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Faith in Vermont: Death Comes to the Coop

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Posted on August 15, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



 

When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.

She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.

We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.

This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.

She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.

Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.

Then, a week later, Henrietta disappeared.

If Dianne was an enigma who inspired no attachment, Henrietta was the opposite. She was one of two Buff Orpington hens: two gentle golden giants amid our sea of skittish little bantams. By the close of their first day with us, my daughters had christened these two Buff Orpingtons: Henrietta, and Mrs. Cluckington.

Henrietta and Mrs. Cluckington were the stuff of family legend. To begin with, they were beautiful, all curves under those soft gold feathers. Walking around the green grass of our yard, they embodied chicken-ness. Because they were so large, they were easy to catch and carry, but they never protested when my daughters toted them around; for chickens, they were downright cuddly.

Henrietta and Mrs. Cluckington usually stuck together, and they journeyed farther out on our property than any other poultry. It wasn’t uncommon to find them near the end of our driveway at dusk, placidly picking at bugs and clucking to each other. My daughters made up stories about them. We assumed that they each sported some tattoos under those feathers. When they went off on long walks, they probably drank beer and discussed motorcycle maintenance. And, when we found some cigarette butts at the end of our driveway, we knew who the guilty parties were.

Henrietta disappeared mid-morning on a Sunday, when our whole family was at church (proving true the lyric from the Broadway musical Hamilton that warns: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”) One of my daughters first noticed that she was missing – that Mrs. Cluckington was roaming the yard alone – and came running to tell me. I reassured her, citing Henrietta’s independent nature and frequent disappearances. My daughters were headed to the pool with friends; I promised I’d keep an eye out.

When they returned from the pool, my daughters heard this: “The good news is that we know what our predator is: It’s a fox. The bad news is that it got Henrietta.” I could hear their screams from inside the house.

When I’d walked outside to investigate Henrietta’s absence, it didn’t take me long to find the trail of feathers. She was a big, strong hen, and she’d put up a fight. She’d been grabbed near the edge of our field, by an apple sapling. The feathers led across the field, down the hill, and into the brush at the edge of the stream bordering our property.

Clearly not a hawk.

I walked over to where my husband was putting in a signpost at the end of our driveway. I was heavy-hearted with my sad news, but also grateful that the fox had left me no mess to clean up. (Our first flock of chickens was slaughtered by neighborhood dogs that “played” with them and left the carnage.) As I was relaying the news to my husband, I squinted over his shoulder at some sort of disturbance taking place in our field, beside the trees separating our property from our neighbor’s.

“Wait, is that….is that a fox?!?” I asked.

My husband wheeled around and took off running, shovel in hand. The fox – which it was – also took off running, after dropping the chicken carcass she’d been carrying.

“I found Henrietta,” my husband called.

I was confused: Henrietta’s feather trail led down to the stream, clear across the field from where we’d just spotted the fox. Then I got a closer look at the chicken corpse.

That’s not Henrietta,” I told my husband, in the same tone I’d use if he walked into our house with the wrong children.

He shrugged. “They all look the same to me.”

Turns out it was our neighbor’s chicken. Not only that: It was the fifth chicken the fox took from our neighbors’ flock that day.  This fox, in broad daylight, was on an impressive killing spree.

The best explanation for her behavior is that our fox is a mama, and she’s got a den of hungry kits nearby.

That’s the narrative we shared with our daughters. It also happens to be the exact plot of Phoebe Wahl’s beautiful picture book Sonya’s Chickens, which Ilsley Children’s Librarian Tricia Allen had recommended to our family back when we first got our chickens.

The bottom line: That fox had a right to kill our chickens. She was just doing what foxes do.

But also: We now have a right – a responsibility, even – to protect our remaining chickens from the fox when she returns, as she most certainly will. No more free ranging for our poultry, for now.

Two nights after Henrietta was taken, I saw the fox again. I was folding laundry in an upstairs bedroom at sunset. I looked out the window, and there she was.

She was in the field, and she seemed to be sniffing out something, possibly a small rodent. I was surprised at how large she was, and how graceful. Her long red tail looked like a flame as it swirled in the dusk.

When my children are hungry, I open the pantry or the refrigerator and quell their whining within minutes. But this fox, with a den of mewling kits somewhere down by the stream, was risking her life, running exposed through an open field, to hunt and kill food for herself and her babes. I’ve never had to work that hard to meet my children’s needs.

So, as she swirled down below the rise in our field and disappeared, I whispered, “You’re doing a good job, mama.”

All relationships are complicated, and relationships between humans and animals are no exception.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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