Monday, November 18, 2019

Homestead Setback

An Ominous Sign

When I saw the piece of paper attached to our gate the other night, I knew something was wrong. Grabbing  the paper, I started reading in the light of our car’s opened hatchback. It was a note from our nearest neighbors.

We have heartbreaking news about your hens…

I didn’t read any further. Fearing the worst, John and I rushed into the house to grab a headlamp and hurried to the coop. I lifted the vertical shutter and as John held the lamp high, we peered into the interior. It was the worst.

The coop was empty. Our little flock was…gone.
Our hens in happier times

We’d just arrived home late from out-of-town. During our absence, our hen-keeping neighbors were all set to look in on our five girls. What they’d discovered at our place… I had to wait all night to find out.

Our Neighbors' Story

Heartsick and wracked by guilt, I called Gretchen first thing the next morning. She told me her husband Alan had stopped by our chicken compound to say hi to the girls and top off their feed. Instead, he found that three of the hens had disappeared. The fourth one was on a nest, dead. Buffy was still alive, cowering in the coop.

Alan took the dead hen away to bury it, and by the time he returned, Buffy was gone too. “Sue,” Gretchen said, “we feel so bad. I mean, it was on our watch— ”

“Please don’t,” I interrupted her, feeling beyond awful. “What happened was totally our fault. I’m just so, so sorry you had to deal with it.”

I could tell she still felt terrible, no matter how much I reassured her. As she and I tried to piece together what animal or animals had done it—a way to process the loss of the girls—Gretchen said, “The strange thing was, the dead hen showed no sign of trauma.”

“I wonder...if she died from fright," I said slowly, picturing the terror the birds must have experienced.

“Maybe a heart attack or something,” said Gretchen. “We lost three of our birds like that, dying from no apparent reason.”

I thanked her again, for all she and Alan had done for us, and said goodbye. There was no escaping the next step—John and I would have to get a closer look to learn how this second flock had been killed.

The Evidence

We donned our outdoor gear and headed for the chicken compound. Checking the nests, we found two pristine eggs. Then steeling ourselves, we entered the pen. There were no bodies, no chicken parts strewn around, no carnage like the last time, when our first set of hens had been killed.  (Details here ...scroll down to the July post, with the full story in Little Farm Homegrown.)

The only evidence of foul play was a cluster of black feathers caught in the fencing next to the woods, and a pile of white-blond feathers—Buffy’s—at the bottom of the ramp into the coop.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the man door into the coop. More feathers on the floor, but no corpses, no blood. The animal(s) had carried away the hen’s intact bodies. “And look,” I said to John. “There’s hardly any manure on the roost.” I’d cleaned the coop the day before our departure. “This had to have happened the morning we left.”

Back in the pen, we looked around a little more, John mostly silent. The waterer was still completely full, as was the feeder. Who knows—the animal had probably gotten to the birds shortly after we’d driven away. But whenever the killing began, it was due to our complacency. The suffering and death of our hens was our fault, plain and simple.

Bad Decision

After I removed the waterer and feeder—we didn't need any more reminders of our girls—I looked around the woods on the other side of the pen. I had to face how very negligent we’d been. This past spring, John and I had cleared a large area in the woods adjacent to the chicken compound, which he fenced it with 4-foot steer wire. We didn’t have a proper pasture for the hens, but inside this woodsy-brushy area, with some trees and lots of tall thimbleberry, they’d get more area for free-ranging. And besides more weeds and bugs to scratch, they’d have some shelter from hawks and eagles.

Into this fence, John built a little hatch close to the hen door into the coop, just big enough to allow a hen through. It was cleverly designed so you could open the hatch without entering the pen, and let the birds into this larger, wilder area. It was a problem-free solution.

But we got…lazy. It was a hassle, wasn’t it? To go outside every morning and open the hatch, when we both had writing and office work, and homecaring indoors? So we started leaving the little hatch open at night.

The hatch we left the now empty pen
The other reason we’d started leaving it open was for Buffy. She was constantly, mercilessly tormented by the other four hens. They’d gang up on her and pull out her feathers; her comb was permanently damaged from their pecking. If that wasn’t bad enough, they’d chase her away from the feeder and waterer. So, John and I figured, the four hens would have more space, and Buffy more getaway room, if all five girls could freely roam in and out of the pen.

We’d gone out of town six separate times since we’d let the hatch stay open 24/7, leaving the hens to their own devices, and things had been fine. Until they hadn’t.

Trail of Feathers

“Look at that,” I said to John, wishing so badly for a do-over. I pointed to the woodsy side of the fence. “White feathers.”

John and I went through the gate. Buffy had clearly been carried off like the others. There was a trail of white feathers, leading diagonally all the way through the fenced area, then beyond into the denser woods of our acreage. Then the feather trail just petered out. We could find no den, or evidence of chickens. Wherever the hens were taken, we’ll never know.

On the phone, Gretchen had mentioned that cougars—the animal that had killed our first flock—generally carry away their prey to eat in privacy. But the cougar that got our flock four years ago (that we'd first thought was a bobcat) had torn the chickens apart right there in the pen.

“I wonder if it was coyotes that did this,” I said to John. “Remember that night last week, when a pack of them had howled right outside our bedroom?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said John soberly. I knew what he was thinking. Dead is dead.

The Empty Pen

John and I feel doubly guilty about our wonderful neighbors Gretchen and Alan. They weren’t only the ones who’d had to deal with this killing, but they’d had a personal stake in the birds' well-being. Two years ago—almost to the day—we’d bought the hens as pullets from an almost-free price.

After we’d lost our first hens, these five girls from Gretchen and Alan had brought life back to our little homestead, and somehow, possibility.

This setback feels like a big one. We've lost our hens' company, some of our food supply self-reliance, and my pride in keeping a healthy flock. Most of all, I've lost the contentment I'd feel gazing out at our girls.

Our chicken compound is straight across the yard, in full view of the kitchen window. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so I look out that window many times each day. Now, after death stalked Berryridge Farm for the second time, my gaze still goes automatically to the chicken pen, and I still search for movement as I’ve done for two years, seeking a glimpse of the hens that aren’t there.

All I see, and feel, is emptiness. With a heart heavy with regret.