Predators – The Bane of our Existence 9/30/20

Let me say it now before I go any further, “Where there’s stock, there’s trouble”. This quote flitted into my mind just as I drafted this update and I know it’s because I’ve been reading James Herriot before going to sleep. It’s a phrase that has been hanging on the fringes of my mind ever since we got the farm and Zach asked me what livestock we were going to have. I knew I could handle the typical problems with poultry without needing to call a vet, so it gave us yet another reason to start with those. But while I was fine with disease pressures, I had forgotten how constant predator pressure is.

We had our first incident back in early June  when we moved the Home Flock to their first coop. The coop was on some bumpy ground, leaving inch gaps under some of the coop bottom boards. I knew that it wasn’t secure, but I thought, “oh, I’ll fix it tomorrow”. And guess what? A predator got in there, pulled one of our Welsummers out, and had a feast. Based on the aftermath, it was likely a racoon. That next morning, I was kicking myself as we moved the coop to a more secure location and added cement blocks around the perimeter to discourage digging. We also made sure our poultry net stayed closed at all times.

We didn’t lose a bird again until July, just after the ladies began laying and we had moved them into the orchard. I was away for a weekend, and at that time, we weren’t religious about conducting headcounts before putting the birds to bed.

At that time, we had a pet White Rock named “Crooked Toes”. His name came from… you guessed it… His crooked toes. He was also the head honcho, making sure everyone was in the coop before he settled in for the night. The night that I’d left, Zach locked up the birds, went to bed, and that was that. The next morning, he texted to let me know that Crooked Toes was gone. All that was left was a pile of white feathers. After frantic texting, a video call, and pictures of every inch of the coop and every bird, we concluded that not only had Crooked Toes met his end that night, but also one of the breeder Easter Egger males and an adorable runty little Easter Egger hen. After sleuthing, it appeared that those three were left out of the coop by accident (the coop had been closed after the sun had gone down and they weren’t seen). Because the bodies had been carried away, we deemed the culprit was a coyote or a fox. It’s safe to say that after that point, we started doing headcounts every night.

About a month later, Zach and I were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast when I heard frantic screaming coming from a chicken. Well, I heard frantic screaming… Zach was just getting used to chicken noises and that one was new to him. Anyway, I stopped what I was doing, shoved my feet into boots, and ran as hard as I could over to the pen. Unfortunately, all I saw was a pile of feathers and no Brahma Girl (our lone Light Brahma). I also realized that while everyone else was safe inside the poultry fence, her feathers were about 5 feet outside of it. It appeared that she was outside, doing her chicken thing, and was caught blind-sided. Poor lady. 

Following the trail of feathers, I figured whatever took her wouldn’t get far and might drop her because of my quick reaction and chase. The feathers led into the newly dug drainage ditch beside the coops that I had let grow up on the sides because I wasn’t concerned about weed whacking at that point. Bad choice. I found poor Brahma Girl at the bottom of the new ditch where it empties into a horizontal culvert. She was gone, but still very warm. So warm, in fact, that I hung onto her for about an hour to make sure she was really gone. All the signs of death were apparent when I picked her up out of that ditch, but when an animal is more a pet than livestock passes, it’s hard to accept that they are gone. Well, after that hour had passed, in true “waste not, want not” fashion, I processed her and we had chicken soup for dinner. We also moved the birds into the front field, which is more or less in our backyard. There, we figured, we would at least catch predators on camera…

Then came today. 

Circles was a light, warm, gentle soul. He was a Classic Roman goose that had been shipped to us as a blind, runty gosling. While he was supposed to be one of twelve, we only received him and his brother. Needless to say, our idea of starting a small breeding flock of geese for livestock guardians went out the window and both Circles and Goosey became pasture pets. Circles was extra special in that we would hand feed him daily to ensure he got enough feed into him to grow, and we carried him lovingly into and out of his mobile coop to ensure he stayed safe overnight. When you came near, he’d use his bill to search out treats in your hand and nibble your shirt. 

Over the months, we let him have more and more freedom. Because he couldn’t see, he’d simply wander blindly in circles, plop down in a nice soft patch of grass in the sun, and nap. Sometimes, something would frighten him and he’d circle off into the brook on the far side of the field. We kept our eye out for him every hour or so and would bring him back towards the coops when he strayed. 

Today was the same as any other day. Circles was sitting out in the field, enjoying himself. We were in the house working. We had last checked on him earlier that afternoon. Around 4:30, Zach asked me if I’d seen the goose. I hadn’t. He went to check our security cam to see what direction he’d wandered… but he hadn’t wandered this time. In the footage, about an hour prior to us noticing he was missing, a large dog-like animal came out of seemingly nowhere, attacked, and dragged him off. It was horrifying to watch, much like a trainwreck.. My eyes were glued to the screen. What’s worse is that the camera had also recorded the sound of that final struggle. Even now, I can’t get that image and sound out of my head. It’s one thing knowing that an animal was taken, but another thing entirely to watch it happen.

Quickly, Zach thought to use the drone to see if he could find remains. He found them. Just inside the woodline. Along with the predator: a coyote. With his ninja-like reflexes, he snapped a picture before it ran off with the partially eaten body of our dead pet, leaving only the head and a pile of feathers, as I later found when I went out to recover him. Although it sucked to see all that remained, it gave me a sense of closure. The remains of Circles are now in our compost pile, becoming nutrients to feed more life on our farm. The circle of life continues on. 

We never in a million years thought that a coyote would walk into our mowed 10 acre field and snatch Circles, or any bird for that matter, in broad daylight. The only thing I can think of it that this animal was desperate. Otherwise, why would such a shy creature risk himself so close to people to get a meal? I have all of my fingers and toes crossed that this was a one-off sort of thing. But I’ll tell you what… I am watching out the window constantly now. I jump up at any strange sound and make sure everyone is ok. I make sure the doors to the coop are closed a little tighter, and I hold my favorite birds a little closer.

When we farm, we are at the whims of mother nature, and we have to do what we can to protect our stock, while respecting all she throws at us. After every attack, we have learned something. Our system gets better. Our birds become safer. We’ll find a way to maintain balance.