I came home yesterday and I didn’t see any of the chickens. This is a bad sign but to continue my magical thinking that somehow we are on the outside of predation potential, I assumed they were hanging out in the shade somewhere, relaxing in the afternoon with a novel and an umbrella drink.
Then my father-in-law knocked at the back door to tell me something had gotten a chicken. It was by the compost pile. Scratch that, two chickens. When I went outside to have a look, there were still no live chickens to be seen, but feathers were everywhere. And a wing. And another dead bird. All three dead chickens had been decapitated.
At this point I needed to find some survivors and I did; they were looking a little shell-shocked under the big pine trees, heads poking out wondering if they were next. I assume.
The irony here is that I’d made a boomerang trip out to the Hamptons to pick up an electric plucker and my dad’s killing cone set up. My Hudson Valley farmer friend (and expert chicken processor) Zach had agreed to come down for a day next week and walk me through my first chicken harvest. Six more days and I’d have a freezer flush with 25 meat birds.
Read all the Chick Dispatches here.
I had to set aside the carnage situation. We were having a small, impromptu dinner party with friends. We sat outside, in sight of the chicken coop, in earshot of the coop, and at some point during the dinner party, another meat bird got attacked, decapitated, its body left under the plucker. It happened in complete silence, we had no idea.
At sunset, we went back to the coop to lock up whoever was left for the night. Eight egg layers and twelve meat birds. Half our flock was either missing or confirmed dead.
The following morning, more bodies appeared, all decapitated, strewn all over the property, all six acres. This triggers the CSI instinct we all have. Whodunnit?
- Whatever it is decapitates chickens. I’ve seen hawks attack, misjudge the heft of the bird and make off with only the head and neck of the prey. If it had been one chicken, or maybe even the two then I’d have stayed with theory #1: hawk. But the massive attack means something that enjoys blood.
- Racoons? Nope. Strictly nocturnal. I think. Usually.
- Fox? Maybe. Also nocturnal but I’ve seen them around during the day. Their habit, generally speaking, is to drag off a bird, bury it and save it for later. My lawn was strewn with carnage.
- Coyote. This is my main suspect. I’ve seen one on our property and one out on my run. They will hunt during the day, they are incredibly stealthy and mean and they drink blood. I also found a single track, right outside our bedroom window, within 20 feet of where I also found a wing. I’m not an animal track expert, but here’s a picture, in case you are. Do weigh in.
Whatever it was, that this happened was squarely my fault. Chalk it up to a learning experience but there are things that should have been done to protect the flock, like taking some security precautions. But having the chickens wandering around the yard is just so darn cute, pastoral and photogenic! I hard-eyeroll every time I see some twee photoshoot of chickens blissfully coexisting with a vegetable garden. The reality is there’s poop everywhere and the chickens defoliate everything. (Except poison ivy because they are jerks). But for that one dewy morning for the magazine or homesteading book cover, or that few week stretch out the window of someone who knows better, they really are so delightful to watch free range.
Until they get annihilated by a coyote.
- Put up the electric fence. We have one. It is solar-powered and completely useless rolled up and hanging over the compost bin. Even set up, it won’t prevent a hawk from attacking from above but the shock is intense to anyone who touches it. Just ask my husband who wanted to confirm that it was working. While it was up, we never had a four-legged predator attack.
- Build a predator-proof run. Create a fenced structure, big enough to stand up in and buried several inches into the ground so a predator can’t burrow in. Pro: permanent. Con: expensive, labor intensive, and not guaranteed to work.
- Get a gun. At the risk of engaging in a national debate of which I want no part, real farmers have guns. There’s an documented predator on my property killing my stuff. That’s an argument for a small rifle, capable of taking down a coyote who is still out there. But I don’t want to own a gun more and it is illegal to discharge a firearm in my town unless you are a police officer or otherwise licensed to do so, and civilians are not.
- Trap the coyote. To do this, go to the bait and tackle shop and buy a tuna hook. From it, hang a hunk of meat. Pork shoulder would work well. Hang the meat from a tree high enough that coyote has to jump for it, and wait. Best case scenario, you hook a coyote. See #3 above.
- Hire an assassin. Find someone in your network who is excited to set up something called a “lucky bunny” predator lure. It runs on batteries, is small and furry, flops around and squeaks. You (or your hired assassin) hide 50 feet away and wait for the predator to come investigate and blam-o.
- Move back to Brooklyn.
I’m likely going with option 5. In fact, I have two folks in my circle who are eager for the chance to thwart the law and help a farmer in distress.
I also need to start over again with chicks because eight egg layers is a population bordering on pets and that will not do.
As for the meat birds, Zach is still coming and I’ve still got a dozen birds to harvest. As long as I can manage to keep them alive for five more days.