deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death
guilt (noun) /ɡilt/
feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: self-reproach
the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime
Keeping chickens sounds like a walk in the park, but it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be. There’s the sharp learning curve of figuring out that birds aren’t quite the same as cats and dogs; being confronted with parasites and illnesses; the lack of avian veterinary care forcing you to become proficient in chicken first aid; witnessing the darker side of avian life – bullying, pecking and even, cannibalism. And of course, coming to the slow understanding that pretty much every predator sees your flock as a tasty buffet.
In thirteen years of chicken keeping I’ve been relatively lucky. I have experienced losses, but most of them out of my control: gout, Marek’s Disease, ovarian cancer. I’ve tended my birds well and sent some off for a necropsy to determine if there was something contagious I needed to contend with. I’ve wormed them and treated for external parasites, getting covered in mites in the process. Several times I’ve dealt with bumblefoot. I’ve grappled with an egg actually stuck in a hen’s vent; pushed prolapses back inside; and done first aid on a bad pecking injury. Although I can write about these things, I admit to feeling a bit queasy at the time.
Nothing makes me feel worse than euthanizing a bird. I’ve always made the decision as a last resort to spare a bird further pain or suffering. I know it’s the humane thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. I’ve been fortunate to have found other people to help out: my neighbour Tom who worked on a chicken farm, my homesteading friend Thomas, and Margaret who responded to my online plea asking for someone experienced in cervical dislocation.
I’ve euthanized a few birds myself – always fearful I might screw up and botch it. I’m confident in my skills to decapitate young birds and have done so with three: a chick whose sinus was colonized by insect larvae; a young pullet with leg paralysis caused by Marek’s Disease and another with a slipped tendon that I wasn’t able to fix. I did it quickly so they didn’t suffer. I, on the other hand, felt sick and it took me a bit to get over it. I have a hard time relating to folks who think ‘it’s just an animal’.
Online chicken groups are full of crying emojis and sad tales of mishaps, sickness and death. There are the stories of the gate that was left unlatched allowing the family dog to wipe out trusting birds; injuries sustained by inadvertently stepping on a curious chicken that got underfoot; the coop doors that swung closed leaving someone to succumb to frostbite or hypothermia or a nocturnal predator; the hen that drowned in the livestock water trough; the head injuries and broken bones sustained by over zealous toddlers; or coop fires that wiped out a whole flock and, sometimes, the family home.
Some of those events were entirely preventable; not the result of malice, but more likely inattention, inexperience or lack of time. We’ve all got busy lives and it’s not always possible to keep track of every change in our flock or to shut the coop door when you thought another family member was assigned to do it. It’s easy to scoff and think what kind of idiot would do that? If you keep chickens for long enough you may discover you’re that kind of idiot.
Today was my turn. More than a decade ago I made the decision to pen my birds, in part, to protect them from predators. After I lost a couple to hawks I rigged up overhead netting that covers, most, but not all, of the top. The problem is my 30’x40’ pen houses a coop, a three-sided storage shed, and four fruit trees. I’ve done the best I can and for the most part it’s worked. My losses have been few and far between. I chased away my one and only mink in 2019 and haven’t seen it since. The same year I lost two young hens to raccoons. In each case, they snuck into the shed for the night (one was broody) and missed nighttime lock up. I have an automatic door, but I still go out nightly and check there are no stragglers. It’s easy in a flock of 20 or 30 to miss one in the dark.
Two months ago, a predator got into my 15’x30’ grow out pen and killed one of my favourite young pullets. I assumed it was a raccoon that squeezed through the deer fencing, but today I found out I was wrong. Earlier in the week we experienced an unprecedented amount of rain, in what is being termed an atmospheric river. Today was bright and sunny and I decided to spent part of it cleaning the coop and hanging out with my flock.
At the very moment nine weeks ago, when that little pullet was killed, Coco was hatching out her first chicks. At almost 3½ years old this was her first shot at motherhood. Despite my concerns about her inexperience and the time of year she’s been a trooper. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother. I took some photos of her little brood a couple of weeks ago and thought about it today. My camera was in the house so I put it on the to-do list for tomorrow.
An hour later, I was literally heading out the door to an appointment and heard strange cries coming from my pen. I ran out just in time to see a small hawk on top of one of Coco’s pullets. It flew off and despite clumps of feathers on the ground the victim looked okay. I put her inside the coop and scanned the pen. My rooster Tarek must have got most of the flock into the coop safely. There were a few hidden birds behind buckets in the shed, and Coco and one of her chicks were huddled in the corner of 4’x9’ wired pen within my big pen. I left them there and asked my partner to listen out for any noises. I headed off to my appointment confident that the hawk was foiled and Coco would be safe undercover. In all my encounters with predators they rarely come back until weeks or sometimes months later. Boy, was I wrong.
When I returned two hours later the flock was still in the coop, the stragglers were still hunkered down in the shed and poor Coco was where I left her: dead, with a hawk stripping her carcass. As I moved towards them the hawk fluttered against the wire mesh, then flew out past me and found the only access point out of the pen. Coco’s pullet wasn’t with her; luckily she’d made it into the shed with two of her hatch mates.
Looking at her lifeless body, having only seen her earlier happy with her chicks, I felt a big pang of guilt. Because I was in a hurry I hadn’t ushered Coco and her chick into the coop fearing they might bolt into the pen and I wouldn’t be able to secure them. I couldn’t possibly get the others that were hiding without being late. I assumed that they would be safe and I’d lock them all up upon my return.
I went out to check them at bedtime. Of course, my whole flock was traumatized. Seven of Coco’s chicks were on the roost bars where they usually sleep. The one who was attacked earlier was roosting in the nest box. She’d been limping the last week, I think due to an injury, and that must have made her an easy target. A cockerel was on the floor and on closer inspection I saw he had sustained an injury to the back of his head. He was brought into the house to recuperate in an infirmary under my twinkle lights and beside the wood stove.
I’m one of those glass half-full folks, trying to find the silver lining in the face of something difficult. So here are some of my take-aways:
- I’m glad that Coco was able to raise her chicks to the stage where they are fully feathered and independent. They’ve grown up as part of my main flock so there will be no issues with them being the targets of bullying. I’m sad about Coco and hope that her end was as quick as possible.
- I’ve had relatively few losses to predators (nine in over 13 years, including two in which my flock was free-ranged) things might have been much worse.
- Of course, I hate when predators kill my birds, but I’m not angry or vengeful. I live in the forest and the hawks have as much right to be here as I do. I love to see them and would never consider harming them. Tomorrow I will be out with more netting and figuring out a creative way to close in the last opening against that hawk.
- Regardless of why bad things happen to our birds, the end result is often the same: guilt and feelings of negligence. We’ve got the lives of other creatures in our hands and sometimes we fail them.
- Guilt isn’t a useful emotion unless you can turn that energy into something productive. Accidents happen and kicking ourselves isn’t productive. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes and prevent a repeat occurrence.
- Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. I regret that I didn’t take those last photos of the happy family before it was too late.
- Life is short, especially our time with our chickens, so make the time that we have count.
I don’t suppose this will be my last predator encounter, but I hope it’s the last one for a long while. At least until I recover and feel a little less responsible for the demise of my beautiful, dedicated frizzled hen.
All photos Bitchin’ Chickens