Fox and hens

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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin has discovered recently that keeping chickens isn’t as trouble free as he once thought.

(Levin) Several weeks ago, a friend gave my wife eight old hens, which included six Barred-Rocks and a pair of scrawny Golden Comets that showed almost as much pink skin as feathers. We acquired the chickens because they had become irregular layers and had been replaced by younger, more fertile birds, and because Annie loved the sound of “clucking” and finding hidden eggs, like little presents tucked in the recesses of our yard.

The birds would be free-ranging. We encouraged them to roost in the barn. Our yard would be their foraging ground. It’s the perfect spot for chickens. The lawn is lush and full of worms, beetles, and tiny grasshoppers, the vegetable garden supports a smorgasbord of insect pests, and under the bird feeders there’s a windfall of sunflower seeds. The woods offer a lifetime supply of seeds and bugs too numerous to mention, plus they had a German Shepard and a Border Collie for protection. Yes, our yard was the ideal spot for a flock of free-ranging chickens.

For the first few days after their arrival the chickens behaved themselves. They stayed in the yard, clucked constantly, and either roosted on shelves in the barn, or just outside on the pony cart. They even laid a few eggs in a chicken-wire cage, next to a pin-up of a Barred-Rock rooster, which I tacked on the wall to make them feel at home. Everyone enjoyed gathering eggs.

But after the first week, my enthusiasm for the chickens began to wane. Every afternoon they’d gather in the garden and nip off pieces of lettuce until we had no lettuce at all. When they shifted their roost from barn to garage, guano peppered the floor, the barbecue, the shelves.

Just as I reached my limit of tolerance, one by one the chickens began to disappear, feathers littering the yard. Eventually, we were down to three birds, all barred rocks. Then came the morning when Annie awoke me at 5:15 to the sounds of a chicken in distress. From our bedroom window, we saw a sleek red fox kill a hen at the edge of the compost pile. It trotted off across the yard, bird in mouth, over the stonewall, and disappeared into the awakening woods.

Not 30 seconds later I spotted another red fox, smaller and more yellowish than the first. It prowled down the driveway, flushed a chicken, and chased it across the lawn and under the pasture fence. The chicken moved, faster than I might have expected, and even flew a bit, but she was no match for the fox, which caught her as we watched from the window. Our two younger boys joined us just in time to see the end of the chase.

We have one hen left now. She’s still allowed to roam, but she roosts on a shelf in the garage, and the German Shepard spends the night outside on guard duty. I gave the hen a handful of cracked corn this morning. She gave me an egg.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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