2017 by Karen Radford TreanorWinner--2017 General Nonfiction
This story is set in the
early Noughties, when I was less experienced in the business of
backyard fowl keeping. I have learned a lot since then,
the hard way.
For a long time after we
moved to the Perth Hills I thought we had crows in our yard.
They flew in from the state forest across the road and they were big
and black and shiny. They said “Caw” and
“Aaaar-wark” and made other corvine comments.
I happened to mention the
birds to a neighbour one day and was told “Naah, mate, those
aren’t crows; those are Australian bearded ravens.”
ravens are bigger, smarter, faster and sneakier than crows.
They could steal the fillin’s out of your teeth, those birds
I thought this was just
another instance of the locals trying it on with the hapless
migrant. I’d been caught before by a supposedly helpful
native. Over the three decades since I arrived in Australia’s
biggest state, I’d fallen for stories about drop bears,
bunyips, yowies and the Paulls Valley panther. In the early
years, I’d been helpfully coached by local folks in how to
sound like an Aussie. I was told that the way to express
surprise was to exclaim loudly “Stone the bleedin’
crows!” Imagine how well this went down at the first
church supper I attended.
I was therefore cautious
about believing that there was anything special about Australian
ravens. Time and experience convinced me otherwise.
The collective noun may be
‘a murder of crows’ but for the other big black birds, it
should be ‘a cleverness of ravens’. If they are
determined to do something, they will find a way, despite the best
efforts of humans to outwit them.
We have had hens for
years, partly for the pleasure of fresh eggs, but also to salve my
conscience about leftovers. I have tried to learn to cook for
two, but it doesn’t always work. Facing a casserole for
the third day in a row can be daunting, but if you recycle it through
a big red hen, your problem is solved.
I bought a large parrot
aviary from a friend. My supportive and handy spouse
a perch, nest box and tray to catch droppings, converting the former
home of exotic birds to a practical use. Hens were duly
installed and eggs began to fill the larder. Then the egg
production inexplicably dropped off.
wrong with these hens?” I asked Gene, who’d had some
boyhood experience with poultry. “We seem to be getting
fewer eggs every day.”
something is stealing them,” he suggested. We inspected
the aviary and found a few small holes in the walls, but nothing
likely to allow an egg thief entry. “Better check the
nest box several times a day from now on,” Gene said, and for a
while we did so, racing to check each time a hen announced to the
world she’d invented the egg. Egg production returned to
However, cackles don’t
always mean eggs, and after a number of fruitless visits, we let our
watchfulness slide. The egg harvest dropped again.
Something was definitely stealing eggs; we found empty shells around
says that bobtails eat eggs when they can get them,” I reported
to Gene, waving the printout from a useful website.
we can stop that,” he said, and soon had made and installed a
threshold in the hens’ door, which was low enough for them to
get over but too high for a stumpy-legged lizard to manage.
egg harvest improved, but only for a week or so.
I decided to find out what
was going on once and for all. I took a folding chair, a book
and a cup of coffee and stationed myself under the orange tree in the
hen yard. I must have dozed off, because
heard anything before an empty eggshell fell onto the ground beside
I looked all around, but
saw nothing except three hens scratching away in the dirt. A
magpie lark sat on the fence watching me. I was fairly
he wasn’t big enough to have stolen the egg and consumed the
contents, but he did look as if he knew something.
I took the empty shell to
the workshop and showed Gene. “Something has pieced the
shell and sucked out the contents,“ he diagnosed. “Not a
bobtail, he’d have crushed his way into the egg. A snake
would have swallowed it whole and then regurgitated the broken
shell. I’m pretty sure it isn’t the hens
themselves; the limited experience I had with cannibal hens when I
had them as a kid was that they peck the eggs in the nest, they don’t
carry them away. You’d better get back to your guard post
and see what you can find out.”
I refilled the coffee and
resumed my seat under the orange tree. After about half an
hour, Betty, the bantam Buff Orpington, cackled the news to the world
that she had made an egg. I sat tight and waited.
There was a ‘whooshing’
noise from the flame tree and a large black bird appeared at the end
of a branch. His white-ringed eyes surveyed the chicken yard.
He ruffled the feathers under his throat and said
I sat very still and tried not to breathe deeply.
After some minutes of
looking for potential danger, the raven flapped to the ground and
walked up to the door of the hen house. Easily hopping over
bobtail barrier, he went in, poked his head into the nest box, and
withdrew it, Betty’s fresh egg speared on his large sharp
beak. Betty did the bird equivalent of wringing her hands and
crying, “woe, alas!”
The raven hopped back out
of the hen house and flew up into the tree. Holding the egg
between his black leather feet, he sucked out the contents, then
threw the empty shell to the ground and flew away.
the ravens, they’ve been stealing the eggs,” I reported
to Gene, showing him another empty shell. “What can we do
to keep them out of the hen house?”
it to me,” he said, so I did.
Next morning there was a
baffle in front of the nest box with a hen-sized hole in it.
“The hen goes in, turns right, gets into the box and lays her
egg, and comes back out. The ravens will be intimidated by
barrier and will leave the eggs alone,” Gene said. And so
they did, for about three days. Then eggs began disappearing
again. The ravens had discovered the baffle was not very
baffling after all.
figured it out,” I reported to Gene, showing him a
freshly-emptied egg shall.
it to me,” he said. So I did. Our hen house, being
a converted aviary, has a human-sized door, with a small door at the
bottom for the birds to use. Next morning the small door had
been constricted by several pieces of wood. “It’s just
hen-size now, and the raven won’t dare to go through it—wild
birds fear confined spaces,” Gene explained.
For five days we had no
trouble, and there were plenty of eggs. On the sixth day, I
found an empty shell under the clothes line and one in the middle of
the front walk. I reported to the workshop.
it to me,” Gene said, so I did. Next morning there was a
fringe of old denim strips hanging from a bar that had been fixed to
the top of the hen’s door. The hens were gathered around
discussing this scary development, and it took several demonstrations
before they got the hang of going through the curtain.
who’s ever spent half an hour pushing hens through a fringed
curtain has probably experienced life at its most exciting.)
The new scheme worked
well, we had eggs again. I began to give them away with a
hand to family and friends. Then one morning—no
eggs--except for the three empty ones in the middle of the hen yard
under the flame tree.
I went to the workshop
again. The workshop manager was not amused. “I’ll
fix the feathery buggers, just leave it to me,” he said.
So I did.
Next morning there was a
six-foot-long tunnel of garden lattice, two sides and a top held in
place with stakes, and a fringe of denim strips at both ends, in
front of the door to the hen house. Four frightened hens were
pacing back and forth in the hen house, extremely suspicious of this
Pooh Trap for Heffalumps. The two smaller bantams had managed to get
out, and were now experiencing separation anxiety, running back and
forth along the side of the hen house and queeping piteously to their
figure it out,” Gene said, and eventually they did. It
took a bit longer for me to figure it out: getting in to retrieve the
eggs was the work of more than a moment now. One had to lift
off the top piece of lattice and stand it up against the fence, then
remove the two crossbars, then open the hen house door , lower the
baffle that guarded the nest box, get out the eggs, put them
somewhere safe and reinstall the security system in reverse
The new set-up worked
brilliantly. For a while we had eggs, lots of eggs.
Betty died of old age, one of the bantams had to be
another one simply vanished one day, the goshawk got one of the
Hamburgs--and the old red hen went on strike. We now have a
raven-proof hen house, but only one laying hen.
doing her best, but five bantam eggs a week don’t go very far.
It may be only a matter of
time before the ravens rent an ATV and come crashing through the side
of the coop, but for the moment, security is holding. When I
sure that the latest in henyard security is really, truly raven
proof, I will get some new hens. For now I’m biding my
time, and keeping an eye on every passing black shadow.
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