All death, all the time

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.

8 people are having a conversation about “All death, all the time

  1. Poor Phyllis. What cost freedom.

    We live on a lane and our chickens frequently cross it to check out the grass paddock across the way (this also leads to lots of very bad chickens crosses the road jokes in our house) We lose the occasional chicken in an RTA, and I get very angry and upset. Then we have the conversation about reducing our flock number and building them a permanenet enclosure. Then we remember how much our chickens love free-ranging (f*cking about outdoors, Mike calls it) and we decide that if you’re a chicken and you live here, you get freedom but you take your chances.

    We do pen them at night, of course.

  2. I am sorry about Phyllis, Tamar. We’ve suffered hawk attacks here, actually more than I care to count. What I’ve learned is that they always seem to happen midday in very early spring or after the leaves drop in fall. Maybe it has something to do with casting a forewarning shadow at other times, but I started letting our birds out after 1pm to avoid hawks. We live near a wildlife corridor and bird preservation area, so the pressure couldn’t be worse.

    Color and breed of chicken also are important considerations. Darker heritage breed chickens that prefer to roost in the trees and run away from everything last longer than the light colored or high-production varieties, which tend to squat instead of fly when scared. We have an egg-laying group (young hybrids), which are confined and a separate…let’s say expendable… “yard crew” for eating bugs and laying random fertilized eggs (crafty older heritage birds and rooster defense). The commercial birds have had the free-ranging urge bred out of them and are fine with having greens brought to them. They also despise rooster advances, making me dependent on a hatchery every season. So, the decision between keeping a few production layers cooped up and safe versus keeping many at-risk free-ranging, procreating, happy bug-eating maybe-laying birds is something we are still wrestling with.

  3. So sorry about Phyllis. This is the Chicken coopsecond hawk attack I have heard about this week . My friend lost a hen a couple a days ago in Hyannis. Very sad,

  4. Lions, tigers, bears, coyotes, wolves, humans, fishercats, lynx, eagles, hawks, ravens, crows… There are a lot of people out there looking for an easy meal. This is why we keep livestock guarding and herding dogs. They eat predators, literally. We have high predator pressure and a lot of livestock. Keeping it alive and not deadstock is the dogs’s job. They mark their territory, chase off or kill predators that don’t obey the territorial markings and hunt aerial predators from the ground.

    One of our dogs, Kita, developed a method of drawing ravens in with bait. There is one raven she missed, just barely. She took a large bite out of the middle of its left wing. I still occasionally see the raven flying by, it must have sustained serious damage as those feathers never grew back. Now it respects our farm boundaries and has stopped maiming and killing piglets.

    If you don’t have dogs to do the job then maybe some of those fake owls and twirling reflectors might help Phyllis’s friends who remain.

  5. Richard Mellott says:

    Hi Tamar,
    I don’t think you have any need to apologize to Phyllis, as she died doing what she loved to do, roam free around the ‘hood. Everybody dies, everything alive dies, and we almost never get to choose our own way…so be glad she is in your memory, and was such a symbolic spirit. That’s what it’s all about, right?
    Besides, you’ve now become a part of the natural food chain. Another reminder that nature is drawing nigh, so to speak.
    That’s why I go duck hunting, pig hunting, and bear hunting…I become a part of nature in a big way, and it soothes my country boy soul, even though I’m a city boy too…
    Regards, Richard

    On Sat, Dec 15, 2012

  6. Ranchers in the West where I, originally from Connecticut, now live. don’t usually name their cattle — and even 4H kids don’t always name the calves. Unlike dairy cows that are handled all the time and are in the barn either always or daily for milking, beef cattle are somewhere on the range, monitored during calving season but otherwise pretty much left on their own. The loss of a named animal hits in a more personal way, they say. And so it seems to be with poultry. RIP, Phyllis.

Converstion is closed.