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Living with Predators

Grant Wood, "Adolescence," 1940

897 words

We had our first chicken massacre last week. An unknown predator (likely a raccoon) got into the coop through a gap where two sections of roof meet and killed nine of our flock. The person opening the coop on the morning after the event was greeted with the sight of nine headless and upper torso-less pullets, most of which had been raised from the age of one day old. The loss is great; we had anticipated that these chicks would form the foundation of next season’s group of egg layers. Instead, they have been dispatched back to the dust . . .

Previous to this unfortunate incident we lost about half a dozen chickens to predators over a period of several years. Sometimes the culprits have been known (such as the Bobcat that grabbed Lea at 10:30 in the morning just thirty feet away from several witnesses), and sometimes they have been unknown (such as whatever caused the original Peep to vanish without a single trace, also in the middle of the day). But in all cases the incidents could have been prevented — with adequate intelligence.

When we first lost chickens it was primarily due to the fact that we let the birds have the complete free run of our property during the day. (At night they were locked up in a totally secure room adjacent to the house, a refuge that they dutifully returned to voluntarily every day at dusk.) After the death situation occurred one too many times, we reinforced an old structure on the property into a presumably secure coop with attached spacious (although still fenced) runs. This improvement resulted in more security, and except for a couple of instances (one when a skunk was discovered in the coop and was safely escorted outside, and another when a feral cat got in) there were no further incidents, and we settled into a feeling that all was secure. Therefore our guard was down, and the predator took advantage of that.

Grant Wood, "Stone City, Iowa," 1930

There is no remedy for predation after the fact. In the recent case of our chickens, the killer was likely a native animal. Thus, the chickens (and we) were and are invaders into that creature’s territory. (We are invasive species.) So the animal has a legitimate claim to the territory that we inhabit. Also, despite the seeming senselessness of killing nine chickens and simply removing the heads of most of them (instead of killing just one and feasting on the ample body), we cannot get into the mind of the predator and know why it does what it does. We cannot apply human standards of behavior to it and make any kind of judgment. Animals do what they do, and many of their motivations are likely beyond the confined comprehension of man.

So, what can be done? After the fact there is certainly a visceral desire to “get” the creature that did it, but in this case realism has to trump any fleeting desire for revenge. There is really nothing that I can do. Shooting the offending animal is not an option for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t want to patrol the area around the chicken coop endlessly, night after night, waiting for the culprit to return. That culprit might not return for weeks or months. And even if it did come back and I managed to dispatch it, there are likely thousands more of its kind in the surrounding woods who would be glad to fill its place. Such a process would go on forever, and it would consume me. In the same manner, live-trapping would be equally futile. Yes, I could likely do well at trapping animals and transporting them far away, but like the shooting solution, this procedure would drag on for the rest of my active life as more and more animals moved into the area to fill the void left by their elsewhere-transported companions.

Grant Wood, "The Appraisal," 1931

No, the only solution to predation is to keep it from happening in the first place. In the case of our chickens, we let them roam freely for years before the attrition rate finally caused us to confine them to secure (yet still spacious and free) quarters. They did well in their new surroundings for over two years until the unknown intruder finally discovered the gap in the roof . . .

That gap has now been secured. That action is too late, of course, and it won’t bring back the unfortunate nine. And it also won’t do anything to dissipate the feelings of guilt I have for not noticing and securing the breach in the first place. Because that is where the guilt in this circumstance should be — on me. It cannot be placed onto some native animal that was just doing what comes naturally because I allowed it to.

We were victims of predation because I allowed us to be. I didn’t apply my human powers of observation and intelligence to prevent an action that was totally unnecessary. I hope that I’ve learned the lesson. From now on, vigilance and anticipation will be the key factors in assessing any situation.

Hopefully in the future my intelligence will be greater than that of potential predators — of any kind.


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  1. Stronza
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Sorry about your livestock, George. I know what it’s like. Regarding identification of predators, maybe you’ll find this a bit helpful. It’s from Gail Damerow’s book. Seeing a hawk take my chickens doesn’t upset me that much, but when it’s a filthy raccoon, I am filled with hate & revenge.

    Parts Missing

    A dead bird found inside a fenced enclosure or pen with its head missing is likely the victim of a raccoon that reached in, grabbed the bird, and pulled its head through the wire. Or a bird of prey could have frightened your birds into fluttering against the wire, and those that poked their heads through the wire lost their heads.

    When you find a bird dead inside an enclosure with its head and crop missing, your visitor was a raccoon. If the head and back of the neck are missing, suspect a weasel or mink. If the head and neck are missing, and feathers are scattered near a fence post, the likely perp is a great horned owl.

    Just as a raccoon will reach into a pen and pull off a chicken’s head, so will it also pull off a leg, if that’s what it gets hold of first. Dogs, too, may prowl underneath a raised pen, bite at protruding feet, and pull off legs.

    George, you stated,

    “Thus, the chickens (and we) were and are invaders into that creature’s territory. (We are invasive species.) So the animal has a legitimate claim to the territory that we inhabit.”

    Were you funning us? How far back do we go before we realize that the issue isn’t our taking over the raccoons’ and hawks’ territory, but that of the Indians (aka “abos”)? Or, at least where I live, the intelligentsia are making it a giant issue and the reparations to date amount to probably a trillion $$$.

  2. Razvan
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Sorry for that. I know how it’s like. Living near a big forest has downsizes. During the days it’s the hawk (I saw a huge one attacking last summer). During the nights it’s the rest of them (foxes, badgers, weasels, ferrets). The ferrets are the biggest issue. They eat only the head and leave the rest of the bird. At first I lost 30 chickens in only one night.

    No room can be secure enough for a smart predator.
    I made some big cages with small windows and secured with rabbits net (I leave the windows a little opened). I sealed everything and check every week so that they stay secured.
    I always give to the chickens something to eat one hour before sunset. They are always greedy and will come. Otherwise, it is possible to fall asleep anywhere becoming an easy pray. Immediately after sunset I number them and close the doors. A good dog left to run freely into the chickens yard during the night will surely help, at least against the foxes. I haven’t lost any bird since I made the new cages and enforced the new rules.

  3. Richard Ricardo
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I sympathize with your plight. We have guinea fowl that we let roam and there is attrition. I suspect owls. On the other hand, they also regularly hatch their own eggs so we have a ready source of replacements. The chickens and ducks go into a pen at night. We have had a couple of snakes get into the pen and steal eggs, but I haven’t lost any birds in there.

    I think you think again about using traps. Sure, you will never catch every single potential predator in the vicinity. However, there is one varmint out there who now knows where and how to get an easy dinner. He’ll be back. You should be ready for him. If you have a good idea of the species and the method of ingress, it shouldn’t be that hard.

    Good luck.

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