Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Circle of Life

Last weekend, we lost one of our backyard chickens, a Plymouth Rock named Chicken Whittle. That’s her in the foreground here, the short-tailed black and white, in a photograph I would entitle Redneck Life with Chickens if I were the kind of person who titles her photos.

One of my friends brought me condolence chocolate and a sweet sympathy note. Other friends let me know how sorry they were, sending virtual hugs via Facebook. They know that we aren’t in the livestock business here, that while we enjoy fresh eggs, our chickens are pets, not farm animals. We coddle them and talk to them and give them goofy names. Losing one is a personal blow, not a financial one.

Predators don’t care one way or another, however—a chicken is a meal to them whether it has a name or not. And that is what happened to Chicken Whittle. At three in the morning, we heard a squawk. And that was that.

We could recognize the culprit from the clues. This was no hawk or owl, no raccoon or weasel. No roaming dog or cat left out all night (don’t even get me started on the irresponsible owners behind those). This crime was swift and total, a professional job. My husband put out the game camera, and when we reviewed the images the next morning, we were unsurprised at what they revealed.

A fox.

A gray fox to be precise, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Its specific epithet (the second part of its scientific name) means ashen silver. Not a true fox like the red fox, it's the only North American canid able to climb trees.

This particular specimen is healthy, which is surprising considering that our subdivision was recently deforested, with over sixty green acres suddenly clear-cut. Water collects in stagnant pools now, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The rabbit population took a hit, but they are finally returning to this area, as are the deer. The great horned owls have not been so lucky—their numbers are decreasing as they are forced to pursue prey across dangerous highways. The barred owls are thriving, though, the hawks too. I have even spotted a bald eagle landing right in front of my car as I was about to turn into my driveway.

I recognize this fox is part of something bigger than my backyard, which is inextricably linked to this larger ecosystem. There is no point killing the fox—some other predator would simply move into the void its death would create (that old adage about nature and vacuums being proven correct yet again). We have decided that stronger deterrence is needed, so my husband is installing an electric fence around the roost. Any predator sticking its nose in the wrong place will get an unpleasant zap now, and our remaining chicken should be safe.

I miss Chicken Whittle, and I am sad at her demise, but I cannot hate the fox. A fox is as a fox does, to paraphrase an old saying. But I hope that this one will look for prey elsewhere from now on, even if it’s a beauty to behold.

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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The fifth book in this Atlanta-based series—Reckoning and Ruin—was released last year. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: www.tinawhittle.com.


Warren Bull said...

I hope your deterrent works.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Good luck protecting your chicken! I had my Annie Dillard moment a few winters ago, when a small hawk grabbed a mourning dove under my backyard feeder, and spent twenty minutes demolishing it. It was sickening to watch, but hawks have to eat, too. I stopped putting seed in the feeder for a week, hoping the hawk would move on, and it finally did.

Foxes can climb trees? I didn't know that. We have red foxes in Cincinnati, which keep the rabbit and chipmunk population under control. They're quite reclusive, but come out of the woods in the winter. Coyotes are another matter. I watch for them at night and early in the morning when the dogs are out. With recent local clear-cutting, they're on the move.

Anonymous said...

sorry for your loss. My friend has 4 chickens in a coop and one free range. Because those other girls were mean and the new girl was literally henpecked! So Henny Penny runs free, follows the collie and even steals her dog treats. Adorable! The fox lives, as does the memory of Chicken Whittle. love your blog!

Grace Topping said...

What a shame about your chicken. I love your feelings about the fox doing what was in his nature and that you didn't want to see it killed. We feel the same way about insects, etc. that get into our house. My husband captures them and lets them out saying that we shouldn't kill them just because they are annoying. Although there are some insects that I feel should see an end. Every year we get an infestation of ants in our kitchen. I treat them by putting out sugar and boric acid. It always makes me feel a bit guilty that by doing so I am wiping out their entire colony, but that is the only way I can keep them out of my kitchen. I guess if you can respect life even at that level, you'll respect all life.

Gloria Alden said...

I have lost at least one or two to raccoons who got in before the gap at the top of my fence was fixed, and then another to a mink. It was small enough to get in a hole. I only knew it was a mink because one day I saw it by my pond. Apparently, they travel miles and miles and
will go after muskrats which I have in my pond. Your poor little hen looks like my little hen I call Henny Penny who won't stay in with my older hens because they pick on her. Now she considers my collie, Maggie, her good friend and me, too.

Jim Jackson said...

You are so right, Tina, about animals and vacuums. A line about killing a red squirrel (who can be much worse pests than their larger cousins the gray squirrel) goes like this: kill one red squirrel and ten come to the funeral.

~ Jim

Tina said...

It always heartens me to see others wrestling with the emotional issues that animals bring. There are our pets, and there is the wildlife, and there is the strange in-between zone, the ferals. And there is livestock. And it's all linked together in this cycle that has no emotion in it, is red in tooth and claw as Jack London called. Profoundly beautiful and bigger than any pretense or sentimentality, it just is. And it played out in my backyard. Thank you all for sharing your stories and condolences--they are much appreciated.

Shari Randall said...

Let me add my condolences, Tina. That fox definitely knew what it was doing.
My sympathies for wild critters has been tested this summer by a skunk that liked to hang out under my deck. I haven't seen/smelled it lately. *knocks wood* We've had coyotes in the area, and I'm wondering if the skunk found a better nightspot or if the coyote found the skunk.

KM Rockwood said...

It's always difficult to balance the natural populations around us and the animals/plants we like!

Several of our neighbors have flocks of chickens. Some of them fence the chickens in, others fence the vegetable garden from the chickens.

Tina said...

That fox was very fox-ish, absolutely.

And yes, I have the same challenges in my garden. The chickens eat both bad bugs and the pollinators, depending on what they catch. Chickens are definitely predators in their own right, like little velociraptors. Merciless, they are. But they're my predators, so I feel protective of them.