Last week we had nine hens. Six were young, prolific layers less than a year old. Three were old biddies past their prime. I’d been meaning to cull the three unproductive hens for a long time, but just couldn’t bring myself to actually follow through. Then I went to the feed store yet again, and realized that we were supporting three hens that were eating one third of my feed bill. That sealed their fate. So earlier this week I humanely dispatched three hens in their sleep and fed the local wildlife. I guess the local wildlife enjoyed the feast, because…
We got home late last night, and I headed out after dark to collect my half-dozen eggs. But instead of six, I found only five eggs—and five chickens. Alarmed, I searched the coop, but I couldn’t really see much in the moonlight. The five hens were perched on their roost, asleep, so I secured the coop and headed for bed.
Early the next morning I went out to check on my flock. It was immediately obvious that “fowl” play had been committed. White and orange feathers were everywhere—it looked as if it has snowed! A detached leg (eww!) lay in the middle of the outside chicken yard, more feathers were stuck in the chicken wire fencing, and a large pile lay out in the field.
Now I knew what had happened to my little lady, but who had done the dirty deed, and how? The entire yard was fenced in chicken wire—top, bottom, and all three sides (the fourth side was the shed wall). We’d learned our lesson in the past—our coop was a fortress! Yet, something had clearly dined on chicken right in the middle of the fenced-in area.
It was only on close inspection that we discovered where the chicken wire had been pulled apart, right in the middle of the “roof” where two lengths of wire met and overlapped. They’d been strongly wired together, but now a 2-foot gap sagged open.
The only animal we could imagine capable of such a feat was a raccoon. What else could have climbed the 6-foot fence and pried the thick wires apart? A bear would have gone straight through the fencing, and besides, they’re still hibernating at our elevation. Foxes and coyotes would have tunneled under the fence (hence the wire on top of the dirt “floor”). Owls and hawks might stare at the birds, but they couldn’t go through the wire. It just had to be raccoons.
I felt awful. Poor chicken!
While Pete grabbed his tools and headed out to repair the damage, I thought through what we needed to do differently to prevent any more fatalities. First on my list was more diligent maintenance. Over the years, the wires have slowly been rusting, and they’d gotten weak. We just hadn’t noticed.
Now that we’re looking, we see several other weak spots in our defenses. The wire “flooring” has rusted away in some damp spots, and the chickens have dug themselves a dust pit too close to the door. A determined canine would be able to dig its way in. The ground is still frozen, but as soon as I can shovel dirt, I’ll fill in that pit and recover it with wire. They have another dusting spot in the middle of the yard that’s too far from any edge, and hence safe—they can use that one.
In other places, the big staples are beginning to pull out of the wood, and the chicken wire isn’t as firmly attached as it should be. Time to add new staples! I’ll also keep an eye on the chicken wire sides. Wire doesn’t last forever, and I need to replace it before it isn’t strong enough to keep out hungry critters.
If we were to rebuild the coop/yard (we aren’t, at least in the near future), we’d put in more cross-beams. Placing 2x4s at three foot intervals would have allowed us to staple both sides of the chicken wire (which comes in 3-foot widths) every few inches, making it much harder to pull apart. I’d also want to pour a cement slab floor to keep predators from coming up underneath the fence. I’m sure I can devise a way to still allow our hens their beloved dust baths… maybe with dirt-filled containers on top of the cement.
It’s hard enough to cull the old chickens—it’s even worse when you lose a hen that just started laying a few months earlier. Still, five hens is enough to keep us well-supplied with eggs. I hope that raccoon enjoyed its dinner!