I consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to my flock. I’ve experienced some ups and downs: the occasional loss to predators or illness, some minor injuries, or having to deal with mites, worms or bumblefoot. The worst thing I’ve dealt with is an outbreak of Marek’s Disease almost two years ago; I cross my fingers I’ll never see it again. The thing about luck, though, is it doesn’t last forever.
My current woes all coincided with the atmospheric river, a weather event that drops a phenomenal amount of rain in a short period of time. The precipitation wasn’t my problem (although it did make my pen pretty muddy); I just think it was a harbinger of things to come.
I had a sleepless Sunday night listening to the unrelenting rain pounding on my metal roof. I tossed and turned thinking about potential power outages and getting to work on time. I live on Gabriola, a small island off the west coast of Canada and commute to a small city via a 400 passenger, 70-car ferry. Earlier that day, we heard that due to staff shortages the first two ferries would be cancelled starting Monday, which meant a big lineup for the ferry I usually take. I got up 40 minutes earlier than usual and headed out the door with my coffee and bagel in hand, prepared to eat breakfast in my car. The rain was still pelting and it was pitch black at 5:45am. Part way there I encountered a massive tree across the road and had to double back to take another route. I finally made it into the line and then sat in the dark and cold till 7:35am.
That crappy start to my week was just the beginning. The ferry schedule continued like that for another ten days, which meant I both set out to work and came back home in the dark. One of the consequences of the ferry fiasco was that it was consistently late, which stretched my work day to 10-12 hours. By the time I got home I was exhausted and didn’t feel like contending with problems. If you’ve got kids you can’t ignore them, and if you’ve got chickens you’ve got to step up to care from them as well.
My coop has an automatic door so I didn’t see my flock for the four days I had to commute. On Friday, the rains had passed and I spent time with my birds and cleaned the coop. Just as I was heading out to an appointment I heard some strange noises in my pen and went running to find a hawk on top of a nine week old chick. I could only find a small wound on the back of his head. I brought him into the house and set him up in a sick bay near my wood stove, hoping to monitor his progress.
His mum and one sister were huddled in a side pen and I thought they’d be fine until my return. Unfortunately, not. The hawk returned shortly after I left and killed my hen, Coco.
Most of the hens had made it back to the coop. Tarek, my rooster, was great at alerting them and ushering them to safety, but clearly wasn’t going to face off with a predator. I found some youngsters hunkered down in the shed and had to move some buckets and bins to reach them. In doing so, I found a nest in the back corner with two tiny brown eggs. One of my pullets must have just started laying, but I had no idea which one.
The next day I started remediating the few gaps I had in the overhead netting. My pen is 30’x40’ housing fruit trees and shrubs, a three-sided shed and covered dust bathing area, so it’s not an easy fix. I thought I did a pretty good job enclosing what I could. My flock was traumatized and only ventured out of the coop if they knew I was there. It was a sign they trusted me to protect them and I felt badly that I’d let them down.
Fast forward three days. The hawk came back and killed one of Coco’s chicks. My partner went out to find the pullet’s body and saw the hawk escape, not from a gap in the top of the pen, but right through the 4”x8” mesh of my wire fence! At first I thought it was a Sparrow Hawk (Kestrel) whose name implies it should be killing something much smaller than a full sized chicken. Later I figured out it was a Sharp-Shinned hawk and was amazed at the ingenuity of it finding its way into my pen. No other hawk has ever done that. My dilemma then was how to protect the two sides that were vulnerable (the back has smaller mesh wire and the front is wood).
In the interim my only strategy to keep my birds safe was to keep them locked up. When we hear the term ‘cooped up’ it conjures images of being imprisoned or trapped with nothing to do. When I’m housebound I get cranky and unfortunately so do chickens. Birds that experience boredom and stress tend to a) get sick or b) take it out on their flock mates and I was concerned either might happen.
Two days later those fears were confirmed. One of Coco’s pullets had started limping the week before. I noticed that she was ‘knuckling’, walking on the back of her clenched foot. I couldn’t help but think of Marek’s. I met with my mentor Dr Vicki Bowes, Avian Vet/Pathologist the next day to study some necropsy photos and case studies. I asked her advice about euthanizing my pullet and she suggested waiting more three days to monitor her progress.
The next day she was limping, but her toes were in the right position. Over the following week she seemed to be improving, so I felt relieved it wasn’t anything worse than a leg injury. She was motoring around, but still slower than her siblings so I was surprised to see that she had evaded the hawk. She’d been roosting in the nest box and I had to lift her up to the roost bars at bedtime. When I came out to check on everyone that night I found her on the floor, wet and muddy with two gashes on her head – the typical signs of a pecking injury.
I brought her into the house and put her and her brother in a larger crate. It was six days after Coco’s death and his near death experience. I was concerned that he didn’t seem to have a major injury, but his progress was interminably slow. For the first five days he spent most of the time sleeping, occasionally standing, rarely walked and as far as I could see, wasn’t eating or drinking. He didn’t have any trouble walking, but he was clearly more injured than I could see.
I tried giving him water by dipping his beak into a dish or using an eye dropper to drop water on the tip of his beak, but he wasn’t interested. And when I tried to force his beak open he summoned all his strength and fought me off. How he survived that long baffled me.
On day six he finally started to eat and drink and talk, not the usual chicken clucking sound but a high pitched whistle, not unlike a hawk. I then began to wonder if the wound on the back of his neck was a sign that his esophagus or trachea was damaged from the hawk’s talons squeezing his neck.
Once I had the pullet safely crated I offered her water and food, which she ate ravenously. Since he hadn’t eaten for days he also wasn’t pooping so I hardly noticed his presence. With the two of them chowing down the smell was evident in just a few hours.
After a couple of days of being locked up I decided to let my flock into their pen when I was home. As soon as I unlatched the gate they were flapping and flying and running around, happy to spread their wings. I saw Aryana, one of my pullets born in June heading for the nest in the shed. She must have been desperate because less than ten minutes later I found a little brown egg and now knew who’d laid the other tiny eggs. Laying outside the nest boxes is not a habit I want to encourage. I rearranged some buckets to block her access and hope she’d figure out what the nest boxes were for.
I had cleaned out the coop the previous week, but already it was stinky. My 8’x8’ coop and 4’x8′ run (housed within my big 30’x40′ pen) is not designed to hold 21 adults, 4 point-of-lay pullets and seven nine-week old chicks 24/7. In the summer the coop doesn’t need cleaning as often, but in the cooler wet season the shavings and poop don’t dry out. The result of which could be ammonia build up that can damage their eyes and feet. I picked up a large brown egg from the coop floor – it looked like it might be a new one from one of the teenagers – and saw that it had a peck hole in it. I put that egg and the Aryana’s egg from the shed into a nest box and got to work shoveling shavings into a wheelbarrow.
A few minutes later Audrey came into the coop looking for a place to lay her egg. I’ve got eight nest boxes, but they like to lay in the most popular one of the day. (In case you’re wondering why hens do that it’s an evolutionary adaptation in which a hen who is not broody lays in a communal nest hoping one of her flock mates is and will incubate her eggs and raise her chicks). Audrey spotted the eggs and headed for the box. Within minutes, the egg with the hole was broken open and she was feasting on the contents. I don’t know if she stepped on it accidentally breaking it or actually pecked it open, but egg eating is another behaviour you want to discourage. It’s the first time I’ve ever caught one of my hens with yolk on her beak.
It was clear that after the initial improvement the limping pullet was starting to decline. Marek’s can cause internal tumours including those on the sciatic nerve resulting in one legged paralysis. When I first brought her into the house she was standing and moving around, but within a couple of days her leg was splayed out to the side, a typical sign of Marek’s. I made the difficult decision to have her euthanized. I couldn’t send her off for a necropsy because the Animal Health Centre was closed due to widespread flooding after the atmospheric rivers hit, not once but twice, in that area.
It’s been over two weeks since the initial predator attack. I spent an afternoon securing all the joins between the six foot strips of plastic deer fencing that covers the top of my pen and I hung some CDs where there were small, not easily closed, gaps in an effort to deter the hawk’s return.
My on-going strategy has been to work with nature. I live on a small acreage, surrounded by forest with plenty of native birds. The ones I have cultivated a relationship with, the ravens, have kept the hawks away. If I have cracked eggs I sometimes feed them back to my hens or my dog, but the ravens usually get their share. We’ve set out a bowl for them in the grass and they fly over daily looking for treats. The ravens nest nearby, bringing their babies to our place and, in making our land part of their territory, act as a deterrent for raptors.
Each day my flock has spent the morning locked up and then is released into their big pen for the afternoon when someone is home. I’ve yet to see the hawk around, but my birds are still so traumatized they rarely venture out of the coop, or very far, if I’m not with them. It’s hard to see them on alert for danger, but I’m hoping my efforts pay off and the hawk has moved on to easier pickings.
I’m not wishing anyone a bout of bad luck, but I feel I’ve had my fair share these last couple of weeks and will be happy for a reprieve, hoping it lasts a good long time.
Featured photo credit: Viral Hog