Table of Contents for “In the Shadow of the Hawk”
The masked bandit
One season when I was negligent and didn’t have a battery in the charger on my movable broiler pen, I had a sharp reminder from Mr. Raccoon of the importance of keeping my defenses up. The raccoon visited the pen during the night and tore a hole in the wire poultry netting (I bet you can’t do that!), then simply reached in and helped himself. There were eleven young broilers on the menu that night. Needless to say, I didn’t waste any time getting a new battery in service, and there was no more midnight drama out on the pasture.
The only other time I had losses to a raccoon was, again, my own fault. I had used electronet fencing to “park” a flock of layer hens on a plot of grass I intended to convert to blueberry bed—the chickens were busily “tilling in” the established sod for me. The site was on a slight incline, and as the chickens scratched up the existing grass, the debris gradually sifted downslope and accumulated over the lower charged horizontals of the fence. Every day as I serviced that pen I would say to myself: “Hey, boy, better pull that stuff off the fence!” But you know how it is on the homestead—always on the run—and I failed to take the needed action. Then one morning alarm bells went off in my head even before I consciously registered the splashes of feathers out over the pasture. I grabbed the electronet—not a whisper of charge. “Well, duh, boy,” I castigated myself, “got it now?” The masked bandit charged me only four laying hens for his kind and most valuable lesson: When using electronet, keep the fence lines clean.
There are a number of potential predators—skunk, ’possum, coyote, bobcat, mink—that I won’t discuss because we’ve never had a problem with them. Please do become familiar with the likely predators and their modus operandi in your own locale. [See “You Think You Have Predator Problems?”.]
I will discuss one potential predator we’ve never had a single loss to, simply because we see this leprechaun of the woods so frequently, and meet so many people who complain that they can’t keep chickens on their place because of—foxes. Brer Fox is resourceful and wily, a competitor for our chickens worthy of our respect. I have friends who wail every time I see them about all the chickens they’ve lost to the fox. Invariably, I recommend electronet fencing. Invariably, I hear the same tale of woe next time I see them. I want to shake them and demand, “When are you gonna start raising chickens—rather than feeding the fox?!”
We love to see the foxes come through our property—beautiful creatures who seem to be enjoying their outings to the fullest. Many times I’ve seen them walk within yards of my flocks and not even glance at the birds—doubtless they’ve already gotten a snoot-full of the wizardry in my fence.
The most recent sighting occurred just a few days ago. A red fox came into the back yard while Ellen and I were having lunch by the kitchen window. As it entered the orchard, I assumed it was “just passing through,” like so many foxes we’ve seen on our place. But when it suddenly doubled back, I wondered—since it was obviously a rather young fox—whether it would make an attempt on the chickens, not having been properly instructed by my fence. It crept closer to the fence, apparently intent on prey. Then it pounced—and came up with a plum that had fallen from a tree. Holding its better-than-nothing plum daintily in its mouth, it made off into the woods.
A sly fellow
It’s easy to keep most intruders out of the henhouse. It is almost impossible, however, to keep out a snake. Aside from giving one a start when one comes upon them unawares, though, snakes are unlikely to do a great deal of damage. Keeping the rodent population in check will help limit the interest of snakes in the poultry house, as they usually come in first seeking rodent prey, and only then discover the joys of eggs in nests and recently hatched chicks.
My most interesting close encounter with a snake followed my discovery one day that one of my Muscovy ducklings was missing. Next day a second duckling had mysteriously disappeared. When yet a third was missing next morning, I ransacked the poultry house, and found a big black snake under a piece of plywood, three distinct lumps decorating its ample length. Putting on long thick gloves, I pinned the snake’s head with a stick and caught it with my free hand. When I took it up to the house to show Ellen, I held it up as high as I could, its head in my left hand, its tail dragging the ground. Since I am five feet eight, the snake was well over six feet long—the biggest black snake I ever encountered on our place.
The rule here with snakes (black snakes are the only ones I’ve ever found in the chicken house) is this: If I find them when they’re still just checking things out, I catch them and release them elsewhere on the property. If they’ve already had a taste at Harvey’s Diner, they have to go: I catch them, tie them inside a feed bag, then drive about six miles away, where I release them in some woods, hoping they’ll readily make the transition to the new environment.