Column: Want to raise chickens (or children)? Do so at your own riskOne warming Sunday morning I looked out the window to see Leo, our black cat, walking along the garden fence. My eyes bugged out when I then noticed the portly skunk walking on the ground right below Leo. Although the cat and skunk weren’t interacting, I froze with the threat.
One warming Sunday morning I looked out the window to see Leo, our black cat, walking along the garden fence. My eyes bugged out when I then noticed the portly skunk walking on the ground right below Leo. Although the cat and skunk weren’t interacting, I froze with the threat.
Glancing at the chicken yard
I realized something was wrong. Three of my five young pullets were jerking around the cage in a bizarre attitude. The fourth chicken was not in sight and the fifth chicken was no longer a chicken at all, but a lifeless pile of red feathers! I choked on my coffee.
I snapped open the window, howled at the skunk and then ran out the door in my bathrobe. A predator had left one headless chicken in the corner of the coop and a simple pile of feathers in the other corner. The three live chickens were nervous, to say the least. I assumed the predator was the chunky skunk. He must have committed the crime in the night and come back in the morning to see if the other chickens remembered the
As I surveyed the mess I knew I needed to act fast. My young daughter would be up soon, and I needed to dispose of the gore. I could do nothing about the blood splashed on the side of the coop. There were no euphemisms to hide the echo of violence here. There was nobody to blame but myself. I was trying to teach the chickens a lesson, move them into maturity, but obviously I hadn’t understood the risk of failure.
The chickens were young and even though they knew how to walk up the gangplank into their pen, they hadn’t had the instinct to do so at night. I knew they would eventually figure it out. Mature chickens know that when it gets dark it’s time to go inside. But this flock was too young and inexperienced. There were no chicken mentors. Instead, they just huddled up in their pen which is fenced in but still exposed.
For a week or so I was tucking them into bed every night.
It sounds silly, but the chickens didn’t understand the danger they were in. So we would go down in the evening, take them out of the outdoor pen and pack them away in their house. It was cozy and sweet, but felt dumb too. So one evening we let them figure it out. But instead of climbing into their safe house they curled up in their outdoor pen as darkness fell. When I peeked out in the morning they had all gone up to their house, safe and sound.
The next night they slept outside all night — behind a fence, but vulnerable to long-armed predators. Maybe they forgot about their henhouse? Could they not remember how to walk up the gangplank? Chickens aren’t known for their conventional wisdom.
They needed to learn about seeking shelter at night. If I went out every night and carried them to bed they would never learn. But that third night tutoring session failed.
Some predator came along, reached into the chicken wire and took one chicken apart, piece by piece without breaking the fence. The other chicken must have just stuck out its head … because that’s all that was missing. Appalling and grisly. I can’t imagine what the chickens were thinking as their beloved sisters were dismantled before their eyes.
(Before you become anthropomorphic about it, you have to know this: As soon as I let the chickens out of their pen they rushed to the scenes of the crimes to clean — eat, not mop — up whatever was left over.)
My daughter shed tears. I was remorseful. But after watching the other hens play “keep away” with a piece of their deceased peer, we both declared that nature is savage.
As I cleaned up the mess from my failed animal husbandry I kept trying to make metaphors between rearing children and the lesson I was trying to teach the chickens.
But the lesson is too severe here to link. Life is painful and mistakes are made, often to the detriment of somebody. Whether we are raising chickens or rearing children, we try to empower them and not enable them, but we must have a full understanding of the risks at hand.
I changed strategies with my chickens. The next evening I just called them into their house. They came easily and have never had to be called again.
Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.