February 07, 2017

The hardest part of farming*...

One of my biggest fears since getting my chickens when they were just a week old has been keeping them safe from predators. We basically live in the woods, and hawks, coyotes, foxes, neighborhood dogs, raccoons, owls, snakes and other creatures who wouldn't mind a delicious free-range chicken for supper are everywhere.

There have been a few near misses. Once, I was at the pool and looked up just in time to see a hawk flying down at them. Once, I walked up to pick them some kale from my mom's garden and came back to find them all curiously surrounding a stray boxer who appeared out of nowhere. The poor things are not afraid of dogs. Last summer I discovered a snake who was about 4-5 feet long in their house, but I think she was just looking for eggs.

Unfortunately, last week, one of those wild creatures was successful in plucking one of my girls from the yard.

The ladies have a nice big house and plans to move into a bigger one this year, and they get to have their freedom for a few hours each day. They put themselves up when it gets dark, and then I go feed them and shut them up for the night, but for some reason they've been lingering outside the door a little when it gets dark, soaking up every last bit of sun they can. I don't blame them. We've reached the part of winter where it's depressing for the sun to go down by 6 pm.

Anyway, last Thursday night, I'd stepped outside to put them up, but they weren't all in the house yet, so I decided to come back inside and get the dogs' food ready while the chickens lingered. The dogs were outside, and I'd just been out there making plenty of noise. I was actually sitting just inside the door in plain view of the coop. There was no way something would grab one of them with all this going on.

Suddenly, I heard one of the chickens scream. If you've ever had chickens, you know they scream about pretty much anything out of the ordinary. But when I got outside, the dogs were chasing something into the woods, and I only counted five hens instead of six. I searched the yard and edge of the woods as best as I could in the dark, hoping she was just hiding. I got up the next morning and saw no signs of a struggle — no blood or feathers. She was gone.

So, now I'm down to five. To be honest, I'm not sure which chicken is missing, because three of them look just alike — my golden-laced wyandottes — and I have to see them all outside together to tell you which is which, based on size and personality. Rose is tiny yet outgoing, Myrtle is a big lazy gal who hangs out with Marigold (the head hen), and Iris is skittish, keeps to herself, and barely leaves the area by the chicken house. 

I'll know which one it was for sure in the next few days when I return them to short periods of ultra-supervised free-range time. In the meantime, I kind of feel like I let her down. I've decided the culprit was most likely a fox, coyote, or stray dog, but what kind of animal has the nerve to approach with humans and other dogs around? I wonder if she died quickly or suffered in pain for a while. I wonder if the other chickens miss her?

When I first put them into their new home, I decided I'd much rather them have their freedom, even if there's a risk, than to spend their lives in a cage and never get to experience digging in the mud for worms and scratching in the leaves and all the things they love to do. And I stand by that idea, but it doesn't make it any easier. Their new digs should provide a larger fenced-in area for that, and believe me, I've read every article online about how to make it predator proof. But given the circumstances of what happened last week, I've decided there's no way to completely protect them from harm unless you keep them inside your home. That doesn't mean I won't try, but it's one of the harsh realities of owning livestock, I guess.

*I realize I am not an actual farmer because I've raised half a dozen chickens and grew some tomatoes last year, but I don't let that stop me from pretending.

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