Letter from Birdland: Darkness simply a part of the life cycle

In Birdland, the days are shorter, and I can't ride my bike to class anymore because it will soon be dark when I finish teaching.

I only let out the Seramas, my two little teacup chickens, on days when I'm sure I'll be home before dark to let them back in. With the early dark, this happens less and less often.

Even with planning, I sometimes mess up. Last week, I got home just as dusk was falling. I figured they would be hanging around the aviary waiting for me to open the door, as they usually are, but they were impatient and had already gone into hiding. I called and called and walked all around the little spinney of woods where they sometimes go for shelter if the big chickens get too mean.

I shone my flashlight into the brush but never found them. Once they are hidden, they are loathe to come out again. I worried all night, even more so since we had a full day starting the next morning and wouldn't be home again until after dark. They may be lucky and survive one night outside, but two?

The next morning, I didn't see them at all as I hurried about my morning chores. I felt awful thinking that my carelessness had led to their demise. We left and didn't return until late at night. I sent out wishes for their safety as we drove away.

Next morning, though, as I poured my coffee before going out to my chicken chores, I looked out the window and there they were! Two tiny white roosters one with brown feathers in his tail, one with black, strutting back and forth under the windmill. Who knows where they hid for two nights? But they hid well.

In the chicken world, however, surviving one, or even two, nights doesn't mean you'll live forever. The very next day, I caught a glimpse of a small raptor in the redbud tree. Usually we see hawks soaring in high circles, not perched in a small tree at my eye level as I sit typing at my desk.

I jumped up and ran outside, but it was gone. I couldn't see it well, but it was too small to be a red tail, maybe a Cooper's hawk? Michael saw it later, though, in that same spinney of trees back of the aviary where my little roosters take shelter.

My husband came to tell me gently about the pile of feathers he found at the edge of the bean field that evening. The little black-tailed rooster had turned the next corner in the life cycle we're all part of. Now he's flying with the noble hawk, making stealthy circles in the sky, diving down toward the earth for the next meal, maybe sitting in my redbud tree watching me through the window as I type.

His friend sits lonely in the aviary. I have decided to keep him in for a few days so that little hawk will think there's nothing more to eat here and move along. But I don't want to leave him in there forever, pacing back and forth, with his hungry eye on the wide world outside.

I sometimes get letters from readers, angry that I write about predator attacks on my chickens. I've been accused of gross neglect for allowing my chickens to be killed.

Could I keep my chickens safer? Possibly, but to guard against every kind of predation, whether it comes slinking through small cracks in the coop or running suddenly out of the corn or sneaking clumsily into the coop just before chicken dark to hide in a corner or dropping out of the sky like a bomb, I would have to sacrifice my chickens' ability to act like chickens.

I'd have to build the Fort Knox of chicken coops with fencing over the top of the yard. My chickens would not be able to range free, scratching in the dirt, chasing after a tasty grasshopper, even outsmarting me with secret nests to lay their eggs in the tall weeds or in a dark corner of the barn.

And then, how would the lives of my chickens be any different from those on a factory farm?

Just as the chicken ends the life of the grub it scratches up in the garden, a predator might end the life of a chicken, and I'm OK with that. Someone is going to eat that chicken. It might be a fox or a weasel; it might be worms and bacteria (if the chicken dies at a ripe old age and I bury it); it might even be me. Once in a while, it will be an elegant bird of prey, diving out of the lovely blue sky like an angel.

Shelter beauty; protect peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blospot.com. She welcomes letters from her readers, critical or not (but she really treasures the friendly ones). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com.

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