Letter from Birdland: Upon reflection, I know what killed chickens

When I left you last week, I was mulling over a difficult problem with a cup of tea. A possum had gotten into my chicken coop the night before and destroyed five of my chickens.

I have had time to recollect, and I figured out what happened. There was no sign of forced entry into the coop, and so I wondered how the evil perpetrator got in to commit its damage upon my flock.

We had come home after dark (which is easy to do these days, sunset being around 5 p.m., though a little later every day) and I did go out right away to shut in the chickens.

Three or four were sitting on top of the coop, which they occasionally do for various reasons — sometimes the door blows shut during the day; sometimes they just want to sit out and enjoy the moon.

I didn't think much of it and caught them easily in the dark and put them through the door. The chickens went into the inner door willingly.

Many hours later, we heard a disturbance, and Ursula and I went out to check on it. My dog ran barking off into the night toward the vacant field, and I peeked into the coop, but my peeking was cursory, and that was the trouble as you shall soon see.

Now I would give quite a lot to go back in time and shine a flashlight into all the corners of the coop, but it was quiet in there.

I thought that Ursula chased whatever-it-was off trying to get into the coop, and I shut the lid of the coop and went back to my evening. In retrospect I think the evil varmint was already inside when I shut the coop up for the night and was simply biding its time. And I must have tossed them in to their doom!

This is certainly not the first time I have lost chickens, nor even the most devastating loss. Once a pack of coyotes came in the night and ripped open the coop and killed about 30 birds. But it brings an opportunity to reflect on the nature of keeping chickens. Is predator loss a given?

I don't know if I could build a coop that would be safe from every kind of predation.

One farming friend told me, "Weasels can get into anything!"

Except when the coyotes came, our losses most often come because of our choice to let our flock range free in the yard. I can keep nighttime losses to a minimum by shutting the doors at dusk (and now, I will check the coop more carefully when I do).

But I realize that giving the chickens access to the yard to scratch and eat a natural and varied diet opens them up to more risk.

And I think that risk is worth it. One reason I keep chickens is so we can eat eggs that are not laid in a factory farm. Those chickens may be safe from possums and maybe even weasels, but at what expense? And won't their lives eventually be ended by the biggest predator of all? Humans? Or even worse, disease?

Last week, I related how I opened the coop in the morning to a terrible sight — and at the end of my tale the possum lay curled up, sleeping off the wreckage in the nest box and I had successfully trapped it, but now was waiting for an idea to come to tell me how to get it from my garden coop to a land far away.

As I drank my tea, I hatched a plan. I asked for Ellis' help. My youngest agreed to hold a shovel over the door while I deposited the nest box into the dog crate. We then put the dog crate into the back of the car and drove to a forest preserve several miles away. The creature didn't want to leave the dark nest box, but I spilled it out into the snow.

It was my first glance of its full size, and it was the biggest possum I had ever seen. Of course it was, with five of my chickens in its belly! It lumbered away slowly, blinking in the sunshine. We packed up the crate and drove back home to tend to the flock.

Recover beauty; retrieve peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She wants to wish her mother a very happy birthday. You can read more about Birdland, including the first part of this story at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com.

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rsp wrote on January 27, 2013 at 11:01 am

Several miles? It will be back. They have a range of a few miles. As soon as it sees land that is familiar it will come "home". 

americanproud wrote on January 27, 2013 at 5:01 pm

I trust that Mary knows what she's doing.  She has a lot more experience raising chickens than I do (which is zero).  Let's hope the possum stays in the forest preserve and feasts off the land there.  I'm sorry this happened, Mary.  You couldn't have known.  Those possums are very sly.  If you had cornered him with the flashlight that night, he could have attacked you.