Flipper:1 Hawk:0

When you catch the ear-piercing screech of a mama hen and the panicked flaps of her chicks, you stop whatever it is you are doing and go into rescue mode. With our free-ranging flock, we have witnessed our share of tragedy due to raptors but we have also been on-hand to tend to and mend the near-misses.

We have eight young chicks wandering around the Queendom these days. Two are lucky enough to have been hatched out by Zorro, an experienced mama hen who takes her mothering role very seriously. This is her third brood and many of our other girls were raised under her wing. Flipper and Pilot are just four weeks old but already gaining confidence and leaving Zorro’s side for short stints.

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Flipper in the front, Pilot in the back.

While FM and I were both in the outdoor coop yesterday, there was the above-mentioned screech from Zorro – a long, grating, fear-filled cry – and then the sound of wild flapping. In the time it took to turn our heads towards the noise, a hawk was already gaining altitude and flying away across the property. FM had seen the hawk for just an instant and was fairly certain that it didn’t have anything in its talons. We stepped out to see the damage and instantly saw that one of Zorro’s chicks was missing. Pilot had scooted under a salmonberry bush and had quickly reunited with Zorro but Flipper was nowhere to be seen.

We both started searching for a tell-tale cluster of downy feathers out on the drive. Then our eyes went up to the trees, searching for a feasting hawk who would be casting aside its prey’s feathers. We know that a hawk will land on a nearby branch to eat newly-caught prey before it manages to wiggle free. We wandered to the back of the field, looking for any signs of movement in the thick forest beyond our fence line. Nothing.

Even if we find her, we won’t be able to save her.

Turning back towards the scene, we began looking in all the favourite hiding places – in the woodshed, behind the wheelbarrow, under the garden tool shelf, under a different bush, behind the old stump. But reality started to settle in when we saw Zorro standing tall near the porch, scanning the yard and processing what had just happened. She seemed bewildered and devastated, if you’ll allow me artistic licence on her feelings. One moment, Flipper was there; the next, she was gone. A life erased, just like that.

For a brief instant, our hope rekindled as we all heard a familiar cheep cheep from across the yard. As we hustled over toward the sound, we realized it was just one of the penned-up meat birds chattering.

It was too much to hope for.

A long while had passed – probably close to 30 minutes – and, after having considered every option, we both had returned to our weekend tasks with heavy hearts. Then, something caught my eye and I looked over to see Flipper quietly hustling across the drive, over to her mum. Hidden alone, way beyond the compost bin, she had outfoxed the hawk – and us. Zorro dropped her stoic stance and welcomed Flipper home with clucks that promised fresh shoots and grubs. Flipper chest-bumped her sister and then jumped up to perch on a tree branch.

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Both Pilot and Flipper love to roost in the pine tree beside the porch

FM and I were awash with relief. There is something so precious about a little chick. In her short month of life, we have already become attached and we look forward to years of watching her on Chicken TV, as in:

Let’s go out on the porch and watch an hour of Chicken TV.

This whole episode (of Chicken TV) makes me wonder how often this kind of close-call happens. For us, this was the first attempted predator attack for young Pilot and Flipper. But what do we know? This could be happening once a week or even daily. Our lives are busy with work and play. This flock is busy with daily adventure and survival. Flipper and Pilot are being taught by the best and have proven to be fast learners – which is great since their lives depend on it here in the Queendom.

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But life in the Queendom is pretty good, too. Here, Zorro takes in a sun beam with white-chinned Flipper by her side and preening Pilot beyond.

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One Tough Chick

We lost Sprout this week. As I came out onto the front porch for my regular morning coffee and chick visit, I could hear a chorus of begawking coming from inside the coop. I found her dead on the coop floor, exactly in the spot where she has been choosing to sleep lately. It seems that she passed pretty peacefully, tucked in beside the nest boxes. I picked her up and found that her feet were cool to the touch but she still had some residual warmth deep under her thick feathers next to her skin. It was a sad discovery but not a surprise to either of us.

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When Sprout was just a month old, she mysteriously escaped a hawk attack within the coop and spent the night alone under the porch in -5° C temperatures. We had assumed that she had been taken and killed until the next morning when she emerged, looking for food. Toughness, learned early.

Sprout has been ill for a long time – more than 2 years according to my journal. Back in December 2016, we first noticed her distended, watery belly which caused her pain when palpated. We initially treated her as if egg-bound but ruled it out after a gentle vent probe. But she did have a solid mass, deep in her abdomen, that sat against the left abdominal wall. She was able to poop, eat, snooze, preen and forage but she sometimes gasped for breath or her comb would turn a purply colour.

A few months later, we decided that we were brave enough to drain her ascites belly. We took 2/3 cup of amber liquid out of her with a syringe. She bounced back but we knew that we were only dealing with a symptom of something much more serious. Her voice had changed and she kind of squeaked instead of chattered and her open-beak gasping became her signature pose. I don’t know how many times I wrote in my journal that she would die soon.

So, why didn’t we cull her or put her out of her misery, you may ask. We are prepared to do this to a much-loved bird (although it pains us both deeply) but we were waiting for her to have a downward turn. Every morning, she was the first one out of the coop, ready to get out into the fresh air and forage with the young chicks. And often she was the last one in at night, waiting until all the young’uns were inside and accounted for before she hit the roost. If this behaviour had changed, we would have stepped up and done the deed.

She was tough to the end. She didn’t let her sickness hold her back. She was a caring mother hen, raising two clutches of chicks herself and being a surrogate mother to many other little ones.

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Sprout was an amazing mother hen. Here she is, in healthier days, with Zorro and Zelda.

She died at 4.5 years old, a month after her BFF Speedy was killed by a hawk. Perhaps she couldn’t carry on without her old nest-mate buddy. She was ill, had trouble breathing and probably in pain for a long time but she had a deep resilience and kept us fooled.

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Ever curious and beautiful.

[Warning: necropsy details ahead]

FM bravely opened Sprout up to see if her illness was visible. Indeed, it was. She had two huge masses in her lower abdomen. The astonishing one was a heavy white mass, the size of a softball. It was made up of layers upon layers of dense, white tissue and had egg material in the center, complete with softened shell around a yolk. For those chicken keepers out there, it resembled a hard, internal, lash egg, which I understand to be a result of oviduct cancer. We have had only one lash egg, a number of years ago, which may have been hers. The other mass is a mystery to us and our best guess is an enormous, enlarged spleen.

Upon seeing her insides, it was obvious that these two masses had filled up her abdomen, reducing her lung capacity substantially. I also suspect that she may have occasionally manifested as egg-bound or as egg-peritonitis because the tumours may have caused a temporary bowel obstruction.

We suspected cancer way back in 2016 and it turns out that we were probably right. The mild relief is that it isn’t contagious and the rest of the flock will carry on.

It has been a tough six months here on the Queendom. We have lost five hens since August, one to a hawk but the rest to unknown illnesses. Chicken-keeping is tough on this old chick.

 

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Another Close Call

With bald eagles and sharp-shinned hawks making regular passes over the Queendom these days, our rooster, Stryper, has a heavy workload. He tirelessly leads, follows and gathers the girls together, ever watching the sky and assessing the level of danger. At the end of the day, when he finally roosts for the night, he is the first to sleep, exhausted by his task.

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Stryper is the most attentive rooster we have had. He chatters away all day and the girls love what he is dishing out.

Some of our older girls ignore his constant pestering and choose to wander in the other direction. They are probably content that the new young beauties hold his attention so fixedly. But everything has a cost.

Today, FM found a pile of gray feathers in a shed bay, behind the snowblower. He had noticed that the flock was hunkered down, out of view, under the front porch when he arrived home so he went back to see who was there and who was missing. We currently have six gray hens and it turns out that beautiful Ash was missing.

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What a beauty Ash is. She looks like a Robin Red-Breast with her rusty highlights.

Ash is an experienced hen – probably five years old – who growls at the slightest danger and continues growling long afterwards to remind the others to be careful. She also loves a snuggle and spends time each day with her sickly mum, Sprout.

With headlamps on, FM and I headed over to the pile of feathers and began searching.

Feathers everywhere – even a thick pile under this wire shelf. She was found under the right hand shelf. Afterwards I collected them all and could easily have stuffed a pillow.

Expecting to find a lifeless body, I was elated to find her bright eyes looking at me. She was flattened down under the gardening shelf, between a bag of grass seed and another of peat moss. She was totally invisible. In fact, FM had just searched this same area ten minutes earlier with no luck. She seems relieved to have been found and easily came into my arms but was still on high alert to danger.

We carried her back into the house and checked her over for injuries. Most of the feathers on her back are broken off at the base and she has a scratch which cut through the thin skin between her wings. One of her claws is broken, deeply split and bleeding. She is missing most of the feathers on her belly and on her left leg.

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She just looks fluffy from this angle but you can see that the outer feathers from her leg are all gone. Those downy under-feathers are covering up her bare-naked patches.

But, she is alert, has all her internal organs intact and hungrily devoured some pear and hemp seeds. She must have put up the fight of her life before finding safety under the garden shelf. She is now back in with coop, probably telling horror stories of her getaway to the young chicks.

After losing precious Speedy to a bald eagle last month and after finding Gandalf hunkered down in a similar hiding spot six weeks ago, we are keenly aware that losing hens to birds of prey can happen any day. I’m just glad that today wasn’t that day.

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Ash and her only chick, Ace, about 2 years ago. Ace was never kicked out of the nest and now, a few years later, they still hang out together.

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DIY Vet – A Broken Toe

Just like any chicken-keeper with a backyard flock, medical issues come and go on a fairly regular basis. In the seven years that we have kept chickens, we have dealt with roundworm outbreaks, respiratory issues, impacted crop, bumblefoot, possible wry neck, eagle attack, internal laying and a few other unknown, undiagnosed problems. We have only taken a chicken to the vet once, figuring out all the other issues through ‘Dr. Google’ or common sense. We have lost a number of girls to medical problems over those years but we have also helped others survive and thrive.

Chickens are stoic in their pain and discomfort and, despite all my efforts at chicken whispering, they rarely tell me the root of their problems. It takes keen observation of their unique chicken-alities so that you can quickly notice a change in behaviour or physical wellness. The word on the street is that once a hen shows weakness, it is too late to help.

Benedict is our top hen despite her 6.5 years.

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Me and Ben have a special bond. She comes to me most mornings for a snuggle, a chat and a game of beak (which she invented)

She is boss of the coop and boss of the Queendom. She is usually one of the first out in the morning and contentedly ignores our rooster to forage where she chooses. So, last week, when I found her sitting on the coop floor, it struck me as odd but I wrote it off as weather-related since we had 20 cm of fresh snow on the ground and it was still snowing. A day later, she was still sitting on the coop floor and again the following day.

Finally on day 3, I went to pick her up and was shocked to see that her foot was bright green at the base of the middle toe and that toe was dangling loosely. I carried her into the house where FM and I analysed it more carefully.

Strangest bruise I have ever seen, but apparently normal.

A quick internet search taught me that chicken bruises are bright green and typically show up 2 days after an injury. It appears that there is a break somewhere in her middle toe, probably the bone closest to the foot. I found a website which discussed helping wild birds (mostly songbirds) who have injured their wings, feet or legs. It suggested making a whole foot splint out of pipe-cleaners or popsicle sticks and vet wrap. Somewhere else, I found a suggestion to use a styrofoam meat tray as the splint.

With a bit of creative ingenuity and a very patient bird, I managed to cut a splint for the one toe out of a foam tray. I made it fit the whole base of her foot and extend the length of the injured toe, ending before her claw. I made sure the splint had smooth edges, and I wrapped it with gauze.

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The Chicken Kit his always at the ready and has all sorts of supplies for every eventuality

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Her middle toe is about the same length as my finger.

With Benedict laying on her side against a pile of towels, I used vet wrap to fix the splint in place. With one piece of vet wrap, I wrapped the toe onto the splint and used a second piece of wrap to fix the splint around the base of her toe, her foot pad and her thumb. I finished off with electrical tape just to keep the vet wrap edges from peeling up. The electrical tape doesn’t touch her skin.

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Here is the only photo I took of the splinting (one week later). Her middle toe is splinted straight but her three other toes are all able to flex and bend. She’s always flipping me the bird.

One week later, the splint is still on and in place. Benedict has not left the coop but has progressed from hopping on one foot to gently putting weight on her injured foot and limping from the food to the water and her favourite sleeping spots. Last night, she even hopped up onto a roost bar for the night!

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She has managed to get up and down from the roost over the past couple of days and is pretty adept at limping around the coop. I imagine it will be a solid three weeks before she free-ranges again.

Most forums I found suggest keeping an injured hen separate from the flock until she can fend for herself but I didn’t do this with Benedict. She doesn’t bear confinement well, calling and crying whenever left alone in the ICU dog crate, and would probably injure herself further in trying to escape. Also, since she is the Alpha, no one would dare mess with her. So far, this has proven true.

We still don’t know what could have broken her toe. Nothing in the coop was out of place – no signs of a struggle. Perhaps the ‘snow day’ caused some crazy cooped-up chicken antics in the coop. Their lips are sealed.

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Freedom Has a Price

If you were given a choice between living your life in the safety of a cage or being given the freedom to roam free, which would you choose? It seems like a ludicrous question to ask of people but what is the answer when you are keeping chickens and ducks? At the Queendom, we have opted for freedom. In the ~1500 days that we have had our free-ranging flock, we have lost only two hens to predators and had one near-miss. In light of those statistics, it seems criminal to keep these birds caged. Deep down, we know that we could lose our whole flock in a single day. But we believe that our flocks are living the most natural life that livestock can live and that, even if they were all killed, at least they lived well.

But our philosophy has recently been put to the test. In the short span of 16 days, we lost our entire flock of ducks. Seven ducks and one chicken (Trooper) gone. Picked off, one by one, until there were none.

In May, FM came home with six Runner ducklings who had been incubator-hatched in a local classroom.

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So tiny, so fluffy, so cute!

Less than a week old, they moved into a box in our computer room and instantly became our favourite hobby. Being Runner Ducks, they were given names of significant running races that we have done – Plain, Stormy, Bighorn, DV (Diez Vista), Tor (de Geants) and Bock (who was named after beer). They eventually were moved into the garden shed and then into the Duck Palace.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out to the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out of the house and into the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Always moving together as a unit, these six flightless ducks would call to us when we arrived home from work, would run over to us if they were out of food and would all jump into the pond together to show off their swimming skills.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

Despite being endlessly handled and cuddled by us when they were young, they became wild with age. They took to our pond like ducks to water and it quickly became impossible to contain them or even get near them.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

They still relied on us daily for food which we provided in the Duck Palace but they preferred life on the water, only using the Duck Palace in passing and never as a shelter.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. See all six ducks handing out in the storage bin.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. In this pic, all six ducks are hanging out in the storage bin wading pool.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food. (Stormy and Bock)

I bought a third hen once they became sexually mature, trying to even out the male/female ratio, but the addition of Silverton only made them more wild as they tried to escape her efforts to join the flock. I stressed nightly about them sleeping out in the open and I tried everything to lure them to safety but nothing worked. As the wild weather of Autumn gusted and stormed, I lay awake wondering how they would survive each night.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks, moving fast as usual. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

And then it happened – the first day of a 16 day massacre. We came home from work to find Trooper, our recently rescued hen, dead on the driveway. The rest of the chickens were all in hiding and the ducks were in a panic. But only five ducks were there. After an hour of searching, we found DV’s body partially pulled through the back fence with his neck eaten (a similar death to that of Trooper) and Silverton has simply vanished. These were daylight killings and our initial guess was raccoon (since a mink couldn’t carry Silverton off without a trace, could it?).

Thirteen days later, we woke up to find only two ducks left. Three had been killed over night. This time, there were two distinct piles of feathers (Tor and Bock) but no trace of Stormy’s dark plumage. We found a solitary wing and a well-cleaned spine and keel bone in different parts of the yard. These deaths were so different from the others – nighttime vs daytime; feather piles vs bodies; mostly uneaten vs completely cleaned carcass. This time, our conclusion was owl or some other bird of prey.

Two days later after work, FM greeted me on the front steps to deliver the news that the last two remaining ducks were gone. Almost empty with grief, we went to see the massive pile of feathers that we assumed was both Bighorn and Plain together. Again there was no body, just feathers – so many feathers. Another daytime kill. As I wept (again), I began to clear out the Duck Palace. I heard a quiet quack and turned to see Plain scoot out from under our pond bridge. She had been in hiding up until she spotted me. All alone and terrified. She would not come close and could not be lured with food. Instead, she stood on the wildlife viewing platform and quacked, crying out for her Bighorn. I tried to get to her, knowing that her days hours were numbered. I can still hear her desperate, lonely call as she quacked for him through the night.

The next morning, she was gone. Without a trace. I still search for her, needing proof that she isn’t just hiding from us again though it has already been more than a week.

Seven ducks and one chicken. Four daytime deaths; four nighttime deaths. Two bodies; three piles of feathers; three vanished with no trace. FM and I can’t agree on the predator. He believes that an owl is responsible for most of the deaths, if not all. I think that a variety of predators are to blame – raccoon, owl and perhaps the bald eagle that has been around lately. We don’t have fox or coyote on the island but other possibilities (although far-fetched) are bear, cougar or mink.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart - ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart – ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

Having a small flock of ducks was wonderful while it lasted. They were sleek, beautiful and hilarious. Watching them was endlessly entertaining. They were so young that we didn’t get a single egg. But I don’t think I can handle trying again. We were responsible for them but failed them and it cost them their lives.  But, back to my philosophy about freedom … they were as free as can be and it was good for them while it lasted.

Cuteness embodied!

Cuteness embodied!

In my next life, when I come back as a chicken, I will choose the life of freedom that is offered in the Queendom. My days will start with the crow of my rooster before sunrise in the darkened indoor coop. The click of the timer will illuminate the red heat lamp. The whirring sound of the automatic chicken-door opener will be my signal to hop off the roost and head outdoors. Depending on the season, I will have up to sixteen hours to do as I choose on my five acre piece of land. I may wander, scratch, preen, snooze, peck or hunt as I see fit. If I feel like it, I may return to the coop to lay an egg. There are many great hiding places to go if my rooster announces danger and I know which one is close by. As dusk approaches, my sisters and I will make our way home to the safety of our coop, hustling in before the chicken-door shuts tight for the night, so that we can do it all again tomorrow. At any moment, a predator could wander through or fly overhead and it could all end but until then I’ll choose to be free.

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Not Safe With Me

As soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew her name – Trooper.

Trooper came to my attention via a hobby farm facebook group that I follow. Someone had spotted a lone chicken in the A&W parking lot in town, took her photo and posted it on facebook. The person who posted the photo left the chicken there and commented that the hen had been around that area for a couple of weeks. Presumably abandoned, this little red hen had somehow survived a brutal three-day pre-winter storm and had been living on french fries that staff and customers had left for her. The day after the facebook post, the custodian at my school (a fellow crazy chicken lady) came in to work saying that her daughter had gone over to the A&W, found the lost hen sitting between two cars, easily scooped her up and brought her home. Trooper was ragged, ravenously hungry and very, very tired.

Due to ridiculous city limit rules against chicken keeping, Juanita could not keep Trooper but she kept her long enough to bring this friendly, little hen back into good health. During her week-long stay at Spa Juanita, Trooper experienced the luxuries of sitting by the fireside, snacking on scratch and cheese and being endlessly cuddled. It quickly became apparent that she was very used to being handled by people. As she recovered from her survivalist adventure, she grew more chatty and curious.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper enjoys every luxury at Spa Juanita.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper makes an easy transition to luxury at Spa Juanita.

After a few daily reports about Trooper’s progress at Spa Juanita, I succumbed to the gentle pressure to add Trooper to our small flock. I was initially resistant to take her on as I know too well the issues with introducing an outsider into a flock. But, in the end, I figured that being the lowest on the pecking order in our charmed flock was far better than living in an A&W parking lot, watching customers eat your deep-fried kindred.

On Tuesday, we scheduled the pass-off. Juanita brought Trooper to the school in a dog-sized cage and I finally got to meet her. I, of course, fell in love at once.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, ... only time will tell.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, … only time will tell.

I drove her home and placed her cage on the front porch so that she could have a look around and our flock could check her out. Waffles, our rooster, was instantly enamored with the addition of a red-head to his harem and danced around her cage over and over.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Benedict predictably did her bossy, top-hen routine of flaring up, leaping at her and doing some territorial pecking.

Benedict, in full flare, letting Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben's authority.

Benedict, in full flare, lets Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben’s authority.

When the flock had put themselves to bed, I brought Trooper, cage and all, into the computer room for the night. Once alone inside, Trooper became very vocal so FM and I brought her into the kitchen and let her explore for a little while.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. (Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house)

On Wednesday, Trooper’s cage was set up on the porch again, allowing everyone to sniff, chat and look at the new lady. Late that night, after all the hens had tucked in for the night, we took Trooper out of her cage and into the coop. We placed her on the roost right beside Waffles. The word on the street is that if a chicken wakes up inside a coop, she will understand that this is home and will be able to orient herself in her new area. No one seemed to notice her arrival and, as we left, she was looking through the darkness, trying to get her bearings.

On Thursday, I checked on her before leaving for work. She was still inside the indoor coop although the exterior door opening onto our five acres was open. She had flown to a high roost and was squawking away with the others. I made sure she knew where the food and water was and then I left. At some point on Thursday, Trooper was confident enough to leave the coop and free-range with the others.

But her lucky days ended later that day when a predator came through. Although I am certain that Waffles would have sounded his alarm, Trooper didn’t know where to hide or perhaps the other hens didn’t allow her under the porch. She must have made a mad run for cover but didn’t find any. When I arrived home after work, the first thing I saw was her rusty-red feathers strewn over the driveway and her lifeless body on the shop doorstep. I cannot believe that she was killed on her first real day with us.

The devastation I feel for this little hen is enormous. I truly thought that we were offering her a better life here at the Queendom. It seems inconceivable that she was able to survive alone in the city for a fortnight but was immediately killed upon joining our flock. Sheesh. I suppose that the first day or two in a new place are really the most dangerous for livestock. My one wish is that I had waited until the weekend before letting her out. Perhaps then we would have spotted the predator in action (although we still could have been too late to save her).

Before this, it had been over two years since we lost a chicken to a predator. We regularly see bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawk and owls at the Queendom and over the past three months we saw three raccoon, a mink and evidence of bear but they have all thankfully left us alone – until now. Sadly her body was completely intact – just her neck was eaten. The jury is out on what animal took her life.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

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