Thursday, January 17, 2019

drama at the farmette

We linger in bed in the morning, reading whatever it is each of us reads upon waking up. Something seems off.
Hear that? I ask Ed.
Ummm... That's the equivalent of a no.
There it is again!

Cheepers, he comments.

It's true that the girls squawk. I mean, all kinds of stuff sets them off. I just laid an egg! Squawk squawk! I heard something! Squawk! And then there are all those squawks I can't possibly understand. What got into you? -- I'll ask, to no avail. Chickens don't have a habit of answering my questions.

But the noise this morning is persistent and it includes screeching that's not part of the usual chicken fare. I'm in the bathroom, peering out the window. The cheepers have been out of the coop for about half an hour. They're likely at the side of the farmhouse under their favorite set of bushes. And now all is suddenly quiet. Except for the rush of wings as a medium sized bird flies by the bathroom window.

Ed and I are out in a flash.

No sign of chickens.

We look around. And then Ed calls from the garage: there's a hawk here. He's small. No sign of the cheepers though.

Indeed. No sign of the cheepers anywhere.

We search. Ed retires to the house. It's cold outside. We're both underdressed. They'll show up, he says.

The thing about Ed is that he is one breath away from being part of the great animal kingdom. Sometimes I think he lives by their laws of nature rather than our own. One consequence is that he doesn't like to interfere in the order of things too much. Me, I want to intervene, to protect one, perhaps throwing another under the bus. Ed will go along with my very human and often emotional responses, but only so much.

I don't want to give up. I keep on searching.

Stop Sign shows up and I feed her, even as the small hawk, and it is small, and it is a hawk comes back. The bird seems uninterested in the cat and vice versa. I don't understand how these animal hierarchies work.

The hawk flies out of the garage again. All is quiet. I search.

I find feathers. Lots and lots of them. Black and white Pepper feathers. I call out to the cheepers and a tiny peep comes from a clearly frightened Tomato. She comes out from hiding, walking tentatively toward me. And Peach is in the hydrangea bushes, also uttering quiet peeps. The two girls huddle together, out of my reach. No sign of the other four.

I look everywhere. Everywhere!

Nothing but the two peeping huddled girls, heaps of black and white feathers, and Stop Sign.

Ed and I sit down to breakfast.

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We're completely dumbfounded. Four girls gone? Were there more hawks? Do they hunt in packs? We google this. They do not. Could this one small hawk have laid ruin to our flock?

Would you get more chickens if we lost our four? -- I ask, more for reassurance: no, never again! I never want to raise cheeps, to lose them to predators!
Maybe... he answers. We need to talk this through.

I have an eye doctor's appointment. I get in the car. Twice I make the wrong turn. I am not thinking about where I am going.
The doc tells me she likes my sweater. I remember that two years ago, on my last appointment, the nurse told me she liked the same sweater. I am a rerun of previous encounters. We are all inconsequential. For Pete's sake, my chickens are gone.

Two hours later I am at the farmhouse again. Peach and Tomato are still huddled in the bushes. All quiet otherwise. I coax them out. They follow me, very very tentatively.

I pick up Tomato. She has always been the easiest to handle. Scrawny little girl, how did you survive?

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Peach follows. I'm still in shock. We go to the barn, I put out some food. And out from the timbers of the old barn comes Henny! Good old always-terrified Henny! She must have flown to the barn in a mad dash of escape!

Three girls gather to peck on corn. Tentatively. As if asking -- should we be eating? Should we go on as before?

Ed is outside, then in the garage. He shouts out to me -- Nina! (It's bad when he calls me Nina.)

The hawk is back, working away at poor, long gone Cupcake in the rear. Sweet shy Cupcake: the only hen that kept on laying all winter long.
I need help here. This from Ed, who rarely needs help.

And as I approach the garage, out of nowhere (or out of that same garage?) comes Pepper! The girl who must have waged some battle! All those feathers looked to me so fatally conclusive!  I call to her, she comes to the barn.

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I give them all more corn then return to Ed.

That hawk wont go away so long as he has Cupcake's remains to work on. I'll chase the bird away and we'll remove Cupcake. Hold a shovel in case the hawk attacks me. Be brave! 

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In the end, the hawk didn't attack. He flew off when Ed approached him. We take Cupcake away, though of course, so many traces remain.

Traces of a girl who was so visible from afar, what with her brilliant white feathers. Traces of a girl who was best buds with the other two little ones.

Inside the farmhouse, Ed and I discuss the short run and the long haul. I want to lock the four cheepers in the coop, right away!
Just for 24 hours, until this monster bird goes away.
Don't you think he'll be back?

Which begs the harder question: do we let the chickens continue with their habits? Do we let them roam? Do we raise new ones and let those roam?

And did we really lose two today? Java, the old mama hen who doesn't quite move fast enough? Did she get carried away as well?

It's all so terribly hard to sort out. I tell Ed we should maybe raise them all in a chicken run, fenced from all sides, top and bottom too.
Then why have chickens? He asks. We're not keeping them for the eggs.

He's right. We eat the eggs, trade in the extras for cheese at the market, but we really aren't in it for egg production.
I don't want to raise locked up chickens that can't scratch and roam and play. They're our companions. They eat ticks, maybe. They are happy cheepers. I can only do it that way.
So you want to raise them to be snatched by predators?
Look, we've lost some, but not very many. Java and Henny are possibly older than four years. We've fended off hawks before. And, well, you know -- hawks look for meat to stay alive. I wont kill a hawk because he killed our chickens. Farmers may do that to protect their livelihood. We're not farmers.

Ah, nature! We watch a gazillion nature documentaries. We've looked on as predators dismember smaller animals to stay alive. We've acknowledged the struggle. Animals kill not randomly, not for pleasure, not because they're having a bad day. They kill to stay alive.

In the short run, we manage to corral the four girls into the coop. We lock them up for the day. I breathe a sigh of relief.
In the long run? I suppose we'll proceed as before.
Ed reminds me -- you know, the normal life of a chicken is very short: two months if they're raised for meat, at most a year if they're commercial layers. Our girls have far outlived that and they are content, happy girls who spend the summer months bringing up fat worms and taking dirt baths in the sun.

Still, we have a loss and one that occurred (and this is a first for us!) in bright daylight. And in the days ahead, we are facing a hawk who has scored a home run and who knows there's more to be had.

And Ed? How is the old guy doing? Well, he is like a swing that keeps on swinging. Today he is all gold and sunshine in his dazzling yellow shirt (see above). He takes one day at a time.

In the afternoon, I bring a tired Snowdrop home. Eat, read, recover.

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How grand it is to see her lively form!

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We play at being sneaky. She loves the concept!

Cookbooks, shopping for baby blankets, writing out math works -- we cover them all!

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And eventually, the little girl goes home.

Night time. A light snow is falling. They say there will be more. I walk to the barn to make sure all is well with the locked up girls. And I throw the flashlight up the barn wall and would you believe it?! There is the old black girl, Java, halfway up the wall, by herself, a little nervous, a few feathers out of place, but as far as I can tell, just fine!

Where were you, big Java?!!  Ed!!!