Sitting in our living room today, I heard the hawks cry. Looking out the window I couldn’t see the hawk, but I did see its shadow moving ominously across our deck.
For the past few years, we have had hawks nesting in a tall pine in our yard. We would see and hear them in the spring and then things would quiet down. Then mid-summer, the babies would fledge and we would see and hear them crying and circling again. And in fall, they would disappear.
Before we kept chickens, the hawks were purely a treat to watch. Sometimes they would land on our pool fence right outside our kitchen window. It was a little disconcerting to be eating your Cheerios and glance up and notice you were being watched like a…a…hawk. In the late spring, we open the pool and float the solar cover over the surface to try to nudge the water temperature up a few degrees. On some mornings, the hawks would land on the cover, making a depression that would fill with water and they would bathe in the warm water pool they created. All of this was fun and exciting and “gosh how cool”.
Now, I hear the hawks shriek, and I run to the window and look at the chicken pen.
Chickens are marvelous creatures. They eat Lyme ticks, weeds and kitchen garbage. They fertilize your garden (and sometimes, if we are being honest here, your deck). But their claim to fame is their wonderful trick of turning all this stuff that we don’t want into a perfect little egg. The egg, chocked full of high quality protein (it provides all 10 essential amino acids for humans), vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids. The egg, a magical ingredient that can transform basic ingredients into things of beauty: a fluffy mousse, an ethereal chiffon cake, a mile-high lemon meringue pie. Of course, the egg also shines when prepared simply: a soft boiled egg with a sprinkling of salt, or a poached egg served over pasta.
But we don’t love our hens just because they give eggs. We love them because, well, we just do.
Unfortunately, chickens are not the brightest creatures. I would not call them dumb, but they are kind of silly. And they panic. Because of this, they are very low on the food chain. I would guess, if you were to rank this sort of thing, to a predator they provide the most amount of protein for the least amount of effort. And they have a lot of predators.
A quiz: here are some pictures taken in my suburban 1 acre backyard. See if you can tell which one is not a chicken predator. (This is not a complete list of predators I have seen in our yard; there was this orphaned baby fox and a coyote that rambled through one morning).
Red Tailed Hawk
Raccoon (Mama relocating baby)
Skunk (with voluptuous tail)
Neighbor’s Roaming Husky (not my photo)
Stella is not a chicken predator, but I think she would like to be if she weren’t such a fraidy-kitten. Oh, she’ll pretend to be a big, stalking jungle cat, but when the chickens stop and stare back, she scampers away.
The worst predator problem we have had so far is with the neighbor’s roaming husky. I built the coop and attached pen strong enough to keep out every chicken predator in our area (I think, knock wood), but the chickens have to use just a teeny bit of common sense. When the husky wandered into our yard, I found out that might be asking too much of our hens.
The hens were in their pen when the dog started harassing them. One chicken went into the coop (or may have been in the coop), and the other three stayed in the pen. The dog raced around the pen, barking furiously, and the hens panicked and threw themselves against the wood and wire sides of the enclosure. I chased the dog away after only about 10 seconds, but it was enough time that three of our hens cracked their beaks in their frenzy to get away from the dog.
It looked really sore. After a few days of soft food, supplemented with some extra protein and fat, they seemed to be back to normal. Now they are completely healed and you can’t see any sign of damage. It was traumatic for all of us and especially disappointing to me, that despite my best efforts, that the chickens could still be harmed even if the predator couldn’t actually touch them.
And now the hawks are back. Last year we didn’t see a lot of the hawks; we had a murder of crows (how great is that phrase) move into our backyard and they are known to chase hawks away.
So we will have to see what this year brings. Will the crows come back and rid our yard of the hawks like a group of Guardian Angels? Will the hawks think our chickens are too big to handle, being deceived by their extreme fluffiness? Or will this be a summer of keeping the chickens in their pen unless we can be out there patrolling and watching them like…like…a mother hen.