Fox in the Hen House – Literally

Tonight we had the local fox visit our chicken coop.  It is one of the backyard chicken wrangler’s worst nightmares – predators.  We had lost chickens before and each time took another step to protect them better based on what happened.    This time unfortunately the fox actually got into the coop.   It was not a case of them finding our free range chickens.

We lost five birds, one of the bigs (last year’s hen) and five of the littles (this year’s 8 week old chicks).  I am sad and mad at the same time. A fox came in and cleaned house literally.  They were taken from the coop this time.   Yes the gate to the run and coop was open.    The fox took more than he could use at one time and ended up burying carcasses for later use. I am mad because as the keeper of livestock, my job is to ensure they are fed, watered, kept healthy and safe. We failed them.   I am sad because being a victim to a predator is not a nice way to go out.

Now the battle is on.   We are looking at options to improve how we allow our hens to have outdoor time without putting them at risk. This fox hit the jackpot today and we are fairly certain that he or she will be back soon.   There are lots of options for us to explore.   We are looking for something that can be done relatively fast, easy and inexpensively.   We will keep you posted as we work through solutions to this problem.

Change of Plans

Today I had a visitor.   Mr. Fox came into my yard at 11 and by the time he left 15 minutes later I had lost three of my chickens.    I can’t tell you how frustrated and angry I was.     After years of having a working rule that my chickens never free range before 10, I learned that life happens.  It made me frustrated.    I also was reminded to listen and that life and death are only a few breaths apart.   It made me angry.

Today I was busy with work and I did not spring the birds until quarter to 11.   My little terrier went out with me.   He was constantly sniffing the air, and spending time marking.   I became impatient with him.   I had work that was waiting and scolded him telling him I had no time for this doggie nonsense.  (in retrospect these were signs I should have recognized as something not right that I missed.)   The dog and I headed inside and settled in my office.   Just 15 minutes later I heard what sounded like my chickens heading by my office window making noises that told me something was not right. I headed out leaving the dog inside, instinct told me this was not a place for my little dog with a big heart.  I found the chickens all in the coop on high roosts.   I counted them up and realized I was missing three birds.   I would find two of the three carcasses.  The fox spent the rest of the day coming back and challenging me for more birds.  I kept them in their run, but was constantly checking on their safety to ensure the fox did not breach that barrier.   To be honest if I could have ensured a clean shot I would have eliminated the varmint.   Unfortunately I did not have the skill or tool to do so.  So I am going to be fighting this battle for days to come fox vs. chicken safety.

We were planning on butchering this weekend.   As a result of the birds I lost, my plans for what I will keep and what will go to the freezer has changed.   The fox got the barred rock, the dark Brahma, and the Norwegian Jaehorn.     I now plan to butcher the leghorn, the austrolorp and the silver laced wyandotte.   We will keep two speckled Sussex, buff Brahma, buckeye, buff orpington and Easter egger.   A couple of them look like they may be going into a molt.   If so I may keep less than six.

I wish I had felt I had the time to photograph Mr. Fox.   His coat was beautiful and truly a handsome specimen. I would love to be sharing that with you.    But my job was to protect my little flock of livestock.   So I screamed, chased and threw rocks.    My dog barked and marked.  I suspect that this will be my job for days to come.   My plans for my flock have changed all because of a visit from Mr. Fox.

Nothing Left But Feathers

feather-only-webYesterday we lost a chicken.   It sucks, no two ways about it.   Based on what was left it was most likely canine who took our hen.   Lots and  lots of feathers, no body.

It is one of the many dangers of letting chickens have free range, especially in the country.   We try to minimize the danger by keeping them confine in the early morning and late afternoon hours.   We have a family of foxes who live on our property and a pack of coyotes who love to sing in the country behind us.   They like easy pickings and we try to avoid making our hens such by keeping them confine  during the “standard” hunting hours.

Fortunately the days are getting longer in Montana.   The sun is rising earlier and earlier in Montana.   It is clearly daylight here at 6 in the morning now.   We love it.          Just because it gets lighter earlier does not mean that Mr. Hunter’s hours are shorter, no it just means that he gets to do some daylight hour hunting.     The mistake was made opening the fence to the chicken run too early yesterday.   It was opened based on daylight not the hour of the day.   We lost a good laying hen.   Hard lesson learned for all of us, look at your watch before you open the chicken gate.

Free Range Chickens

Look closely my chickens are out in the pasture.

Look closely my chickens are out in the pasture.

Recently  I wrote about not being happy with a white chicken.   If I kept my chickens confined then this would not be an issue.   Lucky for my chickens I let them free range.   Free range is a natural method of raising chickens.   It allows them time to range out in nature, eating bugs, slugs, seeds, grasses as they naturally would.     Free range chickens produce eggs that with yellower yolks, have a creamier taste, and are naturally higher in Omega-3!   Unfortunately running around free range also has some serious risks.   Predators love chickens.   Predators can be what you all think of,  foxes and coyotes.  There can be some not so common predators from the air hawks or an occasional eagle.   It can also be the neighbor’s dog.  When a pet kills or maims your livestock this can create some serious conflict.   Everyone in this picture has some responsibility.   As a chicken keeper I have an obligation to reduce the risk of running in to predators, by picking chickens who blend in with my landscape.   I also reduce the likelihood they will meet a predator by keeping them in the chicken run until the sun is up and confining them as the sun starts to set.   I have lost one to a hawk.   I have added some more cover for them after that loss.     I have had  to called the neighbor two pastures over when her dogs decided to do a long-distance adventure and came pouncing into my chicken run.  Occasionally I have found the chickens  further from home than I would like.   When that happens I haze them and then reward then with food treats when they come home.     Those birds are my responsibilities.   It isn’t a perfect science. but it works well enough for me.

Now you know why a white chicken wasn’t my first choice.  One look at my photo of my pasture this spring with my existing flock tells you she would have a bull’s eye on her.  I suspect I will have to make some adjustments to how I manage my flock for her safety when she grows up.

Picking Your Chicks

The most important thing you can do is pick the right chickens for you.   There is lots that goes into this and a  a bad choice on any one of them can make for a disaster.   Here are some of the most important elements to think about when picking you breeds.

  1. 2011-08-23 001 (1024x683)Why are you doing this? Do you want a few eggs?  Are you part of that backyard flock movement?   Do you want to fill your freezer filled with chickens?   Do you see yourself selling eggs and or chickens?
  2. Where do you live?  City, country, or in some subdivision with its own rules.   There are laws that may impact how many and what types of chickens you may have.   You many not be able to have roosters or more than three, six or some other legal arbitrary number.
  3. Where will you keep them?   They need space and the more chickens you have the more space you need. They need shelter from the elements and predators.   You for sure need coop space and preferably some outdoor space as well.
  4. How much time do you plan to put into this? Animals take time, chickens are no different.   They need full food dishes, clean water and a clean coop.   Like everything else they poop.   Don’t kid yourself they poop plenty. So just like a horse stall or a kitty box they need to be cleaned up regularly not  once a week or month.
  5. Can you afford chickens?   Chickens have ongoing costs for feed and bedding.   The start up costs can be huge if you need to build coop and pen space.   If you plan to butcher there are costs associated with setting that up as well.   Imagine what you think it will cost and double it for sure, triple it if you want to be safe.
  6. What is your climate?   Some breeds don’t do well in the heat, others can be prone to frost bite.     Do your research and learn what traits work well in your neck of the woods.2011 02 10_0474 (1024x768)
  7. What are your emotional desires?   We are human after all and there is some emotion that goes into picking your dog, cat, horse and even your chicken.   Do you want them to  be friendly?  Do you care if you can pick them up easily or not?  Do you want “cool looking” or pretty chickens?

There is no perfect breed for anyone but knowing the answers to these questions can help to set you up for success.

I will share will share some insights in to my answers and hopefully that may help you as you muddle through trying to find the best breed of chicken for you.

  1. I am mostly an egg person, who has few qualms about eating poor layers, older birds that need to be rotated out, roosters and when I end up with too many birds in the fall
  2. I live in the country, in a rural subdivision with covenants long since ignored.  I am not near anyone and in Montana generally speaking property owner rights are pretty strong.
  3. My chickens live in a shed with a coop within it.   They have a fenced run and get lots of daylight free range time.
  4. I use my chickens as an excuse to get up out of the home office, so gather eggs often.   I check water in the AM and PM and use self feeders.   I scrap their poop board at least every other day.   In the summer every day.
  5. My initial investment was such that they will never pay for themselves. I soon decided I wanted more chickens than my initial coop would support and found myself building a second larger coop, and giving them access to my shed in the winter.   I get my feed and bedding at the local feed store.   In the summer they eat very little because they free range forage so much.   In the winter they eat much more.
  6. My climate is windy, windy, windy.   In the winter you can add cold, sometimes bitter cold to that.
  7. I want cute, pretty birds.   Plain white or brown birds have no place in my coop.

My favorite birds are dual purpose birds with cushion combs, who are active foragers.  I won’t shy away from the right bird if they have a single comb.  I tend to like gravitate toward the old fashion breeds because they were developed for the lifestyle they live on my place.  I am not opposed to stretching my limits for something new, but don’t hesitate to send something that doesn’t work out to freezer camp if it is best.   I have been known to be swayed by a pretty feather pattern a time or two.   Some of my favorite breeds are wyandottes, Brahmas and rocks.  They seem to work well for me.  Find what works well for you.

Free Range Fate

Today we lost a chicken.   We are not sure what was her unfortunate demise, but she is no longer with us.   We found no signs of what happened to, no feathers, no carcass.

This is a reminder to us  the dangers to free range chickens.   Free ranging your birds one of those things that you have to figure out if you ware willing to risk, and how you balance the the rewards and the dangers.

Many people choose to not free range their flock under any circumstances for just this reason.   Many of them also put covering over the top of their chicken runs to prevent aerial predators.   The down side of this is that chickens can and will eat everything on the ground down to the nub.   The poo will pile up in the run and need to be dealt with.  It is hard to keep a run from becoming a dirt or mud pen.    On the flip side when confined people are unlikely to experience a loss  like I did today.

I am one of those who feel the possibility of loss is worth letting my chickens have free range time.   I like the fact that free range eggs are lower in cholesterol, higher in omega 3 oils, and other nutrition improvements that come from allowing them to have diet that includes a more natural mix.  I love the fact that my chickens get to behave in a more native/natural way.   They get to run after grasshoppers, dig holes  taking dust baths in the best new spot, and develop great muscle tone.  I do try to minimize their danger by waiting until late in the the morning, with the sun well up before opening the gate and letting them run free.   I herd my flock in the run before the sun goes down.

Today I made a mistake and let my hens out before 9, and then took off for work.   When I came home a couple hours later, one of the ladies was missing.    Now due to my pushing the envelope one of my hens paid the price.    Now the remaining birds will spend the week confine to quarters (their run) for the next few days so that the predator doesn’t get conditioned that birds are easy picking at our place.  As their keeper, I am responsible to protect them from unreasonable danger.   I am going to modify my habits to minimize their danger.  There are never an guarantees in life , and I still feel that the risk of free range is worth it.