Predators & Pests

Life Lessons Learned From Keeping Chickens

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.

5 comments on “Life Lessons Learned From Keeping Chickens

  1. Your article was a good read and so true in many ways.
    I felt the same way when my Carmella (silkie)was taken by a hawk just a few weeks ago . I thought it won’t happen to me but it did, it was time for bed I went out to put them away for the rest of the day I had everyone away except for her, we had a corn field behind us and the chickens had been hanging out in there I went to look and spooked a bird out and found her little body lifeless.
    Now like you, they are all my favourites, but there is always one or two that are closer to your heart. I was bawling when my husband came out. He saw me hold her little body and came to hug us both. We buried her near some bushes she liked to hang around. For a week or so I would not let my girls out I was so terrified it would happen again and it could. I do let them out now, but try and keep a better watchful eye on them.
    Thanks for your article I enjoy reading your blogs.
    Sandy

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry for your loss and thanks for the feedback. Let’s hope that neither of us has any more predator issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a question maybe you can answer for me right now i have three chicken coops the one small coop only has two aracauna ladies i would like to move over to the the one big coop we have before it gets too cold. during the day when they are all out in my yard everyone gets along and runs together. when it’s time for me to put them away for the night they all know what coop they belong in. Now the two aracauna’s have ran into the bigger coop and the other girls do start picking on them with in a few minutes . if I transition them will the bullying stop. The reason i have the Aracaunas the man was selling them because his birds were pulling the feathers out of them. so they have been separate coops, my big coop has all my big girls in it egg layers and the second coop is a bit smaller and has my silkies and polish in
        Would you have any suggestions for me
        thank you
        sandy

        Liked by 2 people

      • If they are already out together during the day then you’re most of the way toward a successful integration. I would put the Araucanas in the big coop at night when it’s dark and let everyone out first thing in the morning. That way you can avoid pecking. Take a look at my post called ‘Adding To Your Flock’ – use the search box to find it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandy Winn

    Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

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