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.
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 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.
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.