Birds of Paradise – chickens rule OK (Melbourne, Australia)

By Ian Cochrane, December 4, 2012

They sit in the kitchen – Mr and Mrs L – overlooking a backyard of woodpiles, wheelbarrows and tussocks of native grass. It’s early summer. The pungent scent of rambling Chinese jasmine wafts across the yard and mingles with the smell of last night’s rain. The weekend menagerie headcount is underway over fruit toast and espresso.

Being Saturday, it’ll be hours before Little L, now 19, emerges to join the human race. Inheriting Mrs L’s good looks, he’s prone to late nights and a string of girlfriends.

At the rear of the yard the chickenhouse sits – `chookhouse’ in Aussie lingo – under giant lilly-pillies. Strings of battered prayer flags flutter ‘tween boughs. Spotted turtledoves coo and browse beside the newest acquisitions; three spoilt chooks.

Then there’s the four moggies of varied ages, reclining in assorted pose, each in black-and-white tuxedos that fool neighbours into thinking there’s only one cat ‘that gets around a bit’.

Of the feathered newcomers, firstly there’s Marie-Claire the Belgian – a leopard-speckled breed called Mille Fleur or ‘a thousand flowers’. A highly-strung watchdog with cute whiskers, she warns the others of crows, or if a cat finds the energy to raise a yawn.

Then there’s the almost-twins, both fluff balls: Jane, a smoky lavender-grey, and Ebony, a shining black beauty with a green lustre. Jane’s the Labrador of the gang, the biggest glutton who loves a pat and a cuddle; any human an opportunity, deftly cadging food from the kind or unwary.

Ebony, Jane & Marie-Claire – Melbourne

Ebony can be aloof, but prone to bouts of melancholy. In the centre of the yard is a lemon tree and beneath it ‘the pen’: an open wire cage propped on bricks, with ample food and water. That becomes `home’ when she’s taken with spells of the dreaded ‘black dog’ – or ‘broodiness’ in chook lingo – when she’ll refuse to lay and speaks in tongues; a continual baritone ‘cluck, cluck, cluck’. If left to her own devices, she’ll sit flattened and fluffed in the laying box for days on end; egg or no egg.

All three are bantams, with an inclination for multiple breakfasts and large feathered hobbit’s feet. They love a good dust bath and seem intent on tunnelling to China. Marie-Claire is short and sleek, with a thick neck and open tail feathers like a geisha’s fan. Both Jane and Ebony are Pekins, walking tea cosies with petticoats that billow in backyard breezes.

These are chooks of means – free-range girls – objecting vigorously and loudly, if left locked in their chookhouse any later than six on a summer morning.

And by a strange twist of fate, they all happen to share the names of Little L’s past girlfriends.

Now it’s noon, and Little L emerges from his upstairs lair. But, what’s that? There’s the pitter-patter of another pair of feet and an unfamiliar face appears from behind the door. “Oh…ahem…good morning,” says Mrs L.

Little L looks a trifle sheepish as he shifts from one foot to the other. “This is Jessica,” he offers. Across the table Mrs L, peers bemused over the top of her glasses. “Well,” says Mr L. “Does this mean we need another chook?”

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