Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bobcat Attack at Berryridge Farm

I’d just finished breakfast when our four hens started cackling like crazy. They were even rattling their fencing. What are they up to, I wondered, some kind of girl fight? I went outside to toss them a few greens from the garden, to get them to mellow out a bit, and there, on the other side of the chicken pen, hardly fifteen feet away, was a bobcat.

The bobcat’s reputation for shyness must’ve been a rural legend. Because it locked eyes with me for a long moment, and didn’t even move when I yelled at it. It pounced against the fence one more time, as if to say, “Ha! You don’t scare me!” and melted into the woods. Then I saw the feathers.

They were all over the inside of the pen. Three hens, Marilyn, Daisy, and Dottie, emerged from their favorite hidey hole next to woodshed #3, out into the main chicken run. But where was Chloe? “John,” I called to him inside the house, “You need to come out here.”

He rushed into his work clothes, and just in case, “weaponed up,” as I call it, with a Bowie knife and a loaded .380 pistol, in case the bobcat got aggressive, or was even rabid or something. “Chloe,” we coaxed, peering around the usual hen hangouts, but there was no sign of her. I got on my muckboots and finally went inside the fenced coop area. In the corner right next to the fence, a hen lay crumpled and motionless. Chloe.

How could the bobcat have killed Chloe, from outside of the fence? We investigated the fence line—and concluded that the cat must have waited for a hen to come near the edge of the pen. Maybe Chloe had been taking a dust bath, and the cat sneaked a paw through some small gap we hadn’t realized was there and mauled her. Well, at least the cat wouldn’t get to eat its kill.

John and I grieved for a bit, then he went to get a shovel. With a heavy heart, I left for my daily bikeride. This month marked our three year anniversary of keeping hens, and after a hawk had gotten one hen, and illness got another, we’d now lost 50% of our original flock. 

I returned from my ride to meet John by the woodsheds. “I want to show you something,” he said. I rounded the corner and what do you know. There was Chloe, standing, if just barely, on our splitting stump. Head drooping, eyes mostly closed, she was still taking tiny sips of water from a little tin camp cup John had unearthed. He carefully parted the feathers on the back of her neck to show me the wound—a bloody patch, but it wasn’t bleeding. “See, maybe it’s just a surface wound,” John said, “and she’s just in shock. She might bounce back.”

Through the afternoon and evening, Chloe hung on, with John encouraging her to sip more water every few minutes. He’d always had a soft spot for Chloe, whom he’d named after the feisty analyst Chloe O’Brien on the TV show, “24.” Since we didn’t want to put her into the coop with the other three hens, who might peck at her injury—the “girls” had often picked at the bald spots of their molting sisters—John fashioned a little temporary coop for the night. He tenderly settled her in, with food and water just inches away. Now we just had to wait.

We never saw it coming.

This morning, I went out to check on Chloe, hoping against hope she'd still be alive, if not kicking. We’d either overestimated the safety of the temporary shelter, or underestimated the determination and ingenuity of the bobcat. Because all I found was a new pile of feathers, and a small mound of entrails studded with flies.

John and I felt terrible. Did the bobcat snake a paw through the steer wire and kill her, or climb the fence? We’ll never know. But the days of our hens ranging freely all over the orchard are over—just like our days of sharing eggs. With only three aging hens, chances are remote we’ll have any extra.

In my Little Farm book, as well as my novels, I generally focus on the lighter side. But this loss really brings home that whether it’s weather, predators, or the sheer unpredictability of life, Mother Nature can be seriously relentless.

I added this Monday, July 15: A sad ending.
Two days after we lost Chloe, I went outside to greet our three hens...and found another death scene. The bobcat had returned, and had not only gotten inside the covered chicken pen, but through the small hen door into the coop. I found Marilyn and Dottie in pieces outside the coop, and Daisy nearby, her body intact but her head bitten off. Our little flock, whom we'd nurtured for three years, and was such a part of Berryridge Farm, was gone.

I'd never thought I could be fond of chickens, but I miss them. I miss the companionable hen clucking and chatter, clamoring for some scratch or to come and hang out with them. I even miss the rattle and squeak of the feeder. I've always loved the silence of our Foothills life, but now the quiet seems unnatural. Even eerie.

All that remains is all the scattered goldy-brown feathers. And the empty chicken run and coop feels haunted.