Predators in the Barnyard

“IF YOU WANT to see wildlife,” my husband tells people, “try keeping chickens.” Indeed, our gentle flock of free-range laying hens draws all sorts of wild animals to our yard.

Some summers, our ladies attract foxes like children to the Good Humor truck. One day my husband spotted a young red fox trotting across our neighbor’s yard in broad daylight, carrying one of our fat Black Australorps in its mouth. “Hey!” my husband yelled out the window. “Drop that!” The animal turned toward the noise, staring with golden eyes, and instantly, inexplicably complied. Then it trotted off, as casually as a person resuming an errand — leaving our hen frightened, minus some feathers but unhurt.

Other times we have not been so lucky. Standing on his back porch one fall day, our next-door neighbor saw a red-tailed hawk hurl itself from the sky like a lawn dart onto one of our chickens. The neighbor rushed to save the hen, scaring off the hawk, but the raptor had killed her instantly. We buried the body.

We’ve had skunks dig their way into our henhouse. We hear skunks sneezing on summer nights: dirt gets up their noses as they search for the nests of sleeping ground bees, leaving chevrons in the lawn. Bee larvae are delicious, but chicken eggs are even better, and that’s what inspires skunks to tunnel through the earthen floor of our hen’s inner sanctuary at night. Our ladies, understandably rattled, set to clucking and flying about dangerously in their tight quarters, so we are forced to capture and move the skunk. This is easier and more pleasant than most people think. Selecting a medium-sized live trap from our library of Havaharts, we bait it with chicken liver (liverwurst also works) and by morning we usually have our skunk. The animal always rides sedately in the car as we drive a few miles to the local nature center. When I open the trap door, the skunk steps out, pauses for a moment, fluffs up, and walks away with the dignity and style of a wealthy, older lady exiting a limousine.

Our hens also gave me a view of an animal I’d never before seen in the wild: an ermine. One Christmas morning, when I brought the ladies their holiday breakfast of hot popcorn, I found one bird lying dead in a corner. I bent to pick her up by the legs, but her head seemed stuck. When I pulled her free, out popped the snow-white head of a weasel in its winter coat from a tiny hole in the corner! Though it weighed less than a handful of coins, it stared at me fearlessly, coal eyes blazing as if to say: What are you doing with my chicken?!

Of course I had been thinking this was my chicken. Our hens begin life with us as peeping chicks. I raise them in my home office. I write with fluffy baby birds nestling in my sweater, perching on my head, walking across my keyboard. They grow into friendly, affectionate hens that run toward me to be fed, stroked, and kissed. The ermine had killed somebody I loved; yet I felt no anger — only wonder at the incandescent ferocity of this tiny, indomitable predator. After all, these animals were on this land long before we and our domesticated ladies arrived.

But I realized that unless I trapped and moved the weasel, it would come back in a few days and kill another chicken. Each night, I left the smallest of our live traps by the henhouse baited with chicken liver; each morning I rose early to check for a capture. One morning I found the ermine in my trap. It had frozen to death in the night.

This past winter, I had an opportunity to assuage some of my guilt. One of my eight-year-old Dominiques died of old age. It would have been impossible to bury her, because the ground was frozen, and besides, with so many winter-hungry mouths needing meat, it would be a waste. But I didn’t want to leave her in our woods and entice more predators to the flock. I drove around with her body in my car for days. A friend who feeds deer didn’t want her on her land, because the carcass might attract coyotes. And when I brought her corpse to the local nature center, I found a program in progress filled with small children who would be distressed at the sight of a dead chicken.

Finally I gave her to my friend Phil Brown, who works for Audubon. He was already taking a deer carcass up a mountain that’s part of a local nature preserve, where a motion-activated camera records visits from the animals there. Twenty-six hours later, the camera snapped a red-tailed hawk in profile standing atop my sweet hen’s body, a cloud of grey feathers plucked from her breast carpeting the snow. Two hours after that, the camera recorded the moment a barred owl landed, soft wings ablurr, to feed on what little remained.

Sy Montgomery has published nearly 20 books for both adults and children and they have garnered many honors. The Good Good Pig, her memoir of life with her pig, Christopher Hogwood, is an international bestseller. She is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (given by the ASPCA for Humane Education) and dozens of other honors. Her work with the man-eating tigers, the subject of her book Spell Of The Tiger, was made into in a National Geographic television documentary she scripted and narrated. Also for National Geographic TV she developed and scripted Mother Bear Man, about her friend, Ben Kilham, who raises and releases orphaned bear cubs, which won a Chris award.

Comments

  1. Marvelous! What a beautiful, balanced account of life with the domesticated and the wild. Renews my ambition to have a flock in my own backyard, but I’ll have to watch out for our local coyotes, skunks and hawks too, I’m sure! Thank you for a lovely unsentimental story.

  2. A very nice article. I wish though that some mention was made about laws regarding relocating animals caught in live traps. Some states have laws against this, especially animals that are prone to rabies, such as skunks, fox and raccoons. I would not want people who read this article to think that relocating is the best way to deal with a predator.

  3. Our family flock has been wonderful ways of helping my daughter understand that the food chain runs both ways. We’ve lost a few birds to the foxes but we’ve also been blessed with eggs, insect control, entertainment and a better sense of the wildlife ecology in or little corner of New Hampshire.

  4. Beautiful imagery and very real ethical issues associated with defending backyard poultry flocks from predators – either successfully or less so. Some resort to firearms. Others trap and relocate or shrug and lose a few hens. Predators enforce the rules and help farmers to fortify fences to exclude. Our experience has been hungry weasels,coyotes or bobcats persist while raccoons, foxes, opossums and skunks seek easier quarry elsewhere.

  5. As a backyard flock keeper for over a decade I always enjoy reading stories from kindred chicken-keepers. I too have lost beloved hens to predators. Off-leash dogs, Cooper’s hawks, and raccoons have taken the biggest toll over the years. Recently I’ve found what I hope is a solution to the losses…a single strand of electric fence. I haven’t lost a single hen to a mammalian predator in the two years since I electrified the wire around our property. The hens still have green pastures and woods to scratch in but the coons and other mammals are kept at bay. Hawks still present a problem but I’d rather loose one or two a year to a hawk than to confine my free-ranging fun-loving girls in a small totally enclosed coop devoid of fallen leaves, fresh grass and grubs galore!

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