Ravin' Mad

Karen Radford Treanor 

 

Copyright 2017  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a ravens.
                    
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, usually 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.”
 
What the difference?”
 
Australian ravens are bigger, smarter, faster and sneakier than crows.  They could steal the fillin’s out of your teeth, those birds could.”
 
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 installed 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.
 
What’s wrong with these hens?” I asked Gene, who’d had some boyhood experience with poultry.  “We seem to be getting fewer eggs every day.”
 
Maybe 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 normal.
 
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 the yard.
 
It says that bobtails eat eggs when they can get them,” I reported to Gene, waving the printout from a useful website.
 
OK, 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.  The 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 I never heard anything before an empty eggshell fell onto the ground beside me.
 
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 certain 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 “Aaaw-wauk”.  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 the 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.
 
It’s 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?”
 
Leave 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 the 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.
 
They’ve figured it out,” I reported to Gene, showing him a freshly-emptied egg shall.
 
Leave 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.
 
Leave 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.  (Anyone 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 free 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 trapped friends.
 
They’ll 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 order. 
 
The new set-up worked brilliantly.  For a while we had eggs, lots of eggs.  Then Betty died of old age, one of the bantams had to be euthanased,  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.   Golda is 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.



Contact Karen

(Messages are forwarded by The Preservation Foundation.
So, when you write to an author, please type his/her name
in the subject line of the message.)

Karen's Story List And Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher