I’m going to have to interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to bring you a very sad story. I lost 4 of my 6 chickens today- basically, my flock was wiped out, since the two remaining are young, not yet settled in, and laying about one egg every other day between them. All my good layers, and two of the girls I’d raised from day-old chicks almost two years ago, are gone. It’s been a heartbreaking day, but I committed to chronicling the good, the bad and the ugly parts of chicken-keeping on my blog – and there are some highlights and morals to the day that I don’t want to forget. Ones that might help others in the same boat prevent this from happening to them or at least take some comfort if it does.
This may or may not have anything to do with this morning’s events, but I awoke this morning to the sound of squirrels scrambling around on the roof and scolding loudly. They scold a lot (they’re not fans of my dog Copper, who chases them relentlessly) but the scurrying noise was a little unusual. Unfortunately not unusual enough for me to think much of it, especially since Copper was lounging on the bed with me and not reacting much. Fast forward to half an hour later or so… I’m in the kitchen getting ready to sit down with my tea and book as I’ve been doing these last few lazy days off. Tomas suddenly calls out from the living room, “hey, there’s a fox in the yard! He’s getting away with one of your chickens!” “What?! No!!” I yell and run to the patio door. Tomas is already outside, and as I’m trying to find shoes to throw on, he calls back to me: “he killed them all, honey, they’re all dead.” I want to freak out. This is so much worse than my first thought! I rush outside, half not wanting to see at all, and my only memory is of sort of going to look and sort of not looking at the same time. Through the chain link fence between me and the vegetable garden, I glimpse two or three chicken corpses lying on the ground. Tomas is over there so I start asking him for the details I’m too freaked out to see in person. “How many are there? Are they all dead? Do you see either of the new girls?” (they were conspicuously absent and we thought the fox must have made off with them first). I think I did end up in the garden for a quick survey before turning my back on the scene in disbelief to let the awfulness sink in a bit. They were dead, and not only that, they were all beheaded. 4 headless chickens sprawled in my raised beds and in the snow around the coop.
To clarify a couple of things, we have been letting the girls out every morning to free-range in the garden now that the raised beds are cleaned out, and locking them up at dusk. This has been going nicely since October, and when we added two Ameracauna pullets a few weeks ago, the extra space and distractions really helped smooth over what was a very difficult transition for them into the new flock.
Our coop was and is fully predator-proof, as described in great detail here… but we’d opened the gate so the girls could roam freely. We are fully aware of the MANY predators that frequent our neck of the woods here in the western suburbs, and we take a lot of precautions to keep our birds safe. But this was broad daylight, 9 a.m. or so. So, just as we did every other day, we assumed they were happily waddling around the yard in the sunshine, kicking up dirt and chirping at each other. And on a much less conscious level, I guess we assumed any predators were snoozing in a burrow or nest somewhere until dusk. The large fox disappearing over the fence - and the carnage he left in his wake - was a full-on nasty surprise of the first order.
Reasoning that there was nothing we could do with 4 dead chickens, and that the fox had already made off with the other 2, we decided to let him come back for the other bodies. Better let them feed some hungry fox pups somewhere than go to complete waste. He returned quite soon, and proceeded to try to launch himself back over our 6-foot wood fence with a 6-pound chicken in his mouth. That didn’t go so well. After a few tries, something spooked him and he vanished. We watched him come back and try again to gather the birds in a corner of the garden and take one away with him – but I finally gave up and let Copper out, who was growling and barking at him through the window. We had to bag up and throw out the bodies ourselves.
In the meantime, Copper was REALLY interested in something over on the south side of the yard – far away from the fox and chicken action. In my fog, I didn’t pay much attention to this either, until Tomas shouted “I found two of them!” The Ameracauna pullets were behind the wood fence in our neighbor’s yard and apparently hurrying back and forth over there and wondering how to get back home. By some miracle, the neighbor had not yet let his two large dogs outside. Tomas went over to tell him what was going on, make sure his dogs stayed locked up, and enlist his help. I grabbed the small dog crate that I use for chicken transport and followed close behind. To add to the circus atmosphere of it all, at that exact moment, Tomas’ mother pulled up in her minivan with his 18-month-old nephew. I found out later that she was bringing us loaves of leftover bread… for the chickens.
Catching these two frightened, still maladjusted and mistrusting birds was quite a caper. Three of us with a tarp, cardboard box and crate were put to shame by these nimble girls who, after all, had just escaped a seasoned, wily predator. When one of them, Scramble, darted through the gate that I had foolishly not quite shut behind me, I thought it was all over; we’d never catch her out in the neighborhood. Luckily she headed toward our backyard fence, and we realized we could open our back gate and try to herd her in that way. It worked! Maybe she knew this was the way home; in any case, she chose to run through the narrow opening rather than split in another direction. We slammed the gate behind her – at least she was in the correct yard – and decided to try to do the same with the other girl, Omelet. As we herded her towards the open gate, she caught sight of the dog crate sitting open nearby, decided it was a safe haven, and dove inside. Success! The remaining task of cornering Scramble inside our own yard and actually catching her was no small matter. I feared she would fly back over into the neighbor’s yard, where he had just released his dogs, and then to my horror Tomas’ mother opened our sliding door and almost released Copper (who would gladly grab a chicken and make it into her latest tug toy). Finally, we caught her and returned both to their enclosed, locked run.
I still had two chickens! It was a silver lining on a really rough day; I still had to pick up a mass of feathers, down and bloody debris in the garden but I felt somewhat better than hopeless. When I brought them some leftover bread as a treat, it was comforting to hear their soft warbling sounds in the space that only recently had been the scene of so much fear and death. Still, the loss of my 4 favorite birds – true personalities, all of them, and wonderful layers – was a hard one.
But I want to end this post with some thoughts on the lessons I mentioned above. To start with, none of this would have happened if we had left our girls safe inside their enclosed run instead of letting them free-range around the garden. There may be some places where unsupervised free ranging is ok for a bunch of plump hens, but a suburb of Denver along a riparian corridor with coyotes, foxes, hawks, eagles, owls, snakes, raccoons and skunks is probably not one of them. I will have to take this experience to heart and keep the hens more restricted. We can still alternate between their little enclosed yard and the covered chicken tractor that we built to pasture them in the greener seasons. Letting them out into the garden and turning my back on them is just not an option, not now that Mr. Fox has found us.
Second, my two least tame birds are the ones that survived this terrifying experience and are now the entirety of my flock. While the loss of my ‘pet’ birds, which I raised from day-old chicks, is heartbreaking, I have real respect for the instincts that got these girls over not one, but two tall fences to safety. These don’t necessarily pair well with my pastoral idea of a happy clutch of chickens scratching around garden and stopping to take some cuddle time in my lap. But they proved appropriate today in a dangerous situation. I’ll give more consideration in the future to smaller, flightier breeds – maybe a Hamburg or a Campine, gorgeous birds that lay lovely eggs and just aren’t known for being docile or cuddly. They might be better cut out for life on the edge of the wilderness than some of the slower-moving, gentler breeds that I have been so biased toward.
A new project I see coming our way in the spring is to extend the chicken run. A larger space will make it easier for me to leave the girls ‘cooped up’ all day when I’m at work, without the guilt that caused me to give them too much freedom in the first place.
I also need to employ a few more predator-deterring tricks. Coyote urine was discussed at length on Facebook today after I posted about our incident. Giving Copper more access to the side yard so she can patrol it and leave her own marks might not be a bad idea either. And I’m reminded to go out and do a thorough inspection of the run in the next few days. Two summers and two winters may well have caused wires to loosen or rust, wooden framework to split or warp, or nails to come loose. Just because you build something to be predator-proof doesn’t mean it’s predator-proof forever. It’s imperative to keep an eye on the condition of your coop, and to repair it as needed to ensure it continues to keep your precious charges safe from intruders.
Last but not least: don’t give away all your eggs just because you have a couple cartons too many and the chickens are laying more eggs than you can keep up with. Our two dozen extra eggs should tide us over until I can get some new girls, but we’ll have to be sparing with them. You can go from plenty to poverty in just a few minutes!
Mr. Fox (or Mrs) was a gorgeous, impressively large creature. I had the wherewithall to snap a photo of him on his return trip into our yard. It reminds me of the wilder side of this suburban life, and the harsh beauty of the natural world. For better or worse, we share our lives with nature and all her creatures. I like to think it’s for the better most of the time.