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Magnificent Birds: Free-Ranging Chickens, the Threat of Hawks and Choosing Freedom Anyway

5/15/2013 10:54:00 AM

Tags: backyard chickens, raising livestock, hawk predation, Anna Alkin

It’s been a one-step forward, two-steps back, kind of week here on the farm. The electric poultry fence gave us fits for most of the week. Actually, it gave me fits; everyone else handled the shorts, shocks, and the process of working out the bugs just fine. So far, Will’s been shocked by the fence, our neighbor has been shocked by it, our dog Sirius has been shocked by it twice, and I’ve been shocked four times, though it was only the last one that was strong enough to make me yell out loud. But the fence works at last. Good, time to move on.

But not so fast.  A hawk started hanging around within two days of our free-ranging the chickens in theMagnificent as they are, free ranging chickens need protection from hawks. pasture. I was looking out our second floor back window, wondering why all the chickens were in their tractors — save Little Red Hen, who is a bit of a loner anyway — when the phone rang. It was my neighbor, who was shocked by our shorted-out fence just the day before. “Do you see the hawk in the tree back there?” I couldn’t. “Walk back behind the fence where the chickens are, on the path. You’ll scare him away if you get close enough.”

I carried the phone with me as I walked. “He’s really beautiful,” my neighbor said, with admiration in his voice. Suddenly, big black wings appeared before me as the hawk took off from the top of a tree about 20 feet ahead. “That’s him!” my neighbor confirmed through the phone. The hawk flew a fair distance and settled in the branches of one of our towering Douglass Firs. It really was a magnificent bird.

Back at the chicken ranch, three hens braved the outdoors and were happily dust bathing in the dirt when I returned. These, too, are magnificent birds, so full of energy, spunk, and personality.

Sweet Pea, the Buff Orphington with very little neck, who has always been the hen to greet me, allow me to pet her, and makes a special “heeeellllllloooooo” sound in my presence, now attempts to follow my every step as I get fresh water and feed for the chickens. She wants to follow me right out of the fence and into the house, it seems, so she can be with her flock, the people.

There’s Little Roo, our rooster without tail feathers thanks to the larger rooster, Cecil. Both the same age, it’s a blessing that Little Roo is smaller, and thus less inclined to fight to the death for dominance in this small flock of fifteen chickens. He struts about, a truncated version of his former self, but is still very much alive and seemingly happy about it.

Then there’s Miss Peggie, the Light Brahma, who sports a black ring of plumage around her neck on an otherwise white body, with white feathers on her feet. She’s our fanciest chicken, named after my fancy friend, Miss Peggie, who was the Pecan Queen of Brenham, Texas, or “the Queen of the nuts,” as her father affectionately called her. Ironically enough, Miss Peggie the chicken may end up eating her fair share of acorns from our White Oaks (see my post on acorns), which would make her a "Queen of the nuts" in her own right.

I could go on, as could any small-scale chicken-keeper about her birds. But the point is this: no matter how magnificent the hawk, we had no choice but to commence with Operation Save Our Chickens.

The chickens did not like being on lock down one bit after the appearance of the hawk, now that they had a taste of the great outdoors. Sweet Pea rushed me at the door of the chicken tractor not one, not two, but three times yesterday as I tried to change their feed. The last time I caught her by the feet, cutting my left index finger on her sharp toenail and leaving blood all about me. And while it could be my imagination, the tone of the chickens seemed angry -- squawky, accusing, hemmed in -- whenever the sun peeked out between Oregon downpours and yet they remained inside.

One week after moving our chickens, there now stands a chicken “duck and cover” shelter for them to dive under in the event of a hawk attack. It’s not perfect as a strategy, and the hawk may still get a chicken or two. But these magnificent birds crave a greater measure of freedom than they have in their chicken tractors, and I aim to see that they get it.

Happiness and quality of life mean so much more than longevity, not only for chickens, but for us people as well. One of my favorite authors, Byron Katie, has a saying, "Don't be careful, you might get hurt." That's not to say that I don't have my moments of wanting to keep these chickens, and all my loved ones, tucked away inside somewhere, under lock and key. In the end, though, we are to choose sunshine, freedom, and the way of things for all the magnificent birds in our lives, including ourselves.



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