on angle

The Duck & Goose :: my painted farm

the fluffy helper

so much mesh

working on the fox proofing

under the ramp

tempting them in

D72_5988

close up

flora and reuben

the feeder

the rotten rosella

tools

top

middle

close up rosella

all sone

at the end of the ramp

on angle

in we go

I love building animal houses with Julian.  It’s such fun puzzling out all the questions that must be answered each time we build a new house.  What shape and size do we need for this particular species? How big does the door need to be?  What kind of access do we need to the interior?  How are we going to clean it?  What kind of floor does it need?  How much ventilation?  Does it need to be fox proof – what a silly question – everything needs to be fox proofed!!!  What are we going to build it out of?  And how much will THIS cost!?!?!

We built our original six Indian Runner Ducks a sweet little A-frame.  However, we came home from collecting the Guinea Keets with a beautiful breeding pair of Appleyard Ducks (hello Flora and Reuben!) and come the Bega Young Poultry Auction, we found ourselves with two more dear little chocolate Runners (hello Alfred and Gretel!) and three gorgeous geese (hello Guiseppe, Madonna and Francesca!).  That little A-frame was just too little.  The ducks no longer liked going in at night and there was no room for a nest for their prodigious egg laying.  Flora took to hiding her eggs around the garden (she lays huge eggs almost every day) and the Runners were simply dropping theirs near the duck pond!  As for the geese – phht! – no hope.

A new house was needed – one with ample room for now and plenty of room for little ducklings come spring.  But the building supply pile was looking skimpy as were the building funds.  Hmmm.  Serendipitously, Mum found the solution!  Being an avid gardener, she often hangs out at her local garden centre and knows the owner well – he was lamenting that he had a huge pile of hardwood pallets that were taking up way too much room so Mum asked if we could have a few and he was more than happy for Julian to visit with the trailer!  Woot!

Pallet building has surely become an “in-thing” – look on Pinterest and you’ll find heaps of furniture built out of the humble pallet.  However, these misguided carpenters appear to mostly rip apart the pallets – a lot of effort for some pretty crappy timber.  We wanted to use ours whole – fast and sturdy.  So – two pallets for the floor, two for each long side, one for the back and two for a ramp – all screwed together.  A big hinged door made out of hardwood fence palings we sourced from the dumpshop.  Corrugated from the dumpshop for the roof – mounted on a bit of our building timber left over from the chicken house.  And the whole thing was mounted on besser block footings that Julian spent hours carefully digging into the ground and levelling.  This means the straw litter will filter through to the ground and all we’ll have to do is keep adding fresh straw to the top!  Works a treat in the chook house.

However, pallets are NOT fox proof.  The author of my favourite chicken book – The Small Scale Poultry Flock – says he keeps the skulls of the few predators that have breached his defences – so that he can push them through gaps in his building to see if they fit!  I reckon foxes probably have pretty flattish skulls so I’m into filling in every nook and cranny.  Julian thinks I should get myself a dead fox, let it decay and then test that bloody skull just to make sure!  He’s quite sure foxes are no where near as flat as that.  I don’t know.  There’s a reason so many stories and nursery rhymes have been written about foxes and their fondness for stealing poultry.

Anyways, the pallets lack of fox proofing meant I had to completely mesh the inside of the duck house with poultry mesh.  It didn’t take as long as I thought – but it was rather cramped and arm-exhausting work, stapling all that mesh on.  There sure won’t be any foxes dining at my duck house tonight :-)

But the BEST bit about building animal houses is that I get to decorate them when done :-)  As I’m sure you can guess dear folk, I loooooooove that bit.  And on Tuesday, after having a complete hissy fit and floods of tears over the rats eating my arrowroot, echinacea and elder, rather than spending the morning ranting at Julian and Noah about the unfairness of nature, or stewing on the porch, or sulking in my bedroom, I gathered up my paints and headed down to the duck house.  There was that beautiful big fencing paling door just wanting for a spot of prettiness.

I never really know the details of what I shall paint before I start.  I’m a bit like that.  I knew there would be a tree – with blossoms and apples and leaves all at once :-) I call it the Hayao Miyazaki art style (Japanese filmmaker – always has all his favourite flowering plants in flower at once no matter what the time of year ;-).  I knew there would be ducks.  Runners?  Appleyards? Whatever was right at the moment.

And I have to say, I am utterly thrilled to pieces with this work.  For the tree’s trunk and branches, I took my inspiration from the cherry tree that shades the duck house.  Then added my details – I’m especially pleased with the leaves – I managed to achieve a build up of colour that from a distance looks appliqued!  Grass underneath – with fallen blossoms and fruit.  Then Reuben and Flora – the runners always run about as one flock so I couldn’t just pick a couple out.  Whereas Reuben and Flora – well, they’re like an old married couple :-)  So identifiable and so much character.  Perfect for painting.  The other side of the tree needed something but there wasn’t enough room for more ducks so I thought about what the ducks love – their feeder!  Even though they spend most of their day foraging around the garden, they do love to greedily guzzle up a slurp of scratch mix as soon as they burst out of their house each morning.  And finally, one of those pesky Rosellas.  They ate all our cherries and apricots last spring.  And now they love to hang out on the roof of the duck house and in the bare branches of the cherry tree, waiting to swoop down and have a little nibble of the scratch mix.  Buggers.  They’re exquisitely beautiful – but they are buggers.

I also feel, with this piece, that I’m really growing a style I love and that feels doable.  I want to paint much much much more.  Julian loves it so much, he went straight to the workshop and put together a big “sign” made out of marine grade ply with a rustic paling frame (he even mitred the corners) for me to paint “The Duck & Goose” on – we’ll hang it on the front of the house like an old fashioned English pub sign :-)  You see, we were hopeful our three geese would move in too – but they are so bolshie and just won’t.  Means the electric fence has to stay up – and means they are not as safe as I’d like, but what can you do.  Geese that refuse to go inside and Hamburg chickens that sleep in the gum tree!

We’ll have to come up with a different style house for the geese – I’m thinking an on the ground kind of lean-to that has a fox-proof floor and a very very easy to navigate door – they’re a bit dim those geese.  Oh well – whatever, it is, there’ll be more gorgeous opportunities to keep working on my painted farm.

the feathered garden

runner girls

on the gate

wolfgang

elfrieda

hungry

emerging

laurence and his adoring girls

cynthia

dust bathing

pam

william

crazy keets

sleeping and busy

madonna

under the maple

guiseppe

francesca

banned from the garden

reuben and flora

After three busy months our garden is now full of feathered friends!

The Orpingtons we brought with us from Melbourne continue to grow – but have still yet to lay a single egg.  It took a while to be able to tell them apart – that sounds crazy now – but they finally all have names.  There’s Cynthia – she used to be top chook but she’s recently been overthrown by Nutmeg and Marcie who are currently sharing the honour.  Then there’s quiet little Walnut who’s ever so relieved that her nemesis (Cynthia!) is now at the bottom of the pecking order.  Blackcurrant and Eggplant keep to themselves but are friendly and busy.  And Pam – she’s the mostly white one – well she’s just Pam.

Two of our roosters sadly died – Rex, who was definitely a very fine leader and as such a real loss, and Rumbatum, who despite having gorgeous feathers was quite a bully.  Rex’s death was a complete surprise and mystery – one morning he was just laying dead under the peach tree.  No wounds.  No earlier noticed symptoms.  Rumbatum died a couple of days later – again no idea why.  Naturally any animal loss is not only sad, but such a worry and quite a dent to our confidence as amateur farmers.  I thoroughly read all the sections on bird disease, weaknesses and prevention in our poultry books and spent hours poring over alarming stories on the internet.  More importantly, I chatted with our local vet – who suggested simple worming.  Yep there I was contemplating the horrors of avian cholera only to find out that worms are the most likely to do our birds in.

Worms!  They’re everywhere.  The goats get them. The birds get them.  Our future sheep and pigs will get them.  Only 3 months in and I have to confess I’m rather obsessed with worms!  They’ve become my farming nemesis.  We drenched the goats, wormed the chickens and now everyone is on a diet of water spiked with garlic and apple cider, and diacetamous earth in their food a couple of times a week.

It’s a strong learning curve, this business.  And as is always the way with me, I become quickly overwhelmed and convinced I won’t be able to do it, and then as it settles down, I continue to learn, experience builds, I gather some confidence, and then …. I realise I AM doing it and it’s all okay.  Phew!  Until the next unexpected turn :-)

Our other Orpington rooster – Gormless – is staggering on but he’s a bit hopeless and the girls are kind to him but clearly don’t look up to him.  So we brought in a new rooster – Laurence the French Wheaten Maran – from a lovely family nearby who wound up with 8 roosters out of 16 chicks!  And then at the Young Poultry Auction last weekend, Julian accidentally bought another rooster – William the Gold Laced Wyandotte.  Now Laurence has the love of the girls but William is the master of crowing and strutting.  Laurence seems content with this state of being and there’s been no fighting or stress.  Goodness knows how it will play out.

Then we have two more chickens – the crazy Hamburgs, also from the Young Poultry Auction – Wolfgang and Elfrieda.  That’s them up there on the gate.  Yep.  No one else bid on them at the auction so we snagged them for just $20 because let’s face it – they are really cute!  But it was obvious within the first 5 minutes of putting them in the chicken field that THAT wasn’t going to work.  Despite trimming one wing each, they were able to not only clear the fences, but the chicken house too and fly a good 5 metres up into a gum tree – which is where they spent their first night.  And much to William’s annoyance, Wolfgang – half his size – seemed to think he was top rooster.  And the Orpie girls were none too keen on little Elfrieda.

So we built the Hamburgs their only little run in the corner of the house garden – where they are surrounded by trees – and accepted that we were never really going to be able to contain them.  We just have to make it appealing and hopefully they’ll hang around.  The alternative is housing them in an aviary style set up – they’d hate that and I’d feel mean.  They cheerfully hang out in their run during the day, Elfrieda lays us a dear little bantam egg most days, and come 5pm, Wolfgang announces to the valley (man, can he crow!) that they have retired to the gumtree for the night.  There they stay until the sun has well and truly come up, when they flutter down to the gate and wait for our morning visit.

Of course their lifestyle increases their fox risk enormously but … we are picking out our Maremma puppy in a week or so, and fingers crossed Wolfgang and Elfrieda will keep safe until the Maremma is mature enough to keep those foxes at bay.

We’re also counting on the Maremma to keep our Guinea Fowl safe.  They’re now quite big – they’ve shed their keet feathers and are now beautifully clothed in spotty ones.  Their funny blue helmets are becoming more apparent everyday.  And they just keep on growing – quickly coming to the end of their time in the A-frame tractor.  Julian’s designing them little “tree houses” – they’ll be built on posts several feet off the ground, and like the Hamburgs, the best approach is to start by fencing their houses and keeping their food here so the guinea fowl learn that they live here.  Then you can let them free range and encourage them to come back to the houses each night.  But like the Hamburgs, they are very good flyers so it can be tricky.  We’ll see.

And we’ve branched out into water fowl –  6 Indian Runner Ducks that joined us from Mallacoota (Leopold, Alice, Harriet, Hyacinth, Poppy and Chrysanthemum) that were quickly joined by Reuben and Flora – a breeding pair of Appleyards that were almost given to us by the lovely family that sold us our Guinea Fowl keets – and last weekend, another pair of chocolate Runners – Alfred and Gretel.

As Noah says “Those ducks sure love being ducks!”  Oh they do!  They are so funny and busy – adventuring all over the house garden, splashing in their pond, head ducking in their water trough, hunting for bugs, chatting with the Hamburgs, snoozing under the trees during the heat of the day, and literally dancing and singing with delight when it rains.  And they are the best buddies.

When we brought Alfred and Gretel home, we let them out of their box just inside the house garden gate – there they stood unsure and still until they heard Alice (she’s the leader of the ducks) call – they cocked their heads to the side and with great delight and relief set off around the house to find their kinfolk.  Alice had brought the others out to meet them – in a neat line of course – and the chocolate Runners just slipped into line as if they’d always been there.  We get at least 2 eggs each day – sometimes 3.  Flora’s the main layer and her eggs are huge and rich.  The Runners also lay but we have no idea which ones – their eggs are a little bit smaller but equally lovely.

Ducks are so easy to look after.  I think they’re my favourite.  But they get worms too.  Ugh!

Our last purchase at the auction was a trio of geese.  I know almost nothing about them – except that they are less than a year old, there’s two girls and one boy, and they appear to be a mix of Australian Settlers + Chinese geese.  The auction had all but wound up and everybody was leaving with their newly acquired birds when the Auctioneer remembered the geese that were outside.  I was mad keen on them – had been looking on Gumtree for months – so quickly put up my hand – and I got all three for just $60.  What a bargain!

They are real sweethearts.  Guiseppe is the white boy, Francesca is the grey-brown girl, and Madonna is the spotty girl.  When I call out “Goosey-goosey-goosey!” Guiseppe answers me with a funny little miaow!  They mostly hang out with the ducks but can get a little bossy about the pond and the food.  When Francesca decides it’s time for her bath, she just nips anyone else who may be in the pond on their tail feathers and out they scamper so that she can preen and stretch like a ballerina, splashing all that precious water everywhere.

And our garden?  We had to fence off the vegetable beds – whilst the ducks and geese are supposedly good at eating the bugs, they also love soft green leaves – they demolished our strawberry plants and ate all the tarragon.  And their big flat feet destroy seedlings so they’re currently banned from the beds.  But they’re doing a marvellous job keeping the grass cut and fertilised and if I was so inclined, I could gather up all the downy feathers they preen each day and I swear by the end of the year I could fill several pillows.  They do love to preen.

Instead, we are content to just sit back on the porch and watch with delight as they burst out of their houses each morning and get busy loving being ducks and chickens and geese.  It looks like a good life.

to popcorn (verb) :: a feathery, explosive pop high into the air made by guinea keets

in the brooder

On a recent visit to a nearby farm, we met our first Guinea Fowl.  There were 2 males, with their exquisite speckledy feathers and striking blue heads, shepherding a little flock of keets (guinea chicks) about the garden – sadly the hen had recently been taken by a fox but the males stepped up to the mark and were enthusiastically practising hands-on parenting.

We were utterly enchanted!  They were so pretty and different – their bodies are very very round and their heads are like tiny blue periscopes with red trimmings – and they are very independent.  They will amble about your garden all day, eating bugs and weeds without causing damage to your plants, and then at night, if trained, will return to a little house to safely roost.  They  also, apparently, make for a delicious roast.

Once home, I jumped on Gumtree and searched for some of our own.  There were not too many about and most were tiny keets, requiring weeks of care in a heated brooder box – something we didn’t have.  But then I found 12 in nearby Moruya that were already 4 weeks old.  They were still living in a brooder box but did not need extra heat as their feathers were already fluffing out nicely.

That weekend, Julian and I knocked up a brooder box – using two Ikea Gorm bookshelves as our base structure – and the following Tuesday Noah and I made the trek north to collect our new feathered babies.  The lovely owners also had a pair of Appleyard Duck breeders that they were looking to rehome as they were focussing on Muscovies – who were bullying the Appleyards.  “No problem!” we said delightedly “We’ll bring extra boxes!”

Oh it was such a funny pick up :-)  The farm was lovely – an old establishment with a dear little wooden farmhouse and beautiful orchard with ducks, chickens and guinea fowl roaming everywhere.  The keets were in a guinea pig house – transferring them into our big box, laid with pea straw mulch was filled with unstoppable laughter.  Keets are like feathered popcorn!  You open the lid and pow!  They shoot up into the sky every which way.  The owners and Noah were darting about plucking up the little keets as they landed whilst I was in charge of opening and slapping back down the box lid.  We were beside ourselves!

Then the farmer collected the Appleyards – a much more dignified affair.  They are majestic ducks – beautifully feathered and calm, with sweet faces and exaggerated waddles.  On our journey home their boxes were quiet and still – the keets’ box bumped and clattered and cheeped all the way home as 12 little popcorns boinged about all over the place :-)

brooder box

After almost 2 weeks in their brooder box it was obvious our funny little keets needed to move to bigger quarters.  So, yesterday the 3 of us set to transforming the unfinished chicken tractor into a guinea keet home.

chicken tractor

on the inside

cutting the mesh

stapling the msh

Since it was such a hot day, we rolled the tractor on logs into the shade and set to work.  One side panel of mesh was cut out and turned into a wooden framed hinged door.  We added another panel of mesh to the triangular end.

Julian removed the corrugated metal panels that provided the little, dry sleeping quarters and we popped in struts and gum tree roosts.  It’s possible Julian got a bit carried away when searching for good roost material – so we added the lovely big twisty end of the branch as a bit of play equipment for them.

adding the roof struts
roost material

light on the gum

creases in her stockings

trimming them up

Do you see how the bark has crinkled in the bend of the branch?  Looks all the world for like the back knees of over worn stockings doesn’t it – truly beautiful how something so very hard can be so flexible and tactile.

measuring

back on with the roof

The whole process was such a lovely family affair.  That’s certainly an aspect of our new life on this little farm that I love.  Our cottage is so small and the farm so remote (well, not really by Australian standards, but certainly by inner suburban Melbourne standards!) that we just gravitate so easily to doing things together.  It was a blissful afternoon of building and chatting and laughing in the loveliest of settings …

furry protea

beautifully lit

watching over us

Thankfully, we finished all the essential bits in time to transfer the keets from their brooder to their new a-frame home just before the sun began to set.  And oh how the loved it!

Noah and I carried the brooder across the top field (where the sheds are) and down into the fenced cottage garden (where all our poultry live).  Then we once more played the highly entertaining game of “stop that keet from popcorning up up and away!”

They are dear little birds – so warm and feisty, so pretty and full of character and purpose.  One by one we dropped them into their a-frame – at first they all scurried into the shelter at the back.  But once they were all in and felt a little more confident, they began toddling about – pecking at the grass with amazed delight, checking out the play branch, eating and drinking.  In a completely anthropomorphic way I am sure they couldn’t believe their world could be so beautiful!

One brave little critter – he is the biggest with a beautifully striped head – popcorned up to the roost and strutted back and forth, stretching out his feathers whilst cheeping down to his mates – you can see him in the fifth photo down from here.

And of course, they popcorned over and over again.  Finally they have the room to do what it seems they love doing best.  Oh they were so funny!

At one stage, one was like a domino.  She popcorned up into the sky and triggered all the rest, one after another – the whole a-frame was chaotically filled with little outstretched wings and fluttering orange legs and feet zooming up into the air and down again.  Sadly I didn’t have the camera – but you can see one little lavender one doing it in the left hand corner of the fourth photo down from here.

I’ll have to try and make a little film of it for us :-)
theyre in

exploring

so beautiful

popcorn fluttering tryin out the roosts

with fox proofingBeing the rather anxious type I am, I dreamt about our little keets all night long – and not nice dreams.  Oh no.  In the vignettes that woke me up every couple of hours, there were foxes sneakily digging under the electric fence and then under the a-frame and demolishing our little flock, or the little birds were all shivering to death in the cool night air, or had tipped over their water and were dying of thirst.

Of course none of these things happened – though I am never dismissive about the very real risk of foxes – and this morning when I went down in the early, mist swirling hours before the sun had properly risen, there they all were, cheerfully bopping about the place.  Phew!

One day we hope to have all our poultry free to roam all of the garden – not just within their electric fenced fields.  Both Julian and I love the notion of looking out from the verandah and seeing ducks waddling past to the pond, chickens snoozing in the shade, and guinea fowl roosting in our trees.  Before that happens we will need many more hours of work on the cottage fence, new gates and – if Noah and I get our way – a lovely brave and diligent Maremma to guard them all.

Until then we will potter along with our timber and screws, mesh and corrugated, building our little flocks homes and nests and shelters, and delighting in their antics.

This farming life sure is good.