As I’ve mentioned before, I always wanted a little red hen named Mable. The first summer we owned Rocky Creek, I saw an ad in the paper about laying hens for sale. I was very excited and although I only had a small brooder house and a make -shift fence, I couldn’t wait to fill it up with my first chickens. I stuffed the inside with sweet straw; lush grass covered the pen; they were going to love it.
As I pulled into the drive of the farm, I could see a large dirt pen full of hundreds of chickens. No grass here. As the man began to catch them, chickens squawked and feathers flew. Then I noticed it: clipped beaks. I was horrified. Having never seen it before the sight of half-beaked chickens shocked me. It’s a common practice in the chicken industry; it keeps the chickens from pecking one another. When there are too many chickens for the space they occupy chickens will be brutal to each other; much like people. I went there to buy laying hens, but it felt like a rescue.
As the days wore on, the Mables settled in their new digs. They loved scratching in the straw and strolling in the grass. After a couple days, I let them out of their pen to free-range. They were “free” to eat worms, chase bugs,munch on grass seed and explore to their hearts content. They strolled around the farm singing their little hen songs. They loved it. I loved it.
Through the trials of dog, coyote and hawk attacks last summer (as told in previous blogs) I only had three Mables left. All my chicks come when called; they come running, flying and squawking to me.; a horde of 54 little feathered souls. Mables are sometimes first, sometimes last but they always come. They still sing their special little songs that are so distinguishable from all the others. They stay right at my feet during the entire feeding process and always follow me into the chicken house for their special treat. I have a lot of red hens but the three Mables would always be special.
I count my chickens once a month and didn’t lose any all winter. This spring so far I had lost two; both Tillies (Arauconas –The Easter Egg Chickens, so-called because they lay colored eggs). Just disappeared; feathers in the grass the only clue. Gone. I blamed coyotes. Or hawks.
Spring time is garden time. Every day is spent hoeing, digging, pulling weeds, planting seeds, transplanting plants, fertilizing, spraying (organic only!) and praying that everything will grow. Today I had just taken a break and stood watching the chickens; Raven our beautiful black Jersey Giant rooster was crowing to his little hen-harem (each rooster has their own gaggle of hens). He was leading his flock toward the goat barn when all of a sudden a red flash come tearing down the tractor road across the barn lot, past the chicken house and right into the main yard. The chickens sounded the alarm; they all started their DANGER alert squawk. A bright red fox in turbo mode only three feet behind a frantic Marion (New Hampshire Red) flew across the yard. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I screamed for all I was worth for Farmer Gary. He was digging holes for my vining crops (pumpkin, watermelon, cantelope and squash) which I was getting ready to plant after my break. This is a new garden this year so the ground is hard and resisting any change. Gary has head phones on and is digging and rocking out to his favorite radio station; at first my scream go unnoticed. But even electric guitars and a wild drummer are no match for a farm girls screech when her animals are in danger.
By this time the fox had lost her focus and run off into the woods leaving behind a bewildered Marion and a furious farm girl. Gary and I spent a few minutes being amazed that the fox was so brazen as to come into the yard just a few feet away from us. It did answer the question as to the great pile of chicken feathers we found last week right by the house.
We went back to our garden. I should have known. Foxes don’t give up. A couple hours later I looked up to see her run through my herb garden and up the hill beside the cellar. I only saw her back side and that marvelous tail flying triumphantly behind her. I didn’t see what was in her mouth.
I called my chickens; they came flocking and squawking. Raven, the black Millies, the red Marions, the Easter-egg Tillies, Napoleon, Randy and Big Hoss. Two Mables. I called and called. I went to the neighbors where she likes to steal dog food. Still just two Mables. I kept them penned up; it was only an hour till regular supper time. And, called some more. Two Mables.
That fox, that shifty, low-down, sly little sneak of a fox had gotten my Mable. Snatch and grab. The peril of free-range. Yes, the fox is beautiful and I have admired her in months past catching mice in the snow. And, she probably has a den of little ones to feed. But right now, at this moment she is nothing more than a chicken-eating varmint.