I suppose we were lucky the first three years of farming. We lost very few animals- and only a few to natural predators. We had a horrendous neighborhood dog incident our first year, but that's another matter. For the last few years or so, we had actually enjoyed a sense of security. We have electric netting, plenty of forage within the netting, ample chicken feed as well...and no reason for our flock to feel the need to wander. But they do.
At first there were just a few adventuresome hens. We clipped their flight feathers and put them back in the net. That didn't deter them from flapping like crazy and using the top of the net as a springboard to get out. I suppose they figured the shock was worth the price. The grass, in their chicken eyes, was greener on the other side of the fence. We finally got to a space where chasing after them was ridiculous as we obviously couldn't be out there all the time.....and they'd always come back near the fence at dusk, nestle together and wait for us to come put them in. The rooster "Rudy" was irate with the wayward hens- but he always stayed within the netting with the majority and tried to call the others back. I empathized with his anxiety as they simply wouldn't listen to him.
This little routine was fine- until it wasn't. The salmon started running in the Skookumchuck which meant the return of the eagles and red-tail hawks. We'd done fine with this before with our roosters alerting the hens. At the same time two owls decided that a chicken per day was on the menu. We had just completed a homeschool unit on owls so we were more knowledgeable about their habits. Despite common knowledge- they can hunt during the day and they adjust their practices based on your routine. They'd perch atop an old snag across the river and wait. We purchased "Bobbily"- a bobbleheaded owl the notion being that we'd play against their territorial nature. We moved him around daily and surprisingly enough, it seemed to work for those hens that would choose to stay in the netting.
We also made a "Scare-cote" to scare away the coyotes. It worked for a time although Adam has missed his flannel jacket. Again, we began to rest easier.
We had had a particularly rough weekend as a family. I had put a movie on and we were sitting on the couch cuddling with the kids...but dark was descending. We lost track of time and we were late getting out to put the chickens in. We lost six- including Rudy who had obviously tried to come to their defense. This time it was coyotes. A female has moved into the pond area and is raising pups we think. Unlike the owls that will just eat the head and crop, leaving the rest of the body, coyotes devour the whole chicken. What they leave behind is feathers. And that's the worst part for me- piles of feathers- feathers blowing around the property for weeks- reminders...piles of reminders.
Look- these hens aren't pets. Most are nameless- so it's not like I'm personifying them and losing perspective as a farmer. There's something about safety and security here for me that's been bothering my heart. But, perhaps that's not really about the chickens....it's about choices. They're choosing to get out. They have all they need in the area we've given them- except the full freedom of the property. And, the truth is, I want that for them. Locking them up somehow would reduce our losses, but it also wouldn't be the good life I want for my flock. They are chickens- they obviously aren't looking at the piles of feathers and saying to themselves "Oh no, Penny bit it. I've learned a lesson about staying in relative safety. I better stay in the net". No, they continue to get out and be chickens- being present and free from worry. At least it looks that way to me.
The last weeks in particular I've struggled with this. We think that the coyote pups are big enough to be hunting with mom now- and we're losing more than one chicken every few days. Adam's gone looking for them- but all he's found are piles and piles of feathers. I've lost sleep- feel worried about what might be happening outside, count the hens at night and hold my breath to see how many we've lost. I worry about them. I worry about production and meeting our quotas for our CSAs. We're out earlier (which is later because of the time of year) and I check them throughout the day. But the truth is, the coyotes are doing what they do, the chickens are doing what they do- and I don't have complete control. I've started researching flock guardian dogs....but that purchase will have to wait until our Dane Stuart passes away. I had ordered another 25 hens to make up for the production losses....but the real lesson here is managing my internal response to the others' choices. Doing what I can do, but realizing that in choosing to roll the dice as a farmer, I choose to accept the risk.....just like the hens do when the fly over the fence in the morning. Choice. Consequences.