The Right Beginnings
It’s been a very dry end of the summer (2012) – here in the Huon – weather that should favour the latest crop of grasshoppers who thought that they might settle in for the rest of the season, but who have been wiped out by super quick pullets taught by their mothers, as chicks, how to hunt the spring legged prey across the grasses and the tussocks at the fringe of the orchard.
These range reared birds soon turn into super efficient little bug hunters, killers that will soon clean out the ground based prey in a toll that will include any stray, or slow frogs, mice, skinks and even smaller snakes which the older, smarter hens might encounter.
For that reason – in areas that are being ranged daily by the hens – you need to protect and put some reserves of bush or scrub aside from the fowls – or else provide regular piles of stones and logs for smaller fauna to shelter under.
There is no doubt that birds reared under hens will make the better hunters much sooner than will pullets raised under a brooder light, and you can have a lot of fun watching a younger, brooder reared bird having its first encounter with a grasshopper.
Time and again, in the first half hour, the inexperienced pullet – which has not learned through watching its mother deliver the kill – will wander up to the sitting grasshopper, study its shape, and then select its directing thought (the one and only, single, never held in multiples, slow and lonely thought which any chook is ever capable of keeping, in any given moment), and just as that thought is telling the bird to peck swiftly at the bug which – it has just decided – is edible, the hopper will hop, as hoppers are wont to do, bouncing suddenly and most surprisingly over the top of the birds head, even as the killer beak is descending. It is what the suddenly discomforted bird does after this, and the way it reacts, which will set you laughing.
Even as the bug is bounding above it, the birds head will lift where its eye has followed, leading, many times, to the pullet leaping up and about in the wake of the insect, in a rough imitation of the hoppers imagined destination, a line of movement that does not ever seem to lead the bird– in its first few tries – anywhere near to where the real bug is landing.
So, in a pattern of jerky, reactive hops, jumps and sudden skips that only ever delivers series of badly missed stabs and blind darts as the fowl remains several seconds behind the random leaping pattern of its prey, the pullet will follow, pursuing its object until it becomes lost in a thicket or tussock – or, more painfully for the house reared pullet – until the hard chased hopper is suddenly taken by another, more sharper, feathered cousin taught the true art of tracking tricky critters by its mother.
Brooder reared birds will stay more restricted, and timid, in their foraging as pullets, remaining, for the first six months, considerably less skilled at finding wild seeds and hunting insects. In time, however – once mixed in a joint flock of maturing females – the brooder reared Barnies will learn to hunt bush tucker better through mimicking birds taught by the hens, and such hunting classes are themselves a vital lesson in why you must source birds that have been reared on the range, if you wish to keep hens that will possess the full array of foraging skills and raptor awareness required for a life in the open.
In this regard I was just so fortunate – way back in 1985 – when, soon after settling on this beautiful land by the banks of the Huon, I discovered the free range stock from which have been bred the heirloom flock of Barnevelders that has been preserved and improved across the last quarter of a century.
These were birds that had been here in Tasmania, roaming the farms for generations, and what I discovered, purely by accident, just 20 kilometers from my own land, in the end, after a 12 month search around and across the island – a journey which followed many blind trails, and which clocked up thousands of kilometers of fruitless pursuit – was the last surviving bloodline of original, free range, pioneering partridge coloured stock which retained the glorious, highly glossed, long keeping dark, red brown egg which first made the Barnevelder famous.
These original Barnevelders came from flocks of around ten to twenty thousand birds descended from selected crossings of imported Asiatic breeds – in the last half of the nineteenth century – that were bred with indigenous farmyard fowls as part of a collaborative program in the districts around the town of Barneveld, in Holland, at the end of the nineteenth century.
These early birds were very mixed for colour and markings, with some tending to single laced, some towards partridge, and some showing signs of double lacing, but in the early years of breeding what mattered most to the farmers who developed this breed was the leaner, darker meat of the male, and the remarkable, extra long keeping, highly glossed, very dark egg which demanded a premium price on the English breakfast egg market.
The first concern of the men and women who helped pioneer this beautiful Dutch breed was the bird’s hardiness and productiveness under open, free range conditions; its foraging ability on open country, its quiet nature; and its ability to lay the darkest, most highly glossed, better keeping eggs late into the autumn and through the coldest weather.
All of this early work with Barnevelders preceded the influence of exhibition fashion and standardized breeding programs for more consistent colour and markings which led to the disastrous post 1920′s push towards a double laced, shorter backed standard which – in England, the USA and Europe – would eventually ruin the breed as a cold hardy, dual purpose, perennially productive free range fowl for the farm and smallholding.
Luckily however, ahead of the damage done by show breeders from the 1920′s onwards - and before the last of the truly commercial, free range utility flocks were decimated by disease first, and then the carnage of WW11- Dutch immigrants had brought with them original, darker coloured, longer backed, wide bodied stock from the pioneering Barnevelder bloodlines – birds which entered Tasmania, at some point, between 1900 and 1925.