One day last week, I walked out to my coop like I have done hundreds, more like thousands, of times before. Rounding the bend it took a moment to register ‘what is wrong with this picture’: there on the ground lay a pile of feathers surrounding the body of one my teenaged pullets. Her death came as a bit of a surprise; sure, I know there are predators around and they’ve certainly shown their presence in my neighbourhood. Virtually every poultry keeper around me has had experience with mink, hawks or raccoons that have, for whatever reason, left my flock in peace.
I never let my guard totally down, but I wasn’t really expecting it either. My last two predator losses were in 2019, seven months apart, and both the result of raccoons. I couldn’t blame them, as in each case those birds were hiding in the shed and missed night time lock up. One was a first time broody and the other was destined to go off to her new home just two days later.
I examined the body more closely and quickly determined it belonged to my favourite girl of the hatch, Margaret (named after one of the folks featured in my series ‘Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours). She had beautiful plumage and had overcome some adversity as a chick. I was looking forward to the day, maybe three months from now, when she’d lay her first egg. Her five remaining siblings looked a bit shaken, but I’m sure relieved that they weren’t the unfortunate victim, thinking ‘better her than me’.
I was a bit miffed that so little of her body had been eaten. If you’re going to kill something at least don’t waste the body. She was decapitated, her head completely stripped of flesh with the beak missing. A small chunk of flesh from her back was gone.
For many years I collected animal skulls and eventually amassed a collection of 350, representing species from all over the world. When I looked at Margaret’s skull I saw a gaping hole, which at first glance I attributed to an injury sustained from a predator’s beak.
Hawks usually peck flesh from the chest and abdomen. Mink often eat small amounts or just suck blood from a puncture in the neck. Looking around I could see small gaps where the netting met the fencing and a hawk could get in, but not easily escape in a hurry. I pinned this attack on a raccoon.
My 15’x30’ grow-out pen is attached to my main 30’x40’pen with 95% of the top covered by overhead netting, which has successfully kept out aerial predators. The fencing would also keep out dogs, but not mink or raccoons. Despite seeing evidence of the latter, tracks in the mud or snow, I’ve rarely seen raccoons but when I have, merely shooing them away seems to work. I live on a small, forested island and these are not like city raccoons: prolific and bold. They don’t rely on human garbage and buildings for their survival, mostly foraging in the woods.
Some folks bury, burn or put their dead birds in the garbage. As long as their corpses are safe to eat I carry them out to a field or wooded area on my acreage as an easy meal for wildlife: eagles, vultures, ravens and even the raccoons. I left Margaret’s body on a raised stump where I could monitor who came by. No one the first night and the next day we had a torrential downpour lasting all day. The following morning I awoke to ravens feasting on Margaret. I snuck out with my camera, but they were vigilant and flew off when they heard, but hadn’t even seen, me. They returned over the next couple of hours, leaving only a pile of soft grey feathers and a pair of legs. A few days later, her legs and the remainder of her body had disappeared. It may seem disrespectful offering one of my birds to the ravens, but they are also part of the web of life and it was a simple way to sustain those who are also residents on my land.
I had put what remained of the skull to one side. Upon closer inspection the hole seemed symmetrical and the edges were smooth. I know that crested birds have vaulted skulls, but I had actually never seen one in my own flock. I’ve handled dead birds from predator kills, natural causes or euthanasia but never stripped the skull down to the bone to see what they looked like.
I have a number of crosses derived from crested breeds: Appenzeller Spitzhauben, Polish, Silkie and Cream Legbar. That endearing tuft of feathers on the top of their heads comes at a cost: a deformity in the skull creates a raised area enabling those feathers to stand upright. In most birds the cranial bone is thinner than non-crested birds and in many there is actually an opening, making the brain more vulnerable to head and pecking injuries. As luck would have it, I landed a cool skull that was damaged by her killer.
Seeing that skull was a new one for me and one of the lessons learnt from keeping chickens. Another observation is that predators and illness seem to strike one’s favourite birds: the most beautiful, friendliest or who lay the most interesting eggs. It’s as though the grim reaper also shares our preferences. If one had to lose a bird you’d cross your fingers that it might be the ones you’d miss the least, or maybe even a cockerel that was superfluous to your needs. I treat all my birds equally, but there are definitely some that have left a little hole in my life upon their departure.
My Standard Poodle, Lola, is nearing her tenth birthday. Covid 19 has been good for her because I’ve spent longer times at home which gets translated into more walks and more company. Monday mornings, when I head back to work, are marked by a depressed dog that doesn’t even bother to get out of bed to greet me. By the end of the week she’s perked up significantly knowing she’ll have my undivided attention for three full days. When I look into her eyes I sometimes feel a twinge, knowing that her lifespan is not long enough – maybe another four or five years if we’re lucky.
It’s even worse with chickens. Yes, there are folks with chickens that have lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, but many die long before then, sometimes quietly in their sleep, other times violently by a predator, or even more difficult in my eyes, at one’s own hands, even if the reason is motivated by compassion. I am a strong advocate of euthanasia and the humane ending of a bird’s suffering, but that still doesn’t make the decision easy.
Having relationships with animals is a source of life lessons – some enlightening, some heart-warming, and others more difficult. Just a few feet from the body on the ground, I could hear the peeping of chicks yet to hatch. Their mother Coco was softly clucking, encouraging them through the arduous process of pipping (making a hole in the egg shell) and fully emerging from the egg. Over the next two days nine little fuzz balls would come into this world despite the dark cloud of Margaret’s loss.
Keeping chickens has been both a joy and a sorrow and above all keeps me connected to the cycles of life: birth and death and everything in between.
As luck would have it I have a number of good pictures of the chicks from Margaret’s hatch, except you guessed it, the star herself. I’d taken a bunch of photos of her brothers for online posts hoping to find them new homes. I guess I thought that I’d have plenty of time to get shots of her later. Another lesson learned: enjoy today because there may be no tomorrow for some of us.