“If you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock,” is how my friend Jen, at Milkweed & Teasel, puts it. Losing animals is a part of keeping animals. You care for them and protect them the best you can, but disease, accidents, and predators will sometimes win.
I know this. I’ve told myself this every time we’ve lost an animal. But this week was awful.
To date, most of our chicken deadstock has been courtesy of the local red-tail hawk population, and there haven’t been more than three or four over five years. There was one turkey poult that drowned because we didn’t adequately cover the pond that we’d installed for the ducks that inhabited the pen before the turkeys got there, and that one hit me hard because it was our fault. And then there was a raccoon that managed to get at our turkeys, and took one a night for several nights until we finally managed to make the roost raccoon-proof.
Overall, that’s a relatively small tally. Kevin’s Fort Knox of a chicken coop has never been breached, and we’ve never had a serious attack on the birds when they’re out in the open, since most of our predators – raccoons and coyotes, primarily – are nocturnal.
Then, last fall, we had a fox. I knew it was a fox because I heard a squawk, ran to the window, and saw it, literally, with feathers in its mouth. That was the end of the chickens’ free-ranging ways, and we kept them in all winter.
As the weather started to warm up, we kept our eyes open for a fox, but didn’t see one. Since we’d never had them in the seven years we’ve lived here, we harbored a hope that the fall fox was just visiting, and had moved on.
At first, we let the chickens out for just a couple hours, when we were around. Weeks went by without a lick of trouble, and we figured we were in the clear.
Then, last Thursday, I came home to a disturbing scattering of brown feathers in the driveway. I went looking for the flock, and found another scattering, this one of white feathers. I found the white chicken, dead and still warm, in the woods. No other birds were in evidence.
I walked the property and finally heard something in the leaves. I thought it was the chickens, but it wasn’t. It was a fox, skulking around behind the garage.
Kevin and I stood vigil until sundown, when two of our ten birds came tentatively out of their hiding places. We ushered them into the coop, locked them up, and got up at dawn the next day to see if there were any more stragglers. One more, our barred rock, appeared mid-morning. Finally, two days ago, I got a message from a neighbor – she’d woken to a chicken eating the spillover from her bird feeder, and thought it might be one of ours. It was, and we brought her home.
One of the four we recovered died a couple days later, either from injuries or from PTSD, and that leaves us three. Three, where ten had been. It’s gut-wrenching.
One of the reasons we like having chickens is that we’ve been able to let them roam free. It’s what they like to do, and we enjoy their company. We also like knowing we’ve given them just about the best life it’s possible for a chicken to have, and I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about keeping hens if we can’t do that.
And, right now, we can’t. Our three survivors are in Fort Knox for the duration, while we reconsider out livestock strategy.