Monday, April 03, 2006

Speaking of Predators, part 1

When we first got chickens (back in 1996), I knew we’d be getting better acquainted with local predators. I just didn’t know which threats would prove the biggest challenge. We used to have lots of skunks, for example—but they seemed to get along fine with the chickens, even developed a taste for the feed, alas. We still occasionally smell skunk around or under the coop, but they have not been a threat. Raccoons, foxes, no problem. We’re too far from water for regular raccoon sightings, and foxes have rarely put in an appearance. Knock on wood.

April is the time of our annual visits from predators, so this month always makes me nervous. It’s spring, everyone’s either got babies to feed or is looking forward to having babies to feed. It’s a hungry time of year, I understand that. I also get that we’ve become members of the local ecosystem and have to pay our dues. So today’s chat is a bit grim, but not gruesome, I promise. I won’t inflict the entire reality on you.

The first deadly visits we had were a surprise—they came from the air. Chickens are very alert to anything that moves in the air, and will give the alarm whether the object in question is a pigeon, or hawk, or airplane. (They are a wonderful aid to bird-watching: as soon as I hear this special sound, I look up and am usually rewarded.) A small hawk perching nearby, as Artemis does, makes them nervous but doesn’t unduly alarm them. Perhaps they know somehow that she’s after smaller game.

In the early years, the chickens used to have the run of most of the open front yard. That changed in April 2001, when one of the local golden eagles discovered them. One night we came up short on the evening “beak count.” It snowed, though, so it was a day or two before it melted off and we found the evidence. We couldn’t be home all day, and the eagle returned about weekly for awhile. I think we lost about 4 chickens in all. We finally got smarter, and built a new fence to confine the chickens in a smaller space that had more tree and shrub cover. Eagles can’t maneuver well in tight spaces.

Barred rocks are one of our favorite breeds. The hens are sweet, friendly, productive, and hardy—you can’t ask for more. This is what a barred rock looks like after an eagle is done with her. (Note there’s a live barred-rock rooster in the background.) Very tidy: no body, not even a speck of blood.

This neat circle of feathers is, by the way, a prime way to tell a bird kill from a carcass killed by a mammal, as the latter usually don’t bother to pluck their prey. If they do, they pull the feathers out in mouthfuls, so you generally find clumps stuck together by saliva. Given time by my absence, the eagle carefully plucked each kill, presumably ate at leisure, and carried off the remains of the meal. Back to the babies.

The difficult times are when you hear the alarm and, roused by continued squawking, run outside to see what’s the matter. That, of course, spooks the eagle, who promptly takes off. You’re left with a dying bird, and the eagle still has to find lunch elsewhere. That’s a no-win situation. Much cleaner if you can muster the restraint to stay inside until it’s all over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Let me begin by saying that I'm very sorry you lost several of your chickens. It must have been heart wrenching. Did you ever get to see the eagle?

I have been extremely fortunate over the years to witness Golden Eagles, among other raptors, consume their prey. They are incredibly powerful and awe inspiring!

Most recently, I was just inches away from an injured Golden that was brought to the Birds of Prey Foundation. She had collided with a UPS truck on Christmas Eve, eve of last year. The driver pulled over & immediately called us.

My husband & I volunteered to take over the infirmary duties, and others, on Christmas Day. We had no where to go as both of our families are back East.

The Eagle had an injury to her left eye in addition to head trauma.
She was being fed a diet of freshly killed rabbits (we raise our own quail, mice, rats & rabbits-fresh prey is much better for the birds and we don't have to worry about disease control).

Upon opening the main Infirmary door, I was greeted by a cloud of fluffy white rabbit fur, swirling around in the disturbed air! There was a thick trail of fur that began at the door, continued up the stairs, down the hall & into the large raptor area. It looked like someone had an Eider down pillow fight!

I slowly crept up the stairs, down the long hall, passing the beak-snapping, Great Horned Owls to find the creator of the mess.
As I carefully peered around the corner, I was met with a large eagle eye staring at me through the thick wooden slats!
She was the most gorgeous Golden Eagle I'd ever seen!

I sat down in the rabbit fur to let her become familiar with my presence.
I think we sat together for over 30 minutes before I realized that my backside had become devoid of all warmth.
I slowly stood up and backed out of the room.

I decided to try to clean up the flying rabbit hair in the main room while I waited for Sigrid to bring me the breakfast rabbit.
I cannot bring myself to euthanize the prey, so Sigrid always does it for me. She's been able to separate herself from it. I, still have a ways to go on that one.

I gave up chasing the fur around the room when the rabbit arrived. I felt like I was fighting a losing battle anyway.

I moved slowly back into the Golden's view, kneeling in front of the cage door this time, instead of sitting on the cold concrete. She didn't show any signs of stress, so I started to slide the door open. I used a "snake grabber" to present the rabbit to her.
She jumped off of her Astroturf covered box, AKA breakfast/dinner table, to give me room to "serve" the rabbit.

Just as soon as I had retracted the snake grabber, she jumped back up on the box next to the rabbit. She stared at me for a moment & then, without blinking an eye, picked up her left foot and powerfully slammed it down on the rabbit. She then proceeded to pluck the all of the fur from the torso. Only when she had completely cleared an area, did she begin to eat. I was amazed at her shear power.

It didn't take her long to add to the billowing the mess! She ate everything but the head and feet. The head had already been removed by Sigrid, but she was responsible for the disposal of the feet.
She flung each one toward me as she came to it, detaching it with one sharp tug (I was now sitting with my right butt cheek inside the door of her cage).

A few minutes after she had finished eating, I used the snake grabber to remove the tons of fur from her cage.
I cannot tell you how difficult it is to pick fine bunny fur out of Astroturf-like mats!
The eagle would not move from her box, so I had to reach the grabber around her. At one point, the only way I could reach a large clump was to go through her legs!
I slowly passed the grabber under her tail (her feathers were actually hitting my face) and between her legs! She watched as I tried to grab the fur. I can't tell you how many tries it took for me to grab this clump, but she patiently stood still while I got it.
She watched the grabber pass back through her legs and under her tail & out the cage door.
She had her head upside down between her legs! I couldn't help laughing out loud!
She really had a great personality!
I had also accidentally dropped one of the rabbit's hind feet just out of my reach, toward the back of her cage.
Just as I was wondering how I was going to get it, she jumped down from her "table" and flung the foot back at me!
She was helping me! She also remained standing on each section of dirty newspaper that I was trying to remove. Such a Brat!
I had to tap her on the behind with the grabber to get her to go back up on her box so that I could lay down the fresh paper.

I had such an amazing time with her! In the two short hours we spent together, I had eawas able to earn her trust. She knew that I would not harm her.
Sigrid was impressed! So was I, quite frankly!

This Golden Eagle is a very large, well fed female with a well formed chest. In order to identify her, we began calling her "Dolly," as in Parton. I also jokingly call her double D!
We do give them names, but only for our own reference.

I'm happy to report that she continues to be on the mend. Her left eye has healed completely and she's now only showing mild signs of head trauma.
She has started flying in our large flight cages and we hope to release her this summer!

I just love happy endings. I will be involved in her release, so I'll be sure to let you know when it happens.

Ok, it's now way past my bedtime, 1:11 AM!
I doubt I'll be creating my own blog right now. I unfortunately, don't have the time to do it. I will however, start one when my life settles down to a dull roar.

Thanks for letting me use your space! Feel free to edit anything you'd like!