Remember these guys?
Well, they've had a really rough winter/early spring and yesterday disaster struck.
This past Tuesday I was discussing with Shana and Deb that for the sake of transparency I would have to post about the difficult past few months with the chickens. Because the reality is it's not always all hunky-dory and martha stewart-like on the small holding. Some days you just have to pry martha's head outta her ass and shine the light on the dark side. I thought my flock was past it's rough winter. I was wrong.
Despite making sure the girls had quality food and supplements I lost a hen during the winter to a prolapsed vent. That's usually the result of a lack of calcium or trying to squeeze out overly large eggs. I had found a couple of thin-shelled eggs but I was also collecting these double yolked duck sized monster eggs on a regular basis as well. In an effort to prevent a recurrence I made sure they were getting a good diet with plenty of calcium.
A while later I found one of the hens cowering in a protected corner of the coop away from the others. When I got her out it was obvious that she was the victim of inter-coop politics and violence. The other hens had pecked her back bare and torn her comb. I took her home and nursed her back to health. In a week she recovered, was alert and perky and new feathers were starting to grow in. I reintegrated her back into the flock and while the other hens didn't attack her they did try to bully her. Every day while I was at the coop Poor Chickie (PC) would stick close to me everywhere I went. All seemed well for about a month but then I found her pecked again and we went through the same routine.
PC healed nicely and again I released her into the flock. Two days later Michael and I went out to the coop to let the girls out for a run only to find a hen in the corner of the fenced run badly mauled and barely breathing. Michael took a close look and said, "They did her in this time." I looked down at my feet and there was PC leaning against my leg in fine shape. "No," I said, "PC's here. They chose a different victim this time." Unfortunately, this hen was in such bad shape there would be no saving her so we put her down. I don't know what inspired the pecking order behavior all of a sudden. Although we have shiny toys in the coop for the girls to play with and let them out for daily romps in all but the worst weather I can only attribute it to boredom. Or maybe they were just being chickens.
Two weeks ago I found another hen with a prolapsed vent. I was still collecting those extra-extra jumbo eggs and hadn't seen any weak-shelled ones so I attributed her prolapse to squeezing out eggs too large for her system. I was worried I would see this problem again because every other day there was still a monster egg in the nest box. That is until yesterday..
Since spring arrived I've been letting the girls out to range for longer periods of time in order to get them out of the pecking urge and because they just love to run anyway. Mostly I've been there to supervise while working in the garden, but they don't stray far from their coop and I became comfortable letting them roam on their own for a bit. Yesterday I got the urge to answer my own call of nature and ran up to the house. While I was there I grabbed a glass of water and then returned to the garden. When I got back the hens were gone. Just gone. I couldn't have been away for more than 40 minutes if that. I called them and shook the treat bag which usually brings them running from all corners and... nothing. I checked the coop and two hens were inside on the roosts.
Then I caught a flicker of movement on the pine tree covered hill beyond the coop. There I saw a brindle-colored fox dragging away one of the hens. In less than 40 minutes that fox had caught and dragged off five hens. I found a few feathers lying about but less than what I've seen when they were molting. No blood, no bodies, no signs of struggle. I feel devastated and horribly guilty for leaving them alone.
So I've learned my lesson. My future hens will be allowed to free-range only when one of us is present to protect them from critters. Chicken tractors will be constructed in the next few weeks so the hens can still peck and scratch outside but be protected when we're not around. Unsupervised free-ranging is ok for folks who have large flocks and roosters to create more chicks but for my little backyard operation sans roosters predation is not an option. And while my chickens are not pets neither are they savvy about self-protection like chickens that run in larger flocks. That's my job and I failed them.