The sky is falling!

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We anticipate losing chickens to predators. We’ve never met anyone who’s had birds for more than a season or two who hasn’t seen at least a couple of them become dinner for a raccoon, fox, or coyote.

Our chickens are out in plain sight, there for the taking, most every day. Luckily, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes are nocturnal, and by the time they show themselves, the chickens are locked up snug in their coop.

Nevertheless, there are three likely chicken-losing scenarios. The first is negligence (ours). If we forget to lock them in after they’ve gone into the coop at night, they’re sitting ducks. A fox merely has to waltz right through the open door to the run, and up the ladder to the coop, to find himself a fine feathered smorgasbord.

One of the locals

One of the locals

The second is hunger (no, not ours). In the middle of winter, when food is scarce, a predator who’s normally nocturnal may drag himself out of bed in daylight in the hopes of picking off prey that’s inaccessible at night. We know someone who lost a Bichon Frise to a coyote, in his front yard, at high noon.

The third is hawks.

Red-tail hawks are common, and their predatory ways have earned them the epithet “chicken hawk” and the enmity of farmers everywhere, although actual incidents involving actual hawks killing actual chickens are rare.

At first, hawks were a threat I couldn’t take seriously, having grown up in the ‘70’s. Like almost everyone in my age cohort who isn’t a farmer, my sole experience of chicken hawks came from spending Saturday mornings watching Foghorn Leghorn.

Foghorn Leghorn and Henry

Foghorn Leghorn and Henry

Foghorn Leghorn is – or was, I suppose, unless cartoon characters live forever – a rooster, a prankster, and a blowhard. The cartoon series that bore his name had a cast of characters that included Barnyard Dawg (the foil for Foggy’s pranks), Miss Prissy (the object of his affections), and Henry, the chicken hawk chick who was perpetually trying to figure out just how it was he was supposed to eat a rooster about twenty times his size.

Sure, Henry was just a chick, and a cartoon at that, but his problem was real. Had he been a actual red-tail hawk, he would have grown up to be somewhere in the two-to-four pound range – big for a hawk. Our chickens are somewhere in the four-to-six pound range – medium-size for a chicken, but still bigger than a hawk.

Jim Fowler (l) and Marlin Perkins

Jim Fowler (l) and Marlin Perkins

I realize this isn’t an insurmountable problem. I know this is going to make me sound like I spent my entire childhood in front of the television, but I learned early on that smaller animals could kill larger ones because I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Who can forget Marlin Perkins, narrating from the safety of the Land Rover, as his sidekick, Jim Fowler, stood in the path of the oncoming cheetah in order to make the point that a cheetah can take down a zebra.

But the cheetah didn’t have to fly away with it. Could a four-pound hawk really swoop down and scoop up a five-pound chicken?

I’m not sure, but the chickens think so. Several times over the last several months, we’ve heard a great squawking commotion and rushed outside to find a low-flying hawk eyeing the chickens, which have sought safety under a bush. If they so much as hear a hawk-like cry (and they know what it sounds like; crows and blue jays don’t faze them), they scan the skies warily. If they catch sight of one, they run for cover as fast as their legs will carry them.

You’d think that cowering in fear would be a silent activity, but chickens don’t seem to have fully internalized the idea of hiding. They yell and scream as though the very world is ending, and they have convinced me that the hawk threat is genuine. Ten thousand years of evolution can’t be wrong, even if it hasn’t quite worked out the kinks in the hiding strategy.  (Besides, I finally figured out that the hawk doesn’t fly away with the chicken; it kills it and eats it on the ground.)

One chicken seems particularly alarmist. Kevin named her Chicken Little because she’s our smallest hen, but she lived up to her name today, when we had another hawk incident. There was the commotion, and the running outside, and the circling hawk, and the squawking chickens. The hawk, of course, left at the first sight of us, but Chicken Little just couldn’t get over it. She stood under the bush squawking at the top of her little chicken lungs. She had us so convinced that the sky was falling that Kevin rounded up all eight birds and shut them in the run, safe.

I don’t know exactly how long chickens remember things, but hawk fear seems to last about 45 minutes. When we first closed them in the run, they seemed almost relieved to be there but, half an hour later, they decided the sky wasn’t falling after all, and were squawking to get out again. There’s no pleasing a chicken.

Is it safe yet?

Is it safe yet?

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Comments

  1. I say I say I say…Nice post, I enjoyed it very much!

  2. Fortunately- I keep my feathers numbered – just for such an occasion!

    BTW- The Naperville Flahertys have a Pet Red Tailed Hawk. Her name is Allie Marshmallow.

  3. I love the ‘expression’ on the one on the right.

  4. omg that was such a fun trip down memory lane- we must be roughly the same age. Did you watch Disney on Sunday night after Wild Kingdom? I miss the old Disney shows. And Foghorn Leghorn was my favorite Warner Bros. character. Listen to me when I’m talkin’ to ya boy!

    Good luck with your chickens….

  5. Paula — You can’t not like Foghorn Leghorn. It would be almost worth it to get a rooster just so I could name him Foghorn.

    I didn’t watch Disney regularly. (Actually, I don’t think I watched anything regularly; my parents sneered at television-watching, and I never got in the habit.) I remember National Geographic specials and Jacques Cousteau. And, for the record, I’m 46.

  6. We’ve had plenty of chickens killed by hawks. They seem to manage to pick one off every so often, maybe twice a year. As with so many predators, it seems to depend on the individual raptor, some being more tenacious and skilled than others. I once discovered a hawk holding a penned chicken against the wire and eating it bite by bite through the mesh. I had to beat the hawk away very aggressively and the chicken did live.
    Once, when I thought a hawk might be getting a chicken every couple of days, as evidenced by the decreasing number returning to the roosts, I discovered it was a fox grabbing them right in broad daylight. We’ve aso had coyotes come through during the day.

  7. I think all Americans our age get their morals, sense of humor and pop culture knowledge from 1) WB cartoons 2) Nature shows (PBS) 3) Sesame Street. How we all didn’t turn out to be zookeepers or puppeteers I don’t know.

    I recognise that one beady chicken eye trained on the sky! And the description of the warning call. Roosters usually do that job, but I see one of your hens has stepped up to the plate on that one.

    We haven’t got nearly the range of predators in the UK but we have a comparable hawk, our common buzzard. He prefers to bother the pheasants. We lose chicks and eggs to crow predation when they’re young. But I recognise Beth’s scenario of the hawk trapping the chicken against the pen wire – that happens a lot with the pheasants.

    I have also noticed that white chickens get predated more than any other color – poor camouflage I suppose. And why squawk and draw attention to yourselves, or your eggs for that matter?? I will never understand chicken mentality.

  8. I believe FHLH was the object of Miss Prissy’s affections, not the other way around.

  9. I don’t even have chickens and I still have to worry about them. Why? Because I have chihuahuas. No one, not even my vet, believed me a few years back when I told them a hawk made a dive for my three pound chihuahua while he was sun basking in the yard. Until a couple years later when that same vet had to treat a woman’s Yorkie for puncture marks after one had swooped down and actually managed to take off with the dog before dropping it. I’ve seen a hawk in low flight with a large gopher tortoise in its claws and can heartily believe a chicken would be on the menu.