After months of hawk trouble, sometimes several times daily, we’ve had our first confirmed chicken loss due to a hawk. I found the remains of a chick in the pasture yesterday, just minutes after it happened. I counted and re-counted as I tucked the chickens in and locked their coops, and the lost chick was from the coop with the mama chicken. (I couldn’t tell from the remains because, well, they were remains. And the chicks are big enough that it was hard tellin’.) She hasn’t lost any chickens herself, and has been a model hen mama. This loss can be chalked up to nature.
I’m really upset about it. The day before, we had winterized the big chickens’ coop, and we were gone when night fell. When I went to lock the coop, there was only one hen on the roost, three more on the floor, and the rest were either on top of the coop or in the woods somewhere. I had forgotten that they freaked out last year, too, when we had winterized the coop, and didn’t want to go into the now-darker sleeping area and didn’t want to walk on the bedding. I spent a good hour chasing chickens around in the dark with a broom and a flashlight, and in the end, I could only get 10 of the 14 that live in that coop safely tucked in. (Chickens are even stupider in the dark, and totally blind, so it was not an easy job.) So I gave up. Sure enough, the next morning, I counted, and we had lost one of the teenage roosters. (This is okay with me, as those roosters are fully grown – only their wattles are slightly shorter than Hot Cocoa’s – and causing so much trouble. They just began chasing and attacking the hens to try and mate with them earlier this week, which just gets violent and unpleasant for everyone.) I knew that having chickens un-locked at night meant something would eat them (lots of predators around here), and I was sad about the loss (one less chicken dinner, and I have no idea how he died), but I didn’t have to see it. Nothing I could do about it.
But the hawk loss is tough. We free range because we want the chickens to be chicken-y, to eat what they’re meant to, to have a happy life. We know this means some losses. But I have never seen the bloody remains of a vicious attack. The hawks have been particularly persistent this week. I would hear a hen or rooster sound a warning call several times a day, and I would rush out and inevitably scare a hawk away. They were usually several hundred feet off, flying about or in a nearby tree, and they always flew away when I came out. The kids and I have been playing outside every day, because the hawks stay away when we’re out. Since I’m home all day, I have the ability to walk out when a chicken calls, and that has kept hawks away. Every night, I would count, and everyone was still alive and well. Today was like no other – a chicken was calling every hour, it seemed, so when Asher wouldn’t nap, I just made the kids all go outside. The girls didn’t want to, of course, because we had just brought another load of library books home and they were content to be curled up on the couch, reading. So I bundled them up and told them to read outside. Asher collected leaves in a bucket and emptied them in the coop for bedding, and Cal hung out on my back while I played with our new baby girl chicken (who still isn’t used to being around other chickens and needs humans around to protect her if she’s going to be let out). We were outside for a good hour and a half. Finally, I knew everyone was cold and tired, and trying unsuccessfully not to whine, so we headed in around 4 p.m. In the next hour and a half, I heard chickens sounding the warning squawk several times, and I went out on the deck to yell and wave my arms in an attempt to keep hawks at bay. I even sent Maya out once to see what she could do, but she said she didn’t see a hawk. When I went outside to count chickens and close the coop at 5:30, I found the remains of the chicken next to a pile of its feathers as I was hunting for two hens in the pasture (who were hiding because they were freaked out by the hawk, I’m sure).
We try hardest to ensure a happy life and a swift, painless death for the chickens we raise. This is our goal for any animal we raise for food. We could keep the chickens locked up and have few or no losses, but they would not be happy. I don’t ever want to be okay with animal losses like this. It hurts this time, but I hope it always hurts, at least a little. Otherwise, why do this? Though they are certainly not pets, we care for these chickens and want to protect them from unnecessary harm.
I will have to keep the chickens locked up for a few days and hope the hawks move on. Long-term, I’m not sure what we’ll do. They need more room to roam than their coops provide, if we’re to keep them locked up, as we designed the living set-up with ranging in mind. They’re not quite big enough to butcher or we’d just process them early (so the remaining chickens will have more room to roam). Some sort of a livestock guard dog sure would be nice, but that’s not exactly a quick or inexpensive solution, and I really don’t want a pet.
For my own records (and anyone else who cares, ha ha ha) – the numbers:
- 26 original chickens from hatchery (4/2009) – 12 males processed (7/2009) = 14 chickens (1 rooster, 13 hens)
- 14 chickens – four total late winter/early spring mysterious losses = 10 chickens (1 rooster, 9 hens)
- 5 chicks (2 cockerels, 3 pullets) hatched under broody mama (6/2010) now full grown and living with big chickens + 10 original chickens = 15 chickens (3 roosters, 12 hens)
- 15 chickens – 1 broody mama who still lives with her chicks in another coop = 14 chickens (3 roosters, 11 hens)
- 14 chickens – 1 young rooster lost after a night spent in the woods = 13 chickens (2 roosters, 11 hens)
Little Cattle Panel Coop
- 1 mama hen + 16 chicks (mixture of farm- and hatchery-born) = 17 chickens
- 17 chickens – 1 hawk loss = 16 chickens (1 mama hen, 15 adolescent chicks)
- 17 hatchery chicks + 2 farm-born chicks from another mama integrated into the flock at five weeks = 19 chicks
- 19 chicks – 4 early losses on a cold night = 15 chicks
- 15 chicks – 1 chick hiding in the woods at bedtime and presumably eaten by a predator (the night after I returned from CA, 10/30-31) = 14 chicks
- 14 chicks – 1 mysterious death (Barred Rock chick found at pasture fence, dead but completely whole and intact) = 13 chicks
- 13 chicks + 1 female chick given to us by a friend (she’s such a pretty little thing) = 14 chicks (13 cockerels, 1 pullet)