Beneath the Pines and Beyond 🐓

Figure 1. The Wonder Hollow mixed flock when last I took a photo of them crossing Rosemary Road on Tuesday afternoon, June 25, Fluffy Foot (top), Bitumen (second from top), Cinnabon (lower right), Tiny Honey (lower left), and Lightfoot (bottom center).

Abstractly, hypothetically, and intuitively, we always understood that free-ranging the Wonder Hollow Six came with risks. On the last day of January, when that no account Cooper’s Hawk clamped down on Big Sweetie, the lesson sharply pierced this otherwise peaceful and out-of-the-way hollow on the eastern edge of Montgomery County, Va. We bumbled along, head and heart making way and making sense: of course during the lesser foliated times of year aerial predators have a direct line of sight and the hens become more vulnerable thereby. Additional predator-proofing followed, CDs perpendicular to the sky scattered around the embankments and mounted wobblingly on sticks to throw unusual light patterns as they shift in the breeze, glowy and spectral in the daylight, a pair of poured mold plastic owl statues, one with a head that will spin the full 360 degrees, which is disturbing enough unto itself that any curious hawk would have to think, nah, I’ve seen The Exorcist and I’m moving along. With Big Sweetie’s death, the six were five and the five were chickening along contentedly. They’d been free-ranging most days this spring and summer, once the landscape unfurled again its leafy canopy.

Last Friday, I was home alone as A. was abroad on a trip with her dad. I mowed for 2.5 hours, starting around 11 a.m. as I turned loose the five hens. After mowing I tinkered through the day with ordinary paces: a few things in the kitchen like batching pickled red onions, walking Feta before writing group, writing for a late afternoon hour, and then returning to the yard to make rounds, check on the chickens, begin some of the evening rituals. I took Feta out again, and I remember looking up and seeing what I thought were three of the chickens near the back shed. Ninety-nine days out of 100, this glancing-casual sort of check-in suffices. It’s no chicken footprint biometric tracking, but when I could see three of them, usually the others were close-by, safe, accounted for. Back inside I went ahead with kibbling Z. and F. scoops of their evening foods before I stepped outside again with the meal worms, shaking the orange plastic cup and calling to the chickens to come. Lightfoot and Tiny Honey came running and followed me as I made 2-3 rounds on the terraces, near the pond and creek, up the two-track easement, down again. I also waited for 1-2 minute pauses in each place, listening for their scratching, but the world was quiet. Something felt off. Something was off.

I figured I may as well head inside again and sort out my own dinner situation, which I did–a light, quick-cut salad, carrying it back out again to see whether the stray chickens had showed up. By this time it was 6:30 p.m., quite a bit later than is common for them to stay out foraging or dust bathing. The flock is a clockwork; it doesn’t mess around with temporal patterns, especially when that pattern is the setting sun. I walked another loop while eating and calling to them, then decided to switch clothes, long sleeves and pants, get the machete and hand clippers in case I needed to brush access to anything deep in the underbrush, and venture in. I can’t really say how I picked the location I did. A feeling, a locative hunch. All of the woods around us are comparably dense, but beneath the pines behind the Moon House is a favorite place the chickens frequented. And even if it is extra thick with thorny vining overgrowth, I guessed it was where they’d set up through the midday heat.

Within ten minutes, I found a starburst of Cinnabon’s feathers first on a plane extending pretty much from the top terrace back along the steep slope. By now it was almost 7 p.m., and I was visited by both a heavy, heavy weight and a kind of mania in that I knew something bad had happened–a predator attack–and I knew daylight was growing short on this side of the embankment. I looked hard at the ground and found Cinnabon’s body, half buried under a few leaves and sticks, intact, lifeless. It seems like I felt both despair in that moment and a faint, fading hope; had Fluffy Foot and Bitumen witnessed the melee and escaped, perhaps running up the hill to the abandoned cabin on the neighbors’ land? I carried Cinnabon’s body to the forest’s edge and went back again. This time I saw a scuffle of brighter yellow feathers, undoubtedly Fluffy Foot’s. They were hard to access, in a clearing but on the other side of thick vines and thorny bramble. I canvassed in the other direction, and there I found a scattering of dark feathers. Bitumen’s. I picked up a few of the feathers, as I had done with Cinnabon’s, and pushed them into my pocket, kept looking, inch by inch going over the rutted and rotting forest floor. A few steps downslope, I spotted Bitumen’s feet tucked under a couple of sticks, and when I pulled back the makeshift covering, like Cinnabon, her body was there on the ground, intact but lifeless. The predator had half-assed buried both birds after killing them. I carried Bitumen’s body to the edge of the woods and placed it next to Cinnabon. Went to the house to get the headlamp. Went to the back shed to get the live trap. Went to the house again to get the trail cam. Went to the coop to make sure Lightfoot and Tiny Honey were secure. Went to the front shed to get a leaf bag for wrapping the dead birds’ bodies. I knew I would have to figure out how to keep them on ice until Monday for a proper pyre and farewell once A. returned from her trip.

I went into the woods again with hopes of locating Fluffy Foot. She was the biggest of the flock, head hen, and so it made it hard to imagine that any aerial predator could have made off with her body. I puzzled through all of the scenarios with possible ground predators. No stray house cat could have pulled this off. Domestic dogs, maybe. Fox, maybe. Raccoon, maybe. I’d never fathomed that any predator would have been able to kill three birds while they were free-ranging 20-30 feet behind the house. I continued to slash at bramble and brush a path, step by step checking for feathers or other traces. It grew darker, and I had to accept that I would not find Fluffy that night.

Not that I ever really slept all that soundly, but I was awake again by 5:45 a.m., and after watering the garden and flower beds, I went for the trail cam and live trap. A raccoon had taken the bait. It was the only critter on the trail cam that night, evidently having returned for the bodies of Cinnabon and Bitumen. I went into the woods again just before 9 a.m., and this time I was led to Fluffy’s remains by the audible buzz of insects. She’d been beheaded, a not uncommon signature in raccoon assaults on chickens, but much of her body was recoverable, and as I’d done with her flock sisters, I carried her body to the edge of the woods, taking care to fold it into a bag later, to place it on ice, and to ensure as much dignity as I could in an otherwise stark and brutal and heartbreaking incident.

By Monday, A. was home, and we went to the woods to revisit the locations, to collect every last feather, and to notice together the locations, the unfolding of the assault. There is little point in reconstituting the scene, in reading it too closely, except that it felt necessary and important to develop an informed guess about what had happened. We concluded that the three hens had been ambushed at a place where they might have been dust bathing, that Fluffy was the first to be killed, that the other two scrambled down the hill toward the house, and that Cinnabon was killed next. Bitumen made it the farthest, nearest to the house, but she possibly went for cover and cornered herself beneath a couple of 2-3 inch sticks where the raccoon was able to break her neck and sink at least one incisor into the space between her wings. Open fires are legal in Montgomery County after 4 p.m. I cleaned out the old ashes from the burn put, built a small pyre, laid the three hens on a middle tier atop wadded, dried tiger grass, and felt fully and sadly the warmth from the flames. Until the flames dimmed.

Anything else I could add would trail off with infinitely regressive qualifications and hedges and second-guessing. Backyard chickens are for some mere livestock, I suppose, realer than the grotesquely farmed masses so many indifferently gob upon from the grocery store and restaurants, but not quite fully alive and present as everyday named friends, domestic kin, or pets, whose gifts include reciprocal care, gratitude. We were well aware that predator narratives abound because predatory incidents are an unfortunately common part of raising backyard chickens, particularly in an American landscape where predators are driven into smaller habitats by casual development. We’d made a choice (albeit a choice frequently reconsidered!) for these birds to be as free as we could reasonably achieve, together anticipating and thwarting threats while providing a more-than-caged life. And so I write and post this not to moralize, not to cast for condolences, not to shed or minimize my responsibility, but simply to remember, to witness, and to continue translating an awful experience into local practical wisdom, into keener stewardship.

1 Comment

  1. I was so saddened to read this and sorry you and A. had to experience it. That must be heartbreaking. I hope the remaining members of your flock stay safe. ❤

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