Possum wallaby woes

With the big dry affecting many parts of Gippsland in Victoria (Australia), the amount of feed for wallabies, possums and other wildlife has diminished.  So what do they do when there’s no fresh grass?

With drought affecting Phillip Island and no sign of rain on the long term weather forecast, it’s looking a bit grim for the hungry hordes of animals on the reserve out the back of our place.  When they run out of green grass, what do they do? Why, they come checking out nearby properties for any titbit that’s green and edible.

Here the wildlife can choose to browse any number of properties and farms.  However, many are fully fenced, located in suburbia, or don’t have gardens because they’re only occupied for a few months each year.  That leaves places where humans reside during summer, and who plant and tend juicy horticultural things in our gardens.

ONCE UPON A TIME …

Our house backs onto a reserve.  Once upon a time it contained mangroves, shrubs and tall native grasses.  Seawater flooded much of it at high tide.  Of course, it would’ve been loved and used by many animals and hundreds of different birds.

Then a moron came along and turned it into a farm, building a land bridge to stop the tide, and whacking in cows so they could stroll along eating what little grass they could find and trampling on the native grasses, plants and mangroves.

One day about 6-8 years ago (can’t recall exactly when), the moron removed the cows and allowed the land to go back to its natural state.  And wow, has it flourished without that constant trampling.  Unfortunately rabbits and foxes moved in.  The Council undertook a baiting program to remove foxes from the island, but you’ll all know what happens to rabbit numbers when there’s no longer any predators.

MARCH OF THE MULTITUDES

Rabbits aside, the wallabies moved in.  Then the Cape Barren geese built nests in the swaying grasses, along with ducks and purple swamp hens (affectionally called pukekos in our household, because that’s what I knew them as growing up in NZ).

A plethora of other smaller birds also became common, and the possums think life is akin to nirvana.  We’ve even got snakes, echidnas and blue tongued lizards.  It’s helped enormously that a few neighbours added a permanent supply of water in troughs along the boundary fence.

So a multitude of critters great and small now have water, edible food, and places to hide and sleep.  The price they pay for that is competition for food and having to tolerate annoying human beings on one side of the fence.  They get their own back, as you will see.

SUMMER TIME AND THE LIVING IS …

In early summer, the animals and birds are very well behaved.  They eat their grass, wild fruits and seeds, they drink the water, they blink at us from a distance, and in the late afternoon they may visit a human’s property for a sticky beak.

Come late summer, with no decent rain for a few months and grasses effectively dried up, many creatures are struggling to find enough to eat.  So they come a-calling.  Every last single one of them.

WHO’S BAD …

  1. Possums

Possums are by far the worst.  Scungy fluffy cute little critters they may be, but they’re incredibly effective at knocking off everything.

Last week, in one night, they ate the ENTIRE crop of the neighbour’s flourishing and massive passionfruit crop.  That was hard to bear.

You cannot grow herbs or fruits without them being decimated.  Same deal for any vegetables at all – including hot chillies – because they’ll be munched by rats, rabbits, wallabies, possums, pukekos and a few other lurking creatures I’m probably not aware of.

Possums also love flower seedlings, and any plant with pelagonium or geranium in its title.  They pull them out by the roots, leaving nothing to continue growing.

Normally wildlife don’t touch succulents.  But when possums get peckish, the succulent collection is prey to a horror story.  Mine sit on a table above wallaby height, and the possums have to get through a barrage of spikey yukka plants to reach them.  So at this stage, they’re relatively untouched.  The neighbour, however, has suffered a posse of possums having a late night party and knocking the pots off their shelf, followed by the indignity of being trodden on and nibbled.

ALL my geraniums have suffered badly.  The larger ones planted in the garden have been jumped on and squashed flat during a myriad of night time possum parties.  Then they chow down on any juicy new growth, leaving a few bare stalks.  If the geranium is in a pot, it finds itself upside down on the ground and pulled out by its roots.

  1. Wallabies

Next up on the Bad List are the wallabies.  Anything they can reach is subject to a taste test, then nibbled at until destroyed.  Even caught a baby wallaby on my back verandah chewing at a spiny spikey succulent.

When really hungry, they chow down on succulents of all kinds including our huge jade bushes, shrubs (irrelevant whether they’re native or not), pelargoniums, herbs and climbers.

I’ve double fenced many areas, which the weeds have taken advantage of because it’s that much harder to reach over and pull them out.

baby-wallaby-drinking
Baby wallaby drinking from our dilapidated birdbath
wallaby-who-me
Young wallaby in the reserve – “it wasn’t me …”
  1. Pukekos

Don’t actually mind pukekos.  They just mosey around and mind their own business, pecking the tripes out of the lawn to find juicy bugs.  They’re murder on water sources though –  dig up plants and poop into the water rendering it undrinkable for anything.

  1. Pheasants

Yes you’re correct, pheasants aren’t native to Australia.  Neither are dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes and a squillion other creatures the Brits left us with (yes, I’m from English/Scottish stock so this failure to think things through might’ve had something to do with my ancestors, but I like to think they were smarter than that).

Two pheasants escaped from a (now defunct) local pheasant farm some years ago (see my previous post).  Ferdinand was the original escapee and somehow Felicity has done a runner as well.  We’re very grateful – he was a lonely boy without her.  Figured a snake would’ve got them in the intervening years, but they’re actually alive and well.

They like to scratch through the soil, digging up grass and plants and leaving bare dry earth in its place.  It’s a nuisance, but at least they’re not eating my remaining precious plants or stealing lemons from the neighbour’s lemon tree.

pheasant-bkyard-sml
Ferdinand pecking in the backyard

END OF GARDEN CAPERS

So there you go.  We love the wildlife deeply, even have a possum box on the back verandah, but I really wish they’d go visit someone else’s property.

In the meantime, I continue to learn the lesson to only plant things they hate to eat, and buy all my fruit and vegetables from the supermarket.

Solving the puzzle of Ferdinand

February 2015

Sometime in September 2014, a feathered pheasant with a rather magnificent long tail and red facial feathers wandered into the reserve at the back of our home on Phillip Island.

He meandered up and down the reserve, calling out periodically with a double raucous sqwark – grarrrrrrrk grarrk (that’s about the closest I can get in English).  One thing’s for sure, he had a distinctive call.

For those who aren’t bird savvy, pheasants are not remotely native to the state of Victoria, let alone Australia.  They just plain don’t live here in the wild.  So to see one popping in and out of the bush … well, you know it’s not normal.

For a few months he kept everyone with properties backing onto the reserve highly entertained.  One neighbour left a bucket of water on the back fence for him (which the wallabies made good use of) and our pheasant ran joyfully along the fence line staying hydrated and cool.

A name …

Didn’t take long before we called him Ferdinand.  I thought it had great flair for such a distinctive and noisy bird.

Each weekend was spent listening for his calls and chasing him around with a camera.  He was pretty cadgey though.  You would see him scurrying about, but not long enough to get a great photo.

Closeup of Ferdinand
Fuzzy close-up of Ferdinand
And where?

The entire neighbourhood wondered from whence Ferdinand had come. Various theories were suggested and our best guess involved an escapee from a pheasant farm.  However, no-one was aware of such an enterprise anywhere on the island.

Moving forwards …

It’s now February 2015.  Ferdinand hasn’t been seen or heard for a few weeks, so we’re all missing his fleeting feathered personnage. He’s part of our lives, eagerly looked for, and his appearances were much anticipated by the all. He’s caused a lot of neighbourhood bonding to go on over the fences.

So we figured Ferdinand pheasant was either:

1.  dead from snakebite
2.  run over by a vehicle
3.  died from starvation (no clue as to what  pheasants eat)
4.  pined away from lack of a scrumptious female companion
5.  mauled or eaten by vicious dog
6.  found somewhere better to live

It’s now pushing towards mid February without any sign of Ferdinand.  We are all devastated.  Everyone’s listening out for him but it’s still suspiciously quiet.

Then on Saturday, a neighbour announces Ferdinand has been spotted drinking from the bucket.  We are delirious with happiness.  This is the best news since Gregoire the Magnificent unexpectedly announced he was nicking down to the supermarket to get a chocolate bavarian & cream for dessert.

Late afternoon I finally hear him call briefly but despite rushing out to look, he’s vanished into the bush.  At least we know he’s alive … a very good sign.

The mystery unfolds

Late afternoon, being a beautiful summer’s evening, we stroll around Silverleaves and turn down a very short dead-end street.

We’ve lived here for about 10 years and never walked down this street because it hardly seemed worthwhile. But today we spot a house and can’t work out where the driveway is.  Perhaps it’s off this dead end road?

Yes, it certainly is and what’s more, there’s a wide grassy path at the end used as an access road between the hobby farms and our reserve.  We’re quite thrilled – if there’s ever a fire in the area, it’s an excellent exit to escape.

Because anything new is such fun to explore, we walk down the grassy path and marvel at all the wildlife in the reserve.  Wallabies, rainbow lorikeets, purple swamp hens (called pukekos in New Zealand), wagtails, ducks variants, kookaburras, ravens, blackbirds, a few bazillion rabbits and even an orange bellied snake.  A horse languishes in a paddock, being kept company by a wallaby and two swamp hens sneaking drinks from his water trough.

On the right, above the fence of the first hobby farm, I see heaps of netting.  So I climb the fence and peek over.  And yeah, you guessed it.  Under the  netting are about a dozen pheasants – some female, some male.  Bingo.

Mystery unravelled

At last we know the location of Ferdinand’s real home.  While the netting is to stop the birds flying away, it obviously wasn’t good enough to hold in a gentleman  pheasant with the strength, charisma and talent of our feathered friend.

We also now understand why he’s not moving away too far away.  For all we know, he goes home at night and perches on the netting so he can see his girlfriends.  I’ve since discovered they squawk mostly during the breeding season. As we roll into late summer, the mating season is over and hence his lack of noise.

Puzzle solved.  Unless he’s caught, may we have many years ahead with our Ferdinand clackerting around the reserve providing endless entertainment.

Additional information on pheasants:

Burkes Backyard

  • Pheasants are very secretive birds and can easily be alarmed. They are generally not vocal but tend to squawk during the breeding season.
  • Pheasants are omnivorous, eating everything from fruit and vegetables, seeds, grains, roots, bulbs, leaves, insects, grasshoppers, slugs and snails to small lizards.

Wikipedia

  • Common pheasants are native to Asia, their original range extending from between the Black and Caspian Seas to Manchuria, Siberia, Korea, Mainland China and Taiwan.
  • The birds are found in woodland, farmland, scrub, and wetlands. In its natural habitat, the common pheasant lives in grassland near water with small copses of trees.
  • Common pheasants can now be found across the globe due to their readiness to breed in captivity and the fact they can naturalise in many climates.