Animals always want to do dangerous stuff. Cats want to prowl the woods at night. Dogs want to stick their heads waaaaaay out the window. Pigs want to break out of their pens and explore a major street (trust me on this one). And chickens? Chickens want to be out in the fresh air and sunshine, scratching and pecking and dust-bathing.
The problem is that fresh air and sunshine is where the predators are. And, even though fresh air and moonlight is a more predator-rich environment, there are enough chicken-eating animals around during the day to make free-ranging a risky proposition. The fewer leaves are on the trees, the riskier it is.
Once the cold has killed the insects, and there’s nothing green left to forage, we keep the chickens cooped up most of the time. But we’ve found that they’re both healthier (no droopy combs, no runny poops) and happier (no fighting, no biting) when they get to spread out.
Yesterday was beautiful. Almost fifty degrees, bright sun. I had to go in the chicken’s run to put the water heater in for winter, and going in and out is easier if you’re not trying to keep the flock from making a break for it every time you open the door. So I let them out. They did the yay-we’re-outside! chicken dance, and scattered to see what kind of meager offerings they might be able to scratch up.
About an hour later our next-door neighbor, David, came over. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said. “There’s a very dead chicken in our yard.”
It was Phyllis. A hawk had gotten her. I will admit to being relieved that the carcass was in unsalvageable condition. We buried her in the compost pile.
Phyllis, an all-white Araucana, was one of our favorites. From the very beginning, she distinguished herself. She wasn’t warm and fuzzy, like the Buff Orpingtons, or sensible and approachable, like the Rhode Island Reds, but she was ballsy and curious. She’d come right up to you, but wouldn’t stand for being picked up. She had her own agenda, Phyllis did.
She got her name because, when she was a chick, Kevin and I had an argument about her. He thought any bird that was ballsy and curious must be a rooster, and I thought she was just a ballsy, curious hen. I included a picture of her, at about a week old, in the post I wrote about our argument, and astute commenter Susan said, “Oh, that’s a girl. The resemblance to Phyllis Diller is uncanny.”
And so it was. Phyllis she became.
Phyllis is the first adult chicken we’ve lost to a hawk (we lost our broken-beaked chick, Rocky, last spring), but I know lots of people in the area who’ve had the problem, so we knew it was a possibility.
It’s not easy, finding the right balance between an animal’s quality of life and its safety. We have coyotes here, but we always let our cat go outside because that’s what she loved to do. As it happened, she lived 17 years and died of kidney failure, but it might very well have gone differently. We’ve been lucky with the chickens, too, and have had minimal predator problems despite having a flock of tasty morsels roaming free on our property almost every day from May to October.
But, when you have both livestock and predators, it’s all but impossible to keep them permanently apart. Neither fences nor judgment can be perfect. You do your level best. Knowing that you’ve done your level best is cold comfort, though, when your imperfect judgment costs an animal its life.
I’m sorry, Phyllis. I’m very sorry.