First, let me wish you all a happy new year. I hope 2015 is a year of good health and good food. It is also traditional, at this time, to give a shout-out to peace on earth, the universal perennial hope for a newly minted year.
You’ll be happy to know that we here at Starving are doing our part.
Frequent visitors will recall our meat chickens, of blessed memory. We got them at the end of August and slaughtered them at the beginning of November. Cornish cross chickens are not the most gratifying of animal to raise, as they’ve been bred to be meat, and all birdish considerations have fallen by the wayside. They grow too fat, too fast. They can’t move around very well, and they spend all their time eating, crapping, and sleeping. But, at the end of eleven weeks (almost double their normal lifespan), we had thirteen big chickens in the freezer.
And we had Blackie.
In a policy that I would strongly urge them to discontinue, the hatchery Murray McMurray sends you one extra chicken with your meat chicken order. That chicken is not a meat chicken; it is some other kind of surprise chicken. Could be anything. Ours was a cute little black-and-white thing whose breed we were unable to identify. But she (or he, there was no way to know) was a fine spunky bird.
And so, when the meat chickens had their turn at the Cone of Silence, we had a dilemma on our hands. We could send Blackie along with them, but she was too small to be much of a meal. Or we could try introducing her (or him, but we got in the habit of caller her ‘her’) into the coop with our ten other chickens.
We chose B. And anyone familiar with the vicious little dinosaurs that are laying hens can predict how that went. They picked on her mercilessly, and we had to go into the coop every day to make sure she got food and water. Which we did, for several weeks.
Gradually, the animosity died down. As she grew, she started to be able to get her own food, and all but the nastiest of the hens (three Rhode Island Reds we call the Beaky Blinders, after the ruthless gang in the television series of almost the same name) left her alone. Unfortunately, the nastiest of the hens were quite persistent, and Blackie’s life did not seem pleasant. There was one day that I was ready to send her to the Cone, and had gone so far as to sharpen the knife, but Kevin had widened it to accommodate the meat birds, and Blackie would have just fallen through. My resolve didn’t extend to retrofitting the cone, so back in the coop she went.
It has been our experience that the closest thing to a panacea when it comes to livestock is space. Animals that have plenty of space tend not to fight, or get sick, or compete for food. And so, although there isn’t much to forage for in our yard this time of year, and there’s a risk of hawks now that the leaves are all gone, we let the chickens out to free-range. The weather has been unusually warm in our neck of the woods, and the chickens seemed very glad to spread their wings and go out to scratch and peck. We hoped that having a little time to roam would settle their tempers and make them look at Blackie with a little more benevolence. The solution to the persecution is dilution.
Then, a couple of days ago, I was inside the house and heard that horrible unnatural squawk that tells you something is terribly wrong. I ran to the window, and it was like something out of a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. There was a fox in the driveway, with feathers sticking out of its mouth.
We’d never seen a fox on the property before, which is why we’ve been able to let our chickens roam in relative safety. Hawks have been our only day-time predator, and we hadn’t seen many recently. Raccoons, we have in quantity, but they are reliably nocturnal. A fox changes everything.
I went out to investigate, and there were some fluffy black-and-white feathers just outside the house. It certainly looked like Blackie. I found seven of the other chickens under a bush, but that left three unaccounted for, assuming Blackie was a casualty.
It was still an hour and a half short of sunset, and I stayed outside and kept tabs on them until it was time for them to go in. Kevin, who’d been away, came home just as the sun was going down, and the two of ushered them back into the coop. At first, only eight went in, but we canvassed the yard and found two more hunkered down under a tree and herded them in as well.
In five years of having chickens, we’ve lost only three or four to predation, and we’ve never had a predator break into the coop. We know letting the birds out is a risk, but there’s a counterbalancing quality of life. Chickens like to be outside. Inevitably, though, some will get eaten. They do, after all, taste like chicken.
This time, though, there is an upside. If we had to lose a chicken to a fox, I’m glad the fox chose the right chicken. Order has been restored in the henhouse, and one poor stressed hen is no more. Blackie, I’m not at all sure we did right by you, but I’m also not sure what right would have been. You didn’t have your peace on earth, and it doesn’t seem fair that now we get ours, in some small measure.
I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.