…including foxes, errant dogs, hawks, fishers, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, coyotes, and coydogs.
Everybody knows about foxes–we have lost a couple of hens to them, in broad daylight–and about dogs who team up and go on the rampage. Hawks are bad too. Our first spring in Vermont, we lost two hens to a red-tailed hawk.
Fishers, or fisher cats, are ferocious members of the weasel family, dark brown, low to the ground, and evil. At night their screams sound like a woman being murdered. We have seen a fisher cat a couple of times in the woods behind our house, but so far it has come no closer. A single fisher will kill an entire poultry flock just for fun, and leave the mostly uneaten carcasses behind for you to find in the morning.
We haven\’t seen a bobcat around here yet, though I know several people who have. Bobcats are big and furry and tigerish, and I\’d almost consider a hen a good price for a glimpse of one.
Coyotes are commonplace in the area, and we\’ve come across their deer kills in the woods. But we\’ve never seen one, and I would dearly love to: Vermont coyotes are extra-large, because they breed with Arctic wolves.
You hear a lot about coydogs attacking livestock. Coydogs are not shy, eyelash-batting Golden Retrievers. They are hybrids of coyotes and feral dogs, and they are fearless and mean. Recent DNA research indicates that dog-coyote hybrids are rare, in contrast to the quite common wolf-coyote mixes, so the coydog may be a myth.
I once knew a woman from NYC who thought that deer broke into hen houses and ate chickens in the night, but deer are probably the only critters that will leave a chicken–or a duck, turkey or goose–in one piece. Otherwise, poultry are easy prey for just about everything that roams the woods at night.
The Vermont Bird Fanciers Association list serve abounds in tales of prized laying hens and pet roosters disappearing without a trace. Of mother ducks being dragged quacking from the nest. Of wholesale massacres of turkey flocks on the week before Thanksgiving.
And for every tale of woe there is a proposed solution. Dogs work well as deterrents in the daytime, by patrolling the general area. But in these frigid nights, a dog would have to sleep with the chickens to keep warm, and no dog can be trusted that far.
Other suggestions include: play loud music in your barn all night (the writer doesn\’t tell us what that does to the hens\’ laying rates). Install dusk-to-dawn lights in the barnyard. Get goats–but what good is a goat against the offspring of a coyote and a wolf? (See Alexandre Daudet\’s story \”La chevre de Monsieur Seguin\”).
Get a llama–they are big and tall and supposedly will kick–or worse, spit on–a predator. Get an alpaca–in this economy, alpaca farms are trying to cut down on their male populations, and though daintier than the llamas, alpacas are supposed to exhibit the same helpful behaviors, in addition to fabulous fleece.
Or get a donkey. Donkeys kick as well as any camelid, and a close-up donkey bray can put anything to flight. Plus you can ride your donkey when you take your eggs to the farmers\’ market.
My six hens don\’t have any of these fancy defenses. Lord knows the dogs alert to the slightest squirrel in the woods during the daytime, but at night, when they are roasting by the wood stove, it would take something wolf-size to rouse them.
Much as I love my six ladies–even the one who lays thin-shelled eggs that break in the nest and make a mess–I must say I like the idea of predators lurking in the dark. Every evening as I call the hens into the shed and close their doors tight, I like to think that Nature–poor, tamed, benighted, threatened-from-all-sides Nature–is still sometimes red in tooth and claw.