A funny thing happened today. Well, more like decidedly unfunny: one of my hens has disappeared. I don’t meet missing with some obvious explanation, but gone, poof, vanished without a trace.
Years ago I let my flock free range and in those two years I lost two hens. It was obvious how they had met their fate: hawks. I know because I once saw the perp standing on my hen’s chest ripping her feathers out under a lilac bush. Two deaths in two years may seem like pretty good odds, but I decided that I would invest in some infrastructure to contain them. I put a second-hand 4’x4’ coop inside a 30’x40’ wired pen. It’s deer fenced with 4”x8” mesh, which I know won’t keep out mink or raccoons.
I had already planted some fruit trees in that area, which gave them some shade and protection. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to deter hawks and I lost several: all bantams and young birds. Even if you don’t find a body there’s usually a pile of feathers or some signs of a struggle.
My solution was to net the top as best as possible given I had trees and structures to contend with.
By then I had replaced the original coop with a custom made 13’x 8’ one and added a covered dust bathing area, three-sided storage shed, and two attached runs within the big pen. I assembled a 10’x 20’ car shelter frame, placing it in the centre, and ran plastic deer fencing from one side of the pen to the other, going over the top of the shelters. The mesh is either 1”x 1” or 2”x 2”.
Since that time things have mostly gone well. I had my first, and only, mink come for a visit in the spring of 2019. Luckily I was home at the time and managed to scare it off after it gave chase to my birds. So far, it’s yet to return. I’ve had a couple of raccoons sneak in to eat leftover food recovery produce at night. And I have had two losses due to raccoons: in both cases the hens missed the night time closure of the automatic door and I didn’t notice their absence later in the evening. One was a first time broody who had snuck off to sit on a pile of eggs. I’m not sure why the other one didn’t make it back to the coop. Either way, I can’t blame raccoons for finding an opportunistic meal on their nocturnal rounds.
Another time, my flock alerted me to a hawk in the pen. I ran out and it got caught up in the netting but managed to escape through a small gap. I’ve had no run-ins with hawks for a few years and then a sly Sharp-Shinned Hawk managed to take advantage of a weakness in my netting and killed my hen Coco and one of her pullets, in two separate attacks in late November. Immediately after that I devised new strategies to make my pen Fort Knox, but it’s not always possible to seal every gap.
So those are some of my losses due to predators. In every case, I found some evidence – feathers or a body – either inside the pen or nearby.
What I experienced today, and a couple of times recently, are mystery occurrences. My main coop has an attached 4’x 8’ run that I lock each night for good measure and open before I leave for work in the morning. Depending on the time of year, my chickens are waiting to be let out or sleeping as it’s still dark. When I open that pen door I bungee it to my fence so it won’t blow closed, trapping some birds either in or out of the coop.
Several months ago I came home to just that scenario: some of the flock was out in the main pen and some were shut in the entrance pen. The door hadn’t just blown closed, someone had locked it! I know it wasn’t me and my partner rarely ventures in there. I scouted around and all my birds were accounted for, but I was confounded by who closed the slide lock. It wasn’t a raccoon, because it’s almost 5’ off the ground.
I let that incident slide, but then another odd thing happened. I have a 15’x 30’ pen with a 4’x 8’ coop that are adjacent to my main pen that I use for broody hens and chicks or teenaged grow-outs. It, too, is mostly netted. Last June I had a hatch of nine chicks – five white and four black – so it was easy to do a quick head count. When I came home from work the gate between the two pens was open and one of the 5-week old white cockerels was missing. I know that if they get spooked it’s possible to squeeze between the tarp and the netting and out to the woods that surround their enclosure. When that’s happened before they’ve had the good sense to stay close or manage to find a way back in.
I rarely use that gate and when I left for work that morning it was locked. In my hunt for the missing cockerel I checked the main pen – occasionally the littles find a way in there and I can just shoo them back home. No cockerel. Then I noticed another weird thing: one of my hens was locked in the storage side of my coop, which I hadn’t opened that morning. She’d laid an egg on the floor so she’d been there awhile, but there wasn’t much out of place or a pile of poop so I doubted she had spent the whole night there. Nothing, including my birds, was missing. I can understand a young bird squeezing through the fencing, but chickens can’t open and close doors and gates.
I live on acreage with a 700’ driveway. I don’t have lots of visitors, but do have regular egg customers. They usually make arrangements via email or messaging me and pay with cash or e-transfer. I don’t always even see them. I wondered if someone had taken the liberty of visiting my birds and went from one pen to the other. That might explain the open gate, the hen locked in the storage area and even the missing cockerel. I don’t suppose that anyone would confess to their trespass. I accept that having chickens means having to deal with predators, but it’s disconcerting that I might be dealing with creepy people. No one wants to think of folks wandering your property in your absence.
That takes us up to today. We’ve just borne the brunt of some crappy winter weather: a 14” snowfall on Boxing Day which kept my birds in their coop for a week; their choice, since they detest snow. Then just when it started to melt we got another big dump, overnight, on January 5th. For the next four days I tried a variety of things to coax my birds out of the coop: namely food and when I cleaned the coop I tossed the shavings on the snow so they didn’t have to touch the white stuff.
Then the rain started and seemed like it might not stop. Sometime in the last four days my six-year old hen, Nox, vanished. I’m not sure exactly when because at this time of year during the week it’s dark when I leave for work and they’re tucked into the coop when I get back. I always go out after dinner to make sure the automatic door has closed and that there are no stragglers. Since the recent hawk attacks I pan my flashlight around the pen looking for tardy birds and I’ve even taken to looking inside the storage shed in case someone is hiding.
When you’ve got a couple of dozen chickens it’s not always easy to notice each one individually. I hatched Nox (Goddess of the Night) as a chick; she’s one of my four frizzled hens. Her curled feathers make her distinctive as well as having a fine set of spurs, but she’s also aloof. I don’t think she’s ever eaten from my hand nor has she any close chicken friends. She motors around and does her thing, never had health issues and has been a great broody mum.
When I didn’t see Nox I assumed she was in the coop. When I went in there, she wasn’t there either. I went back and forth thinking I might have just missed her. I searched the storage side of the coop. There are some feed bins and shavings bags she could be behind, but unless she was incapacitated she wouldn’t be hiding. No luck there. I pulled the buckets and bins out of the storage shed – nothing there either.
There was no sign of a body so I looked for clumps of feathers. Again, nada. If a hawk got into my pen then there’d be some evidence and there’s no way it could have carried a full-sized hen out. If raccoons had gotten in there would have been tracks or some evidence. When they killed my Naked Neck pullet I saw where they dragged her through the fence. Then I found a short trail of feathers in the grass, ending at her partially consumed body. When it snowed last week I did see raccoon tracks along my driveway and around the back of, but not in, my pen. They are aware of my birds, but for some reason haven’t shown a lot of interest in them.
When the hawk killed my birds in November I locked the flock in the coop for several days. I didn’t have to convince them that it was for their own protection, they were clearly traumatized and for a couple of weeks would only venture out if I was there. But now my flock is not acting as though something untoward has happened.
Often when a predator or illness takes a bird they happen to be your favourite. It’s as though critters and pathogens share your tastes. I have to admit that Nox wasn’t my favourite. Not to say I didn’t love her or think she was beautiful, but she just didn’t have a relationship with me, or it seems any of the other birds. At just shy of her sixth birthday, she had probably come to the end of her egg-laying days. In fact, the last time I recall seeing her in the nest box was last spring. I was prepared to offer her a home until the end, and now it looks like that time has come.
When I told my partner that Nox was missing she said “Too bad you don’t have a trail camera”. That was a dig. She gave me one for Christmas; not the one just past, but a year ago. What can I say? I have it on my to-do list to set up and just haven’t gotten around to it, but this latest incident will be the impetus to push me to getting a move on. I’m also planning to prune my fruit trees and redo the overhead netting to further prevent any potential for hawks to find an entry point into the pen.
I’ve not only lost one of my flock, but I’ll probably never figure out Nox’s fate. Sadly, her disappearance will be relegated to my file of chicken keeping mysteries.
I’m curious to know if any of you have experienced any of your own mysteries? Did you ever find out what happened? Feel free to post your stories.