Friday, January 11, 2013

State of the Art Chicken Defense System

What do you think of the chicken’s new decorating scheme? Makes the place feel like a constant party. Unsurprisingly, the girls were not impressed. But no matter, the effort was to protect them, not impress them.

Last year when I allowed myself to be talked in to purchasing 28 chicks over the phone by a friendly, enthusiastic man at a hatchery in Iowa, I thought I was hedging my bets. After all, we lost eight chickens in one fox attack the year before and the dog had already nailed three by spring. So 28, while a ridiculous number of chicks for a family based operation, seemed reasonable when you consider the inherent dangers of living on this hillside.

All of the chicks, save one, made it through the summer. I was feeling flush; I even gave six away to friends whose own flocks had been decimated by age or sharp-toothed felons. I was in the midst of negotiating a deal to relocate another hen contingent on a rooster accompanying her (anyone else need a rooster?), when the siege began.

My husband and I were all cleaned up and headed out for a night on the town (or at least a game at the local brewery), when we heard panicked shrieking from the chicken pen. We dashed in our finery to the muddy pen and discovered a hawk having dispatched with one hen, surveying the others and choosing dessert. We shooed him out and hoped we’d scared him as much as he scared us.

Apparently not, because over the next few days chickens began to disappear on a daily basis. What to do? It’s illegal to shoot a hawk. They’re a protected species. I have a hard time understanding why we’re protecting them; they seem to do just fine on their own. No matter, we don’t own a gun. I did half-jokingly ask one of my son’s friends, an accomplished hunter, whether he’d be interested in the job. He wondered about the legalities of taking out the bird. Smart kid.

And it wasn’t just the hawk eyeing up our birds. We have a dog, which claims at least a small amount of hound pedigree, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That’s the nice way of saying it. She barks at the horses, as if she’s never seen them before, yet bounds out to greet any stranger who walks up our driveway. She threatens to kill the cat on a daily basis, only to back down the minute the cat turns around. She does not come when she is called and bursts through our invisible fence regularly, still not certain where that electric zap to the neck came from. Once free to roam, she rolls in horse poop and then sits opposite the front door barking. Obviously, the hawk is not afraid of her.

Back to my story. A few days after we realized we were losing birds, this dog began barking in an unfamiliar voice. My husband was working from home that day, and we looked at each other surprised. Was there a strange dog in our yard? No, it was our dear dumb hound, but she sounded different. She sounded like a real dog, as if she were saying, “I’m not kidding this time. There really is something dangerous in the yard!” Running outside we found a red fox stalking a cluster of chickens near the driveway. My husband pulled the invisible fence collar off our eager dog and set her off in chase. We knew she’d never harm a fox, but we were counting on the fox not knowing that. We set her up patrolling the yard. End of fox visits.

If only the hawk was as easily intimidated. Our free ranging girls are confined to their pen for the time being. They are none too happy about it and three of them are managing to scale the fence daily in deference to the fact that they have clipped wings and a local animal kingdom eyeing them up for lunch.

While the hens stewed, we considered our options.

At a holiday party, friends who live a few miles away told me that they were losing animals to coyote until they purchased donkeys. Apparently donkeys keep coyotes at bay. That seems like a cumbersome and expensive, not to mention noisy, fix, but they have cows to protect so there’s more at stake.

My husband and I recently spent a weekend on a sheep farm in Virginia where they had “guard llamas.” Guard llamas seems like an oxymoron until you learn how ferocious llamas can be. Who knew? 

We aren’t in the market for any more creatures, so we dreamed up our own defense. Hence the redecorating.

We’ve strung up electric fence across the top of the pen. It’s not electrified at this point. We’re starting out simple. I dug out old plastic containers and pie pans and strung them up with baling twine over the wires. I’m considering blasting some country music too, but don’t know how that will fly with the neighbors.

Have we outsmarted the hawk? It’s too soon to tell. We’re five days in to the new defense system and so far so good. I count beaks every morning.

This is our 'guard cat', not nearly as
effective as a llama would be I'm sure,
but he does protect the chickens from
the mice that would steal their food.
I tell this story, not for your entertainment, well maybe for your entertainment, but also as a reminder that sometimes we have to be creative when solving our own dilemmas. Whether it’s kids or chickens, it’s easy to throw money at a problem, in the form of llamas or donkeys or professionals. But it’s much more satisfying to fix the situation yourself. I’ll let you know how this one pans out.

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