Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Good Job.

Posted on | June 11, 2014 | 5 Comments

I suspect we have a predator in the hen house.  Last week one of my chickens limped her way to the feed room for breakfast.  Upon examination she did not have any visible injuries, no bleeding, no lacerations, but her leg appeared pulled out of the joint.  She recovered.  A few days later I found a dead chicken laying in the pasture.  She also did not appear to have any visible wounds but I thought her neck was broken.  Both chickens were part of Michael’s harem.

As the less dominant rooster in the flock Michael often roosts on some old pallets in the buck pen with a small group of his hens rather than fight for a spot on the roosts in the chicken barn.  The injury and death was very discouraging.

The buck pen is, by necessity, outside the range of my livestock guardian dogs.  The bucks have to be kept separate from everyone else to control breeding.  I put their pasture in a corner of the property and the dogs can only reach 2 sides of it.  So nothing can enter the barn yard proper from that pasture but the pasture itself is up for grabs.  The barn where the bucks sleep is on the fence line where the dogs have access so it’s too close to the dogs’ area for coyotes to risk coming after the bucks. Nothing else in that pasture is susceptible to attack from fox, opposum, raccoon, or owl.  Well, nothing except for Michael and his tiny flock sleeping on some stray pallets.

The next death was confusing.  A chick was found dead inside the main barn, leaning against the chicken wire dividing that pen from the brooder room.  Since she was only 6 weeks old, death from natural causes wasn’t impossible.  Chicks that seem healthy and vigorous sometime die or even get killed by other chicks without any obvious cause.  Again, this chick didn’t have any visible injuries or signs of illness and had been happily eating, drinking, and scratching around the pen the previous day.  But it was the fact that she was leaning against the wire that was most alarming.  My money was on something grabbing her and trying to pull her through the fence, killing her in the process.  That meant something was getting in the barn. Something got past the dogs and into the barn.

I sighed and hoped that dead chick was a fluke.  The problem with farming is that it’s very hard to distinguish between cause and association.  Death is often random and prevalent in nature.  So the dead chick in the barn wasn’t, by default, killed by the same thing that injured or killed chickens in the buck pasture.  In early summer the local population of wildlife is actively hunting at night and many have litters of young to feed.  But the heat and humidity of summer also introduces and spreads a variety of pathogens and illness that can quickly take down a young or weak chicken.  In farming, the bodies sometimes have to pile up before we have any clue about what’s really going on.

Just a couple days later, I found my black Silkie hiding on a nest in the buck’s hay bale.  Which was odd because she had just started brooding on a nest in the corner of the buck barn.  I checked her first nest and, sure enough, there was a pile of her tail feathers and some broken eggs where she had been setting.  Looked like she had a close escape.  It also looked like the predator was getting brave enough to enter the buck barn.  Just a few feet from the fence where the dogs could reach it.  Which supported the idea that it might have even entered the big barn somehow to kill that chick.  Could it actually have walked through the buck pasture, through the buck barn, across the barn yard and into the main barn?  While the dogs were…..what?   Patrolling elsewhere?  Distracted by another predator?  God forbid, sleeping????

Of course, the hen had chosen a poor spot to hatch her eggs anyway.  The bucks have trampled chickens that attempted to brood in their pen in the past.  It’s not that the bucks are upset about the chickens being in their space, it’s just that the bucks have no concerns about laying right on top of the hen and her eggs when they bed down for the night.  Or stomping the hen to death in the midst of  a vigorous round of head butting.  So I couldn’t be sure her ruined nest was anything related to a predator at all.

Besides, what kind of predator would be killing or attacking chickens and leaving them behind without any large, visible injuries?  Owls usually take the heads off their victims and leave the body behind.  Foxes just carry off the entire chicken, often without leaving even a stray feather in their wake.   Opossums and racoons massacre their victims, leaving body parts, half-chewed pieces, and large patches of blood and gore.

The neighbor lost most of his chicken flock a couple weeks ago in a violent display of mangled chicken pieces that continued for several nights.  On the fourth night, he managed to trap an opossum with 5 babies clinging to her.  He came to the garden fence to bemoan his losses and share his victory.

“Good thing I caught her, ” he added.  “Those babies would have grown up and started showing up at your place.”

“I don’t think so,” I said smugly.  “The dogs would never tolerate a predator around our chickens.”

Which, of course, is the real explanation for the chicken injuries and deaths around here.  Boasting about the infallible protection of your flock is like begging for a maniacal predator to be airlifted right into the center of your coop.  There may not even be a predator on my farm.  Kharma might just be slapping my chickens around on my behalf.

But if all these strange occurrences weren’t a fluke, or fate, or the usual suspects, then what was getting in?

I warned Bruno and Bella as I passed out the morning dog biscuits that they needed to step up their game.  I let Bruno into the buck pasture to pee around the perimeter.  I reminded Bella that she was a ferocious beast capable of vicious brutality to protect her flock.  Kind of.

And just a couple days later, as I headed out to the barn for the morning chores, I saw the Great Pyrs frolicking in the woods.  They were joyfully flinging around a furry body.

“Good job! ” I cried as I hung up the milk pail.  The dogs tugged the chunk of fur amongst themselves, shaking their heads vigorously.

“You are so smart and so brave!”  I exclaimed as I fed the chickens.  The dogs dropped the body in the leaves and tromped on it with glee.

“I love my guard doggies.  I love ’em!”  I gushed as I headed for the dogs’ food bowls with their breakfast.

“Now let me see it.  Bring it here,”  I said as I called them to their food.

Bruno and Bella jogged in from the woods and dropped it dutifully at my feet, wagging their tails, and smiling their big Great Pyr smiles.

“Oh,”  I said.  “Um,….great, uh….OK.”  I bent over the body and examined the juvenile cotton tail.   I’ll spare you a photo of his velvety ears, teeny bunny feet, and soft fuzz of a tail.

“You killed a….well, a big, bad baby bunny.”  I tried to recover my enthusiasm as Bruno and Bella gazed at me expectantly.

“Good job!”  I repeated.  “It was probably very hard to catch a young bunny.  A young bunny frozen in a hiding spot, hoping you’d pass right by him.  You probably taught all the other baby bunnies a very important lesson.”

I gathered up the bunny and got that awful, unexpected surprise that all farmers dread.  It’s the kind of surprise that I call the Scream’N’Drop.  The irrepressible urge to scream and drop whatever you’re holding.

It happens when you grab some feed out of the grain bin and a little field mouse jumps right out of the feed scoop into your personal space.  This, of course, causes you to scream and fling the scoop across the barn.

It’s the surprise of pulling a black snake out of a nest box, carefully pinning its head under the blade of the hoe, when the snake (through the unnatural demonic strength that makes us all fear snakes) wraps the rest of its body up the handle of the hoe UNTIL ITS WARMS SLITHERY SKIN ACTUALLY WRAPS AROUND YOUR HAND!!!!!  That actually happened, people.  And I’m still alive to tell about it.  Of course, the snake is alive, too, because I screamed, dropped the hoe, and hauled as* out of there.

It’s the surprise of trying to water the geraniums and as soon as you hold the hose up to the pot, the angry little wren dashes out, with her eye-gouging talons about a centimeter from your face.  And after you scream and drop the hose, spraying yourself in the process, you discover her nest tucked away under the leaves.

The Scream’N’Drop is rampant around here.  But its worst incarnation is when you steal yourself for body disposal, pick up the latest victim, and it turns out the body is still alive.

Yep.  As soon as I grabbed that little bunny body, the bunny sighed and its chest began heaving up and down.  And it was still breathing when I recovered it from the bushes where I flung it after my scream.  Bruno and Bella shook their heads solemnly at my fear as if to say,

“We told you that thing was dangerous.  Best to leave this job to the professionals.”

I finally put the bunny in a shady spot at the base of a tree and set about finishing my chores.  I figured if I was forced to put it out of its misery I could (Probably.  Maybe.), but I preferred to let nature run its course.  By the time the milking was done, the bunny had gone to that big burrow in the sky and me and the dogs breathed a sigh of relief.

I passed out the dog biscuits and patted Bruno and Bella on their huge fluffy heads.

“I’m not saying the bunny wasn’t killing the chickens, ” I told the dogs.

“But keep an eye out for more trouble.  You know, just in case.”

Inside I thought the odds of a chicken-killing bunny was, well….

It’s been 5 days since the dogs killed the bunny.  And it’s been 5 days since a chicken was killed or injured.  Huh.

It wasn’t the bunny, right?  Couldn’t have been the bunny.  Right?

***If you don’t understand this post then you’ve never seen The Princess Bride.   What do you mean you’ve never seen The Princess Bride?????

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. 🙂


5 Responses to “Good Job.”

  1. Andy
    June 11th, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    Don’t you know anybody with a video camera and a tripod that you could borrow for a night or two?

  2. admin
    June 11th, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    I do. I just don’t know anyone who wants to leave their tripod and camera in a pasture where the animals can eat it/trample it/smash it/poop on it/who knows what else.

  3. Lisa Dumain
    June 12th, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    Ah yes, the scream and drop. I thought that was just for us city folk! Reassuring that it happens to you too 🙂

  4. Bobbie
    June 12th, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    Are there weasels where you live? They are small, and they will kill chickens and leave them behind when they can’t move them. They seem most interested in their blood, so sometimes the chickens just have bites to their necks. Sometimes they have no heads. I found a weasel in our brooder a few days ago, and she continued killing a chick while I was scooping the rest out. She got 3 out of 10 in a matter of minutes, and only stopped because I interrupted her. Not nice critters.

  5. Ashleigh
    June 12th, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    Oh, the scream’n’drop! The worst part of farming. I can feel that feeling even just typing this.

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