It started with the eggs – or the lack of them. For months the egg production from our busy little hens has slowed, almost trickling to a halt as winter settled in for a stay.
This is not unusual, especially if you don’t switch on a light to brighten the short winter nights and stimulate the egg-producing behavior. I stopped doing that in order to allow the birds to plump up and relax during the cold months. I figure they’re healthier if their energy production goes into producing heat and bulking up. This year, an occasional warm day here and there caused a burst of productivity that resulted in a dozen eggs. After only one or two every three or four days, we took that as an indication that winter was on the way out.
Then the birds disappeared. *poof* Gone.
Again, it isn’t unusual for chickens to simply drop in their tracks. They don’t have long lifespans and are prone to a wide variety of illnesses, often being infected with avian disease strains from contact with wild populations. Unless they become gaunt or show loss of motor control, chickens can be very ill and not exhibit much in the way of behavior change, until they keel over.
But when ten of them disappear overnight, well, that’s just darn suspicious. Ten! Okay, so it didn’t happen overnight. But on average, we lost 1-2 birds a night for a week. Our flock of fifteen is now five. Not a feather remains to indicate a struggle.
Free range chickens are subject to predation. You might as well post a sign that says “free eats” because the hungry will come-a-calling. And there aren’t too many critters out there that don’t like the taste of chicken. Even the rooster got caught, although I admit he was pretty dumb, not like our old rooster who died last fall. These birds were all inside the coop, which is inside a yard surrounded by a six foot fence.
After a careful inspection of the fencing material and the interior of the coop, I am forced to accept that we have a sneaky predator. And he’s not a big one because he can shimmy under the fence line (I found two spots) and fit through the chicken door into the barn. The little bugger has a mighty appetite. I’m suspecting a red fox, maybe with an early den of kits. We’ve had a mild winter – sometimes that sets the hormones off in a goofy trajectory and the spring babies arrive early.
The game cameras haven’t caught sight of anything yet. I’ve blocked the accesses under the fence but I know it’s a futile gesture. I’m just buying time until we can implement a new yard design and install another automatic opening door. The last one was expensive and worthless, but the loss of the flock is worse, so we’ll try again.
Soon I’ll buy chicks at the farm store and start the process all over again, but I’m not interested in sacrificing any more birds.
I don’t mind sharing the eggs. The skunks, snakes, raccoons, and possums get their share. We co-habitate the landscape with the wildlife and I understand there is a certain degree of attrition in maintaining the balance, but this decimation of the henhouse is not okay.
After an opportunistic coyote moved into the neighborhood last summer and wiped out the local cat and dog populations, I’m hoping we aren’t experiencing a revisitation. If so, the Department of Fish & Game are ready to trap and relocate, but in the meantime we could lose more of the animals we’re entrusted to care for.
Have you ever had a pet go missing? Lost some livestock? Come home and found an empty fish tank and wondered what happened?