Winter Reflections: Chickens and a Hawk
January 24, 2021
As my favorite holiday of the year, Winter Solstice, celebrated light into darkness then darkness into light, I am elated that when I walk to the chicken pen to lock the flock in for the night, I am now walking the path in twilight at 5 p.m. instead of with a flashlight in pitch black dark. I notice their coop lamp, timer set to be on from 4-6 p.m. and 5-7 a.m., clicks on long before dark and in the next day or two I should re-set it. Chickens like 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs so each year I try to “trick” them into laying all winter with this technique. It mostly works. The single light bulb also serves to warm the coop, taking the chill out as they bunch onto the roost for the evening.
Most of the girls molted in the fall, which is common, losing their feathers until they look so pathetic one would think they are ready for the gumbo pot. This means they don’t lay for a month or two. Or three. But now, my darling little Blue Dot, the “runt” of the brood born last July, has started leaving me an egg almost every day as has her friend Lisette, the Cochin. Blue Dot’s eggs are tiny like her, barely bigger than a quail’s egg. But two of them fried with bacon make a delicious breakfast.
Lola, my long-time favorite Buff Orpington who has a great story I will tell in time, has been laying too but she has a calcium deficiency and her eggs crack in the nest or as I gently pick them up. She has lost weight as well and I am feeding her yogurt, fresh cream, and crushed oyster shells daily in hope of putting some meat on her bones and strength in her eggshells.
We have been battling a hawk. And when I say that, I mean it quite literally. Six weeks ago, I found a young roo dead at the feeding block in the free range yard, well shall I say I found a pile of feathers, feet, and a beak. That was the first sign that I had an aerial predator. To be honest it was sad but not devastating as I had 4 young roos from the July brood and that was at least three too many. I could tell he died quickly before he knew what hit him.
I saw the red tailed hawk circling the pen several times over the next few days, looking for more easy kills. Once he perched on the fence rail as I entered the pen and he didn’t budge, simply turned his magnificent head, our eyes met, and we glared at each other. My eyes told his, no, stay away. I didn’t see him for days.
I heard the flock squawking not long after that, ran out of the house in my bare feet and there he was again, on top of a small bantam hen, a Wheaton, in his talons de-feathering her. I feared it was Chicklet one of my favorite girls. The hawk and I glared at each other from eight feet away and he didn’t budge. I was certain the hen was dead. I threw the shovel at him anyway. It didn’t even phase him. After the rake hit him square on his white brown-flecked chest, he flew to the fence rail. I scooped the dead hen with the shovel, blessed her, and gently hurled her over the fence into the pasture. I wanted him to eat her rather than take another live bird. I must say, he was persistent and was not planning on leaving his kill and I respect that hunting ethic.
Even tiny as a bantam, she was too heavy for him to fly off with her, so he snared her in his talons and hopped away to a distance he felt safe and started to eat her. I herded the rest of the flock from their free range garden into their predator proof pen and locked the door. I was elated that Chicklet was amongst them. Most of them were already in the coop, frantic, piled in corners on top of each other. Somber. Sad. Fearful. Do not tell me that animals, even birds, don’t have emotions. Roux, the head rooster and self-pronounced proud leader of the flock was standing on one foot trembling, guarding the girls.
It’s sad to lose chickens to predators but it is a reminder, an example of the natural order of the universe. Still, enough is enough when a raptor is taking advantage of a domestic flock whose purpose is to provide eggs. I came up with a plan.
I hung over a dozen mirrored owl ornaments in the trees that glimmer in the sunlight providing reflective shimmers that can be off-putting to birds of prey. I installed an owl decoy with a rotating head on a fence post. I crisscrossed Buddhist prayer flags across the free-range yard making it difficult for a bird with a four-foot wing span to land, much like bird netting. But the flags are festive and flap blessings into the air as they blow in the breeze. The whole setup looks pretty offputting to me.
Still, I see the hawk watching suspiciously from high in neighboring cottonwoods. Sometimes when the young roos start squawking to notify the flock of his presence, I run out to the pen like a crazy lady, chasing him off the fence rail with my rake. More often than not, these days I keep the flock in their covered predator proof pen rarely letting them out for the joys of free range.
In the cold and snowy days of winter, and during this pandemic, we are hibernating, trying to stay safe. It feels like the right thing to do. As spring brings leaves to the trees, I hope the hawk will have long moved on to other hunting grounds. Meanwhile the chicks and I are staying put during the dark days and looking forward to better, lighter days that will come.