, goshawks, brahminy and whistling kites, and wedge tail eagles. Not to mention the ravens in their continuous race with us for the eggs.

But yesterday it was a wedge tail who took one of our 4 survivors of our usual 6 hens, leaving to the ravens and butcherbirds two ragged little legs to pick over, and for the ants a little head. It dove straight through the bird netting roof and then trapped inside, it charged the gate in panic, pushing and distorting the gate until it popped all the wire from the timber gate frame, leaving a bird shaped hole like something out of the roadrunner cartoon. Oh dear.

We have tried many homes and systems for our hens in the last 10 years.

  • Free range chooks who wandered through the rainforest happy and content, nesting in a semi-circular dome = the dome collapsed after a cyclone blew through, and dogs terrorised the chickens. 
  • We had a large octagonal pen with the wobbly dome inside = dogs dug under, snakes wriggled through, and wedge tails and kites flew in and flew out with our birds.
  • Put a skirt around the fence to stop digging animals, and built a new small henhouse with a high entrance door at 1.5 metres from the ground, where the chickens jumped up three progressively higher posts to get in = a really large python learnt how to coil around the nearest post and extend its body out and into the door, and the eagles still flew in and helped themselves
  • Finally we have totally covered the pen and henhouse with bird netting = success until yesterday. 

Back to the drawing board for more amendments. Remaining chickens confined to their henhouse until eagle proofing complete.

So Mike set off to fix the pen roof and gate this morning while we got stuck into spelling and reading Egyptian mythology. Suddenly he was back "there is a wedge tail in the pen!"

The joys of homeschooling! Here is nature study and agriculture rolled into one event...

Afterwards we looked up our copy of "The Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia" to confirm our field identity. I highly recommend this book for those interested in bird identification - clear illustrations, logical organisation of similar species, and succinct yet rich evocative language. We discussed predator and prey relations and the morality of animal relationships. (Not long ago, while studying aboriginal culture, we read information of the eagle as totem in our area. The girls then drew their own totems.)

November has always identified with the wedge tail (as shown here in the wonderfully stuffed old-fashioned Queensland Museum). July (more of a penguin girl herself) has decided that for a predator species, this particular eagle is pretty silly.

Maybe just an opportunist? Packaged fresh food for predators - like shooting fish in a barrel.

Yes - the wedge tail eagle did survive - thank goodness. Here is a tiny clip of its escape, with a scary acrobatic moment that all came out well in the end. Hopefully the only harm done to the eagle is a new fear of our hen pen! This is one visitor I don't want to see in there again.

In case this post's title looks like particularly poor grammar, it is cousin to "A dingo's got my baby!" - a quote from an infamous murder trial in Australia some 30 years ago...and yes, the dingo was guilty.

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