Our backyard chickens just celebrated their second Happy Hatchday, and as we sort of pat ourselves on our backs for having some of the world’s oldest chickens, we’re all still recovering from our first predator attack.
The victim was Clara, a Partridge Plymouth Rock, our most robust and beautiful hen. She’s a calm, easygoing gal who falls somewhere at the back of the pecking order, following instructions from the others, dutifully laying and foraging, and staying out of the way of the dominant chickens. She’s often seen snuggling with Helen the Australorp, and avoiding Sookie, our attack Polish, because everyone avoids Sookie.
I should preface the account with the fact that we live in the suburbs, our back yard is small, we free range 24/7 unless we have friends or family visiting, and our yard is 100% privacy fenced.
One late night around 2 a.m., not long after a new moon, the sky was black, the night was cool, and the girls were roosting fast asleep along the top of their mobile ark coop. Just hours before at dusk, I watched from my bedroom window as the girls flew up, one by one, to nestle up together. Oddly, I paid special attention to Clara that night, noting how beautiful she was, as she settled to roost alone that night.
I woke up to a chicken sound like I’d never heard before. It was screaming. Actual chicken screaming. It was terrifying. Groggy, I wondered what it was. And, when it started again, breaking the silence of the night with absolute terror, I leaped from bed and ran to the back door, but it was too dark to see. We scared away the predator, and found mounds of feathers strewn over the patio. At first glance, the feathers looked black, so we assumed Helen had been attacked, but Helen was asleep in the coop, and we couldn’t find Clara. Without light, there wasn’t anything we could do at 2 a.m., so we tried to go back to sleep.
At 5 a.m., whatever attacked at 2 a.m. was back for more. Again, chicken screaming. My husband ran outside, and Clara, who doesn’t like people, walked toward him from under the bushes like she was asking for help. It was still too dark to see her injuries, so he tucked her into the coop with Helen, and came back inside.
The next morning, I dressed and went out back to find Clara. The girls were just standing in the grass, on alert and assessing the carnage instead of foraging for breakfast. Mabel, a Red Star and the head of the flock, usually runs to me whenever I step outside the door, but on that particular morning, she stood watch on top of the coop, her body rigid, and her neck shortened, waiting to alert the minions if the predator returned.
If I hadn’t been able to look at Clara and see that she wasn’t stark naked, I would have guessed she lost all of her feathers. They were everywhere, in clumps, all over the yard. She was missing feathers from the left side of her neck down the entire length of her body, her tail feathers were gone, her bare tail exposed, and what I call the “butt ruffles” were completely gone, too. Worse, under her right wing, a chunk of flesh the size of a quarter was missing, and I could see bare chicken breast meat.
On the upside, she was able to run away from me, but I couldn’t understand how she could tolerate the kind of pain she must have been feeling.
I consulted my chicken books, chatted a bit with my farmer friend Sarah, and opted for iodine and bandaging. At the pharmacy where I went to buy the iodine, I decided to visit the pharmacist to make sure I could use it on that injury where bare muscle was showing–I just didn’t want to hurt Clara.
The pharmacist giggled when I asked her about chicken first aid, but we agreed that our tissues were similar and Clara should be just fine.
Later, I cleaned Clara in the bathtub and wrapped her up with gauze as best I could. It’s been nearly three weeks and she seems perfectly fine. She’s covered in pin feathers, and she’s resumed foraging as normal, but (dare I say) the emotional toll of the attack on the flock was unexpected.
After Clara’s attack, we didn’t have eggs for three days. And, since, we haven’t found more than one or two eggs per day, versus the usual four. Sometimes, one of the eggs we get is a failed egg. At the time of the attack, one of our hens began her annual molt, but after the attack, none of them followed, their energy now focused on protection and survival rather than production.
Tonight at dusk, the girls were tucked into the safety of their coop. We’ve been lax about it for the last week or so, confident that our predator problem was a fluke. Early this morning, the chickens were fussing in the yard, where we discovered Bobcat, the neighborhood tomcat, lurking around the chickens. He’s been hanging around for almost two years, prowling the yard, sunning on the patio, but our indoor/outdoor cat Lily kept him honest, until she died in July. It would seem Bobcat has developed at taste for chicken.
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Photos: Rachel Hurd Anger