The past few days have been eventful around here… And not in a good way.
We were entering Phase II of our “backyard flock expansion,” where we felt the 10 week old hens could hold their own against the Big Girls, and therefore allowed everyone out of the coop/tractor to free-range together in chicken-scratching bliss. It was quite lovely.
Until one day…
On Friday, my mother was visiting and I had a new friend over to “talk shop” about oil-infusing, calendula growing, and lip balm-coveting. The three of us had just sat down at the table in the garden to chit-chat and drink tea, while Sweet Toddler ran amok amidst us. We were close to the hen yard, probably 50-70′ away from them, and weren’t being quiet by any means. I felt like our presence in the yard was pretty solid, and was completely surprised by what happened next.
I heard some birds chattering. Birds are always chattering. Their symphonic prattling is always present in our yard, as we are often frequented by stellar jays, robins, crows/ravens, woodpeckers, doves, and scores of other winged-friends that only my bird-nerd best-friend can identify. Admittedly, they’re not my favorite visitors, because they often steal the harvest, but we tolerate them, and they are a subtle reminder for us about the wild spaces that surround us. We live on the edge of a very large, well-established old neighborhood. We’ve got a lovely location right in the city, but the blocks behind and around us are all basically wild spaces. It’s a great mix for a city/country girl like me; but, I’ve realized, it also provides a false sense of security.
In the spring and summer, our household spends approximately 75 percent of our time outside, namely in the backyard. I felt that the strong presence of humans was enough to deter winged predators from visiting, at least while we were home. I thought for certain if a predator attack were to take place, it would be during one of the bazillion times we leave the homestead for a quick (or not-so quick) errand. I always expected to potentially return to something unsightly, but not to view it. That makes me sound flippant about my flock. I assure you, I’m not. I secure them in their coop promptly at dusk every night, and their entire hen house is made of wood; elevated, latched, etc. I care for my gals and want to keep them safe. What I don’t wish for them is to keep them in jail. I have a smallish tractor, but not a big fully-enclosed run. I have dedicated a whole half of our large, fully-fenced backyard and have gifted it to my gals, in exchange for their lovely eggs and never-ending stream of entertainment. I thoroughly enjoy watching them scratch and peck, and often on warm evenings, sit under the Rowan tree, near the beehives and watch the bees and the hens go about their business. If we are to keep hens, this is the way we wish to do it. Where they can roam, roll in dirt, lay in the sun, or stand out in the rain if it pleases them. I am realizing this comes with consequences, however.
Flashback to Friday. As I have said, the four of us were sitting outside and I heard some birds calling. Then I saw some ravens circling. At first I thought nothing of it, but then their cacophony became so loud, and their circling became tight and furious, I knew instantly something was wrong. I leapt from my seat and began to run toward the gate to the hen yard. I scrambled, but, went as fast as my very pregnant body would allow, and when I got to the young pullet, lying on her back on the ground, I saw a bird, (a raven?) fly from her general area. What I had missed in my running, and what the others had seen, was a Red-Tailed hawk fly away from my hen yard. When I got to my sweet and fluffy blue Cochin, she had her eyes closed and was breathing funny. I immediately grabbed her and cradled her like a baby, sobbing, “Mom, My hen! My hen! Help me. They killed my hen!”
It wasn’t the ravens who attacked my hen. They simply sounded the alarm. And bless them for it, because who knows what may have happened. I don’t remember hearing any of the hens cry out. In fact, moments after, I tried to account for them and couldn’t find them. They had scattered. Two Big Girls in the coop, and all of the rest under two large bushes. There are many places in the hen yard to hide, but where the Cochin lay wasn’t one of them.
My mother inspected the hen and at first didn’t see the wound. She was still alive and opening her eyes, but mostly motionless. She seemed stunned. I tended to Sweet Toddler who had begun to cry at the commotion, and Sweet T and I tried to account for the other hens. Finding no wounds, we thought the hen was in shock, and no knowing what to do, I found the Nutri-Drench poultry vitamin and mixed it with some water along with some Bach Pet Rescue Remedy, and began to put a few drops here and there in her beak. She seemed appreciative. I placed her under a dark bush to rest and everyone tried to calm down a bit. In the meantime, another friend arrived for a quick visit. She has a strong animal husbandry background and took a look at my Cochin. She found a wound under the Cochin’s wing that my mom had missed. (I myself still hadn’t had a chance to look the bird over). The wound was deep, and almost the size of a dime. I could see inside her body and I didn’t like the looks of the wound and immediately in my gut felt like healing this wound was beyond the scope of my abilities. Since a vet visit for this sweet Cochin would have been completely crazy, I decided to attempt to doctor it as best as I could. I got out my homemade, rudimentary chicken first-aid kit which consists of:
- Bach Pet Rescue Remedy
- hydrogen peroxide
- old rags
- cotton swabs
(Mostly stuff I can already find around the house, with a few extras from Amazon. I add to it, as needed. I’m thankful to have this stuff at the ready because I never know when it’s needed. Vetericyn is an awesome wound-cleaning gel, and it’s safe to use on all animals).
I cleaned the Cochin’s wound and set out to make her a sheltered, segregated recovery area. By now, with the feathers clipped away from the wound, and Vetericyn applied, the hole in her side was making a whooshing sound, and she still wasn’t breathing well. Hours later, DH had finally returned home, and was trying to help me assess the situation. He heard the noise her wound was making, and saw her labored breathing, refusal of food and water, inability to move, and after a quick call to our vet for info, agreed with me that her time had come. I called our buddy to come help “do the deed” since we didn’t have any experience in this area. While we waited, DH put the pullet down in the grass and she began to walk around. This made DH feel like she deserved a chance, and when our friend got here, he checked out her wound and thought it could possibly heal and we should give her a day or two. We eye-droppered some more water into her mouth, and tucked her in for the night. I was not convinced.
The next morning we went out to the shed to check on her, and she hadn’t moved. She had leaked some fluids from her vent and when we picked her up she leaked from her mouth as well. Her wound smelled like death. Her breathing was worse. She was done. I was done. We called our buddy again…
DH struggled with not being able to end it himself. The harsh reality is is that we are not chicken farmers, who are raising these animals as a means to an end. We are urban, backyard chicken keepers, who keep these hens half as pets and half as livestock. They have names and personalities; and we have our favorites. It’s hard to draw the line. It’s hard to muster up neck-snapping courage that neither of us have been exposed to before. Both of us know that keeping barnyard animals means that we have certain responsibilities that come with the need to acquire some “barnyard skills.” We are getting there– slowly. Our dear friend was patient with DH and explained the method as he did it, and held our sweet Cochin as she danced her end-of-life dance as to minimize the effect on poor DH. I don’t think I’m the only urban chicken-keeper who struggles with this. Everyone wants a backyard chicken, but are all of those prepared to kill it? It’s a question you’ve got to ask yourself when you sign up; or else have a friend who has deeper country roots than yourself.
We learned many lessons from this hawk attack, and already have a 50′ X 50′ avian netting ordered. We plan to suspend it over the hen yard like a big top. It won’t be completely secure, but will hopefully be enough to convince those winged raptors that their isn’t enough space to swoop or land. (I pray that my next blog post isn’t about how we had to call Fish and Wildlife to come free a Red-Tail from our netting). We are also installing mirrors on top of our fence posts, flash tape in the trees and cd’s that dangle. The shiny things may be a deterrent, but probably not. They make me feel better though. I’ve got to take some sort of action.
Much to my chagrin, the pullets are back in the tractor, (sad!), for a few more weeks, until they can grow yet a little bigger. Although, I don’t think size is the issue here…
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