Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Chicken Hawk

This post is actually from an incident that occurred about six weeks ago but is not in any way outdated.

I have a real hard time forcing an animal to live in a cage. I don’t like the idea of confinement for any animal—guinea pig, bird, cattle, you name it. We eat grass-fed, free-range beef and bison. We are going to start getting chickens from a place down the road where they raise organic free-range birds. So there was no doubt when we got our own layers that we were going to let them range.
At first we let them out a few times a day, morning and evening. While they were still small and the world was largely unknown to them, they didn't go far from the pen and were fairly easy to round up. But as they grew and became more familiar with their surroundings they began to venture farther away. It was becoming impossible to get them back in their pen, which was a problem because we also have dogs that need to go outside. The final straw came when a neighbor who lives down the road—on the other side of the road--came knocking on our door to ask if we had chickens because one was were standing on her front porch while the others were running around in the road. After that we started to let them out only in the evening, as we discovered that they will put themselves away when it gets dark, a much more satisfying method than chasing them around the yard with sticks and branches.
We are not romantic about the chickens. We understand full well that as soon as they leave the pen they become targets for all sorts of predators and dangers. There are fox, cats, dogs, cars, and the neighbor kid with a BB gun. If you let your chickens run you have to be prepared to lose one now and then. Honey, who has only one eye, did not come back to the coop on several occasions. Because of her poor eyesight she would frequently get separated from the flock, and would run around in circles squawking. Eventually she learned how to keep up with them, and how to run a straight line, but not before spending a few nights out on her own. The first time I was frantic and searched for her all next day. Let me just tell you—a chicken who doesn't want to be found won’t be. But she learned how to get back to the pen on her own, and I learned to not worry so much about her, even though I understood that her tendency to become separated from the flock made her more of a target.
Even though we are now in the thick of winter we still try to let them out for an hour or so every evening. There’s not much for them to eat but at least they get some exercise. They have been gathering around Lori’s studio, which sits on top of a little hill and gets sun in the afternoon, so there is not as much snow there, and they have taken to crawling under it and scratching around in the sand.
This afternoon I let them out just after 4:00 and went back to my office, which faces away from Lori’s studio. Fifteen minutes or so later I came out and glanced out Lisa’s office window, which looks over the back yard and Lori’s studio. There was a large bird perched on the arm of Lori’s rocker that I just caught a glimpse of as I was walking down the hallway. Several steps down the hall I stopped and thought, that was no chicken. I went back to the doorway and sure enough, sitting on the arm of the chair was a large Cooper’s hawk, sometimes called a chicken hawk, looking this way and that. There were no chickens in sight. I yelled for Lisa and Lori and we gathered around the kitchen window, marveling over the beautiful bird. I of course was looking for a chicken in its talons but saw no casualties.
After it flew away I ran outside and stood in the middle of the yard. No chickens, not a peep, not a scratch. I checked the coop to see if they’d run for cover—empty. I went over to the studio and stood quietly, listening, and finally two of the chickens came around the corner, nervously looking around, and gathered around my feet. Then two more crawled out from under the studio, and I got down on hands and knees to see who else was there. We found Fancy, our aracauna, smashed between a bale of straw and the front of the studio with her head under her wing. There were piles of feathers on the ground but we couldn't see who’d had the close call. It wasn't until I was luring them back over to the coop that I saw Honey with blood on her neck.
I scooped her up, rushed her into the house and put her in the bathroom, then went to get an old towel. By the time I got back she had already pooped on the floor—at least she didn't do it while I was carrying her through the living room. Lori helped me clean her up and it seems that the only injury she sustained was a cut on her waddle, which was dripping blood onto her neck. She sat very still and quiet while we wiped her down, and then I took her back to the coop where she picked at some scratch as if nothing had happened.
I am amazed at how instinctively these birds behave, considering however many hundreds of generations removed they are from their wild ancestors. They knew where to go to escape danger, how to hide when they couldn't find shelter, and when it was safe to come out. They understand that they are safer as a group and sound the alarm when danger is near. While they have a brain the size of a (small) grape, they are much wiser about the wild than many of us are.

And so, I can say with a certain amount of pride,

Chickens: 1
Chicken Hawk: 0

Friday, February 6, 2009

The thaw begins

Ah, Spring. I know, the calendar says we still have six weeks or so to go, but on February 5th we passed the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and I can feel the change. The sun is higher and warmer, the days noticeably longer. Here in southeast Michigan we've gained about an hour and a half of daylight, 50 minutes of it in the evening. Even when the air temperature doesn't get above freezing the sun is warm enough to melt the snow. Bare patches get bigger every day. I start to hear the drip drip drip of spring.

I remember when I was a kid how excited I would get when it rained for the first time each year. It was a sure sign that winter was on its last legs. Winters have changed, warmed since then, and we had been getting rain at any time of the winter--a few years back we had a thunderstorm on New Year's Eve. But this winter has been more like what I remember as a kid, cold and snowy--we still have around one foot of snow on the ground. What's wonderful about that is you really feel the change of seasons, winter turning into spring seems to mean more, is more powerful, carries more excitement. It's hard to get excited about spring when there's been no snow on the ground all winter.

I know plenty of people who rejoice in a warm winter, but for me it's the change of seasons that makes living here so wonderful. I love the transition, love how each time I leave the house it's just a little bit different outside. One day I notice the snow's not so deep. Later I'll hear my first robin of the year. Next thing I know the house wren is waking me up at five in the morning, singing outside my open window. The peepers of spring become the cicadas of summer become the crickets of fall. I'll wake up one morning and there's been a frost, and I know it won't be long before the first flakes fly. The juncos return and it's time to dig out the snow shovels. And when the snow does fall again I'll strap on my snowshoes and dare winter to try to keep me inside, and listen carefully for those first drips of spring.