Two days ago, while I was at the horse barn up the street, a fox killed 5 of my chickens, nearly a third of my flock. He started with Orphan Annie, a barred rock we adopted when our silkies hatched out their babies last summer. Next was Freaky Friday, our crazy-haired Easter Egger of two years, followed by my friend Michelle's gorgeous silkie rooster Romeo, visiting as part of a genetics experiment.
J left the bodies in the yard, hoping to tempt him back, but when Foxy returned he grabbed Sunny, our gorgeous Buff Orpington instead, mauling but not killing her. Also missing at bedtime roll call were Cleopatra, our flagtailed, high flying Easter Egger whose eggs were the most beautiful green, and Eager, one of our ten week old Olive Eggers. RIP, dear creatures.
Our yard looks like a duvet exploded and the remaining girls are pacing in nervous pairs and trios between the coop and our porch. We are sickened by the loss. Here at the Hoffmenagerie, our chickens are part of the family. (See this post about our Hoffmans Happy Hens and my foray into total birdnerdom.) They are also ridiculously spoiled. Eager and her agemates Bindi and Schpeedy were prone to pasty bum this winter, which meant Piper and Quinn frequently brought them in for a chicken spa, bathing, and then wrapping in tea towels and stroked to sleep by the fire. We knew every one of our casualties personally.
This loss brought back an old debate to the breakfast table--should we pen our free-range girls? Originally, before I purchased birds, I did hours of research, ultimately deciding I wanted them to be happy, daylight free-range hens, able to wander our property eating bugs, scratching the mulch out of the landscaping, and drinking from the stream. Quality of life over quantity, which they have in spades.
However, chicken is on almost everyone's menu. J researched that humans consume 4 BILLION chickens every year. It's a risk; I get it.
Seasoned chicken owners warned me that with this philosophy, I would need to be okay with predator loss. As a friend remarked, surveying the chickens dotting our grassy yard -- a wide open flat, surrounded on three sides by woods, brush and stream, "This is the kind of place where in a war, you would not want to meet your enemy."
Before this, I was mostly okay with the losses. Hayden watched everyone's favorite Esme get picked up by a hawk. Magda, Pai and Prima did not come home at night. Lucky was not-so. Fancy Pants admittedly hit us hard, so that J and I were out walking late into the winter night with a flashlight, hopefully calling. But our most recent loss was months ago--Bright, our young troublemaker rooster, picked up mid-crow on Christmas eve morning. Even then I thought, okay, foxes deserve a festive dinner too.
But I was not prepared for a slaughter of this magnitude, in the middle of a sunny spring morning, while Samps snored on the couch. Research revealed some disturbing discoveries: red foxes do attack in the day, especially in late spring when they are feeding babies, and again in August, when those babies are learning to hunt. They do not regard large dogs (like Sampson) as a strong deterrent, knowing they can outrun, cut and deke them. They will kill as many as they can in one attack, possibly returning for the carnage, limiting their exposure. And finally, once you are on their radar, they will return until your flock is gone.
The Chicken Wire
I posted about our recent loss on my private Facebook group, Crazy for Chickens. Beyond sympathy and tales of casualty, what evolved has been fascinating--I'll call it the Chicken Wire. Local owners are using the thread to keep each other updated on Foxy's location.
--"He just left my house and headed your way, look out, Lori!"
--"I almost hit him dropping the kids at school this morning!" (We're all thinking, accelerate!)
--"Any sightings? He's usually stopping by around now."
--"I hear a ruckus at your place? Girls okay?"
Chicken owners are banding together, fortifying coops, exchanging articles and theories, methods of predator control. We are all trying to figure out how to keep our girls safe and happy, so we can return to our lives. This is the same community that has been rattled by far more serious tragedy this spring--cancer, suicidal depression and domestic violence. Perhaps after all this confusing devastation and heartache, it is comforting to rally around something more elemental, the natural circle of life?
How will we go forward at the Hoffstead? Maybe we will pen our girls, though the night before our loss, our neighbors lost a staggering 28 out of 30 chickens in one enclosed attack. This also debunks my crazy chicken math that maybe if I just got SO SO MANY chickens, the losses woudln't be as hard to take. I'm visiting a friend's rotational pasture system this weekend for ideas. Our best silkie mama Nugget is sitting on 8 fertile eggs, so hopefully in a few weeks there will be some replenishment and new babies. My sister suggested not keeping them as pets, but instead just getting a large group of generic, high-laying Rhode Island reds. Unfortunately, I'm not wired that way. I'd find distinguishing marks and character traits, and secretly name them, and love them all anyway.
In the meantime, I think of my chicken friend Lori's wisdom, "If you want to have livestock, you have to be willing to have deadstock as well."
Today, I'm sticking a little closer to home with my girls, grateful to have my Crazy for Chickens community, watching over each other's flocks.
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