Not everybody likes chickens. I don’t mean the eating of chickens, per se, but the keeping of chickens. Chickens can be noisy, and flighty, and stupid, but I like them anyway. I enjoy throwing scraps to my hens and watching them eat. I like the way they scratch in the dirt and then look down optimistically. I dote on the way they dart after bugs. I like how they come running to me when I call them.
“Chick-chick-chick-CHICK!” I yell, and they’ll drop what they’re doing and race towards me! This is a thrill that you miss out on if you don’t keep chickens. I also really like the beautiful, tasty eggs they lay for my breakfast every day. I’m a chicken-loving nerd, but I’m not going to apologize for it. There are worse things.
I came upon this trait—liking chickens—honestly. My mom kept chickens when I was growing up. I grew up in Nelson, Nebraska–population 750–and Mom kept a few friendly bantams: Mrs. Cluck and Lillian were two that I remember best. I suspect she kept them around more for company rather than the egg factor. Mrs. Cluck, my favorite, was a friendly little white and black speckled hen with feathers on her feet who would lay enormous clutches of small eggs under our back porch. Now and then she’d get lucky and hatch out a few tiny chicks, but mostly the eggs would age and eventually blow up underneath our feet as we sat there on summer evenings. We didn’t always have a bantam rooster, you see.
So, I like my chickens. A few years ago, however, a local fox decided that he liked my chickens, too. For breakfast. And lunch. And dinner, and the occasional midnight snack. I had had problems with other predators before this. One night a coon broke into my chicken coop and killed an entire flock of spring pullets, apparently just for kicks, leaving their pitiful, broken bodies behind. An eagle swooped down one day in front of me and handily beheaded a hen in our side yard, leaving her body behind. Our own dog, Beatrice, has killed a hen or two, in her exuberant herding of my flock. But the predator I’ll tell you about today is the cunning Fiend Fox who made such a wreck of my flock one infamous summer. Somehow this fox came to be the most persistent and dreaded of all my chickens’ predators–to that date, anyway.
Or, maybe it just seemed worse because the fox seemed so darned clever. For example, he started taking one chicken a day, as far as I could figure, the week I brought baby Malachi home from the hospital. I saw the fox, from the living room window, with my own bleary, bloodshot eyes. But I was powerless, in my postpartum fog and ensuing weakness, to do anything about it.
Sure, I’m a rugged prairie woman, but even prairie women have their limits. (Especially prairie women of a certain age.) How did he know that I was in such a vulnerable state? I can’t guess. But he knew. I know he did.
Another wily move on his part was that he would never breeze through our yard at the same time in the day. He kept us off our guard. Sometimes he’d show up in the morning soon after I let the chickens out of the coop for the day–bless them, never suspecting in their tiny, pea-sized brains, that one of them was going to be in Fiend Fox’s belly in an hour or two–and other days he’d come in the middle of the afternoon. I would hear a squawking chicken ruckus outside, would glance out the window and see that dratted fox, scampering gaily across my yard, grinning at me—which wasn’t easy since his mouth was stuffed with one of my Buff Orpington hens. Cheeky, dreadful thing.
“So, why didn’t you do something?” I hear you muttering, Gentle Readers. “Take action, woman!” Well, I did a few things, none of which were particularly effective. I clipped hens’ wings to keep them in their yard. We fortified the chicken yard fence, but smaller hens slipped out, regardless. My gallant son Timothy roamed around with his bow and arrows for a few days. We even set a trap one night, at the urging of a friend, with a rooster in a cage close to the house. Our friend explained that it had worked for him.
This is how it was supposed to work: the fox would come after the bait in the cage–the rooster—the pitiful bird would make enough noise to wake us up; we’d stagger to the door and blast the fox away (yes, we do own a shotgun). It didn’t work. The poor rooster was a bit on the haggard side in the morning, but not nearly as haggard as I was. I hadn’t slept well, just waiting for the jarring crowing of a terrified rooster in the middle of the night. It didn’t happen. Nothing worked. And, meanwhile, chickens kept disappearing. Every day. Only a small pile of feathers on the grass would be left behind, and the pitiful “squawwwwk!” The remaining chickens were getting mighty jittery.
Finally, somebody had the brainy idea to train our clever, hyperactive, high-speed dog to chase after the fox every time we yelled “FOX!” Actually, this was easy—Bea’s smart, and very fast, and also quite greedy for dog treats. We’d do our “Fox!” yell, then dance wildly, gesticulate like crazy people toward the chicken coop, and then grab her collar and run her out to the coop. She’d joyously bound along with us, delighted with the extra attention, not to mention the dog treat that she knew would follow. Within a couple days, she was, by all appearances, fox-trained, a couple of pounds heavier and anxious as all get-out to get that fox!! (Whatever a fox was.) Now if the fox would just show up during our waking hours, we’d sic our secret weapon on him. (By the way, Bea’s nickname is “Bullet.” She’s fast.) She was ready. And we knew that not one creature on earth–well, er, at least in our little corner of the globe–could move faster than her. I suppose there are some creatures on the African veldt, for example, that are marginally faster. Gazelles, perhaps. Fiend Fox? Soon to be history.
After much anticipation, the big day came. I believe baby Malachi was perhaps three weeks old by this time. Not that it matters in the least to the story development, but I think you should understand the general timeline. (And naturally so you can sympathize with my own wretched physical state, which was improving, but still not too hot.) Anyway. I do believe this day warrants its own paragraph. To wit.
I woke around dawn, which is pretty early in Nebraska in June, as you might imagine. 5:00, or perhaps even earlier. I woke to a sound like nothing else I’ve ever heard before in my entire life. Furthermore, a sound I hope to never hear again. I fell out of bed, and groped and staggered toward that ghastly, unnerving, horrifying sound, stumbling over toys, rubbing sleep from my eyes. Gentle readers, it sounded like a cat–no, several cats, many cats, a legion of cats—all in heat, howling and being strangled, simultaneously. And perhaps enduring some type of medieval torture, as well.
Wiping sleep from my eyes, I squinted out the front window, to see that horrid fox, the very one, in our front yard, trying to intimidate our black cat Pippin. Fox was writhing and posturing and trying to look bigger than he was and emitting that unearthly howl, as our cat watched with a bored expression on its face. Pippin was obviously thinking “Is that the best you’ve got?”
Enter Bea. Time for the unveiling of our meticulous training! The day of reckoning! The end of our nemesis, the end of wholesale and methodical daily chicken slaughter! Bea, our painstakingly-trained foxhound, faster than a bullet, was doing her own writhing, in her kennel. Suddenly she clamped her bottom onto the floor of her kennel as she saw me approaching, as she had been trained to do. I fumbled with the latch–it clicked open–and Bea shot out of the kennel and was down the front steps and out the door before I could mutter “Die, Fox, Diiiiiie!”
You know what happened? It was unbelievable. Unfathomable. Not to mention, deeply disturbing. Fiend Fox . . . just. . . disappeared. Vaporized. It was as if he had never been there at all. Poof! If Bea was a steam train, that fox was a zephyr. Bea spent the better part of that morning, devotedly tearing through the brome grass, bullet-like, and now and then giving an excited, encouraging yip, but we never saw another hint of hide nor hair of that fox, at least not that day. He got away from The Bullet, and he did it effortlessly. One can’t help but grudgingly admire such an adversary.
Over the next few months, we did lots of hand-wringing, lots of sending Bea out to get the fox, lot of googling “safety hen yards,” and “fox extermination” when finally I did what I should have done in the first place: I called my dad.
My dad, Jim Young, is the handiest and most knowledgeable fellow I know. If you live in the area, and need an intelligent, well-thought-out answer to any question, large or small, he’s at the coffee shop downtown every morning at 7:00 a.m., and he’ll be happy to advise you. He’s a farm boy who grew up during the Great Depression, and he knows how to make anything out of nothing. And when you should do it, too. Which was—in this case—lotsa chickens ago. Dad explained patiently to me, as if he had already thought it all through several times and was just waiting for my piteous cry for help (which he probably had, and was) just exactly what I needed to do.
And we did it. What, you’re hissing through your teeth. This story has gone on long enough—I have things to do–just tell me–what did you do?
Okay, I’ll tell you the simple solution that Dad presented to us. After months, okay, years, of numerous fox-proofing, and ineffective, strategies, of course my dad’s solution was the one that made sense and did the trick. This is what we did: we built a simple extension onto our already-existing chicken yard fence, which effectively made the fence 8 feet tall instead of 4 feet tall. The chickens don’t fly over it, the fox doesn’t eat them, and so we came to the end of our problems with Fiend Fox. The nasty cycle was broken, and Fox went his way. So there! (We still let the chickens out for free-ranging, naturally, but on our timetable, not theirs, and certainly not the fox’s.)
P.S.: This is what happened the day after we built what we immediately dubbed the Safety Chicken Fence Extension Extraordinaire (or SCFEE for short). Something out in the chicken yard got my attention, and I was peering out there from the house to figure out what it was. Something wasn’t right. Doggonit, Bea was in there! How’d she get in there? I ran out to the yard—I don’t know how she did it, but the Bullet had gotten into our newly improved chicken yard and was chasing chickens!
Well, it takes me a while to learn a hard lesson, but once it’s learned, I don’t forget it. This time, I didn’t Google, and I didn’t fret, and I didn’t lose sleep. I reached for the phone and I called my dad. I asked him first: Dad, how do I Bea-proof my chicken yard?
He hasn’t come up with an answer for that one. Yet.
- And About That Third Egg . . .
- “The garden as metaphor” Great book on creative writing!