Freedom Has a Price

If you were given a choice between living your life in the safety of a cage or being given the freedom to roam free, which would you choose? It seems like a ludicrous question to ask of people but what is the answer when you are keeping chickens and ducks? At the Queendom, we have opted for freedom. In the ~1500 days that we have had our free-ranging flock, we have lost only two hens to predators and had one near-miss. In light of those statistics, it seems criminal to keep these birds caged. Deep down, we know that we could lose our whole flock in a single day. But we believe that our flocks are living the most natural life that livestock can live and that, even if they were all killed, at least they lived well.

But our philosophy has recently been put to the test. In the short span of 16 days, we lost our entire flock of ducks. Seven ducks and one chicken (Trooper) gone. Picked off, one by one, until there were none.

In May, FM came home with six Runner ducklings who had been incubator-hatched in a local classroom.

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So tiny, so fluffy, so cute!

Less than a week old, they moved into a box in our computer room and instantly became our favourite hobby. Being Runner Ducks, they were given names of significant running races that we have done – Plain, Stormy, Bighorn, DV (Diez Vista), Tor (de Geants) and Bock (who was named after beer). They eventually were moved into the garden shed and then into the Duck Palace.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out to the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out of the house and into the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Always moving together as a unit, these six flightless ducks would call to us when we arrived home from work, would run over to us if they were out of food and would all jump into the pond together to show off their swimming skills.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

Despite being endlessly handled and cuddled by us when they were young, they became wild with age. They took to our pond like ducks to water and it quickly became impossible to contain them or even get near them.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

They still relied on us daily for food which we provided in the Duck Palace but they preferred life on the water, only using the Duck Palace in passing and never as a shelter.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. See all six ducks handing out in the storage bin.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. In this pic, all six ducks are hanging out in the storage bin wading pool.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food. (Stormy and Bock)

I bought a third hen once they became sexually mature, trying to even out the male/female ratio, but the addition of Silverton only made them more wild as they tried to escape her efforts to join the flock. I stressed nightly about them sleeping out in the open and I tried everything to lure them to safety but nothing worked. As the wild weather of Autumn gusted and stormed, I lay awake wondering how they would survive each night.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks, moving fast as usual. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

And then it happened – the first day of a 16 day massacre. We came home from work to find Trooper, our recently rescued hen, dead on the driveway. The rest of the chickens were all in hiding and the ducks were in a panic. But only five ducks were there. After an hour of searching, we found DV’s body partially pulled through the back fence with his neck eaten (a similar death to that of Trooper) and Silverton has simply vanished. These were daylight killings and our initial guess was raccoon (since a mink couldn’t carry Silverton off without a trace, could it?).

Thirteen days later, we woke up to find only two ducks left. Three had been killed over night. This time, there were two distinct piles of feathers (Tor and Bock) but no trace of Stormy’s dark plumage. We found a solitary wing and a well-cleaned spine and keel bone in different parts of the yard. These deaths were so different from the others – nighttime vs daytime; feather piles vs bodies; mostly uneaten vs completely cleaned carcass. This time, our conclusion was owl or some other bird of prey.

Two days later after work, FM greeted me on the front steps to deliver the news that the last two remaining ducks were gone. Almost empty with grief, we went to see the massive pile of feathers that we assumed was both Bighorn and Plain together. Again there was no body, just feathers – so many feathers. Another daytime kill. As I wept (again), I began to clear out the Duck Palace. I heard a quiet quack and turned to see Plain scoot out from under our pond bridge. She had been in hiding up until she spotted me. All alone and terrified. She would not come close and could not be lured with food. Instead, she stood on the wildlife viewing platform and quacked, crying out for her Bighorn. I tried to get to her, knowing that her days hours were numbered. I can still hear her desperate, lonely call as she quacked for him through the night.

The next morning, she was gone. Without a trace. I still search for her, needing proof that she isn’t just hiding from us again though it has already been more than a week.

Seven ducks and one chicken. Four daytime deaths; four nighttime deaths. Two bodies; three piles of feathers; three vanished with no trace. FM and I can’t agree on the predator. He believes that an owl is responsible for most of the deaths, if not all. I think that a variety of predators are to blame – raccoon, owl and perhaps the bald eagle that has been around lately. We don’t have fox or coyote on the island but other possibilities (although far-fetched) are bear, cougar or mink.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart - ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart – ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

Having a small flock of ducks was wonderful while it lasted. They were sleek, beautiful and hilarious. Watching them was endlessly entertaining. They were so young that we didn’t get a single egg. But I don’t think I can handle trying again. We were responsible for them but failed them and it cost them their lives.  But, back to my philosophy about freedom … they were as free as can be and it was good for them while it lasted.

Cuteness embodied!

Cuteness embodied!

In my next life, when I come back as a chicken, I will choose the life of freedom that is offered in the Queendom. My days will start with the crow of my rooster before sunrise in the darkened indoor coop. The click of the timer will illuminate the red heat lamp. The whirring sound of the automatic chicken-door opener will be my signal to hop off the roost and head outdoors. Depending on the season, I will have up to sixteen hours to do as I choose on my five acre piece of land. I may wander, scratch, preen, snooze, peck or hunt as I see fit. If I feel like it, I may return to the coop to lay an egg. There are many great hiding places to go if my rooster announces danger and I know which one is close by. As dusk approaches, my sisters and I will make our way home to the safety of our coop, hustling in before the chicken-door shuts tight for the night, so that we can do it all again tomorrow. At any moment, a predator could wander through or fly overhead and it could all end but until then I’ll choose to be free.

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Not Safe With Me

As soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew her name – Trooper.

Trooper came to my attention via a hobby farm facebook group that I follow. Someone had spotted a lone chicken in the A&W parking lot in town, took her photo and posted it on facebook. The person who posted the photo left the chicken there and commented that the hen had been around that area for a couple of weeks. Presumably abandoned, this little red hen had somehow survived a brutal three-day pre-winter storm and had been living on french fries that staff and customers had left for her. The day after the facebook post, the custodian at my school (a fellow crazy chicken lady) came in to work saying that her daughter had gone over to the A&W, found the lost hen sitting between two cars, easily scooped her up and brought her home. Trooper was ragged, ravenously hungry and very, very tired.

Due to ridiculous city limit rules against chicken keeping, Juanita could not keep Trooper but she kept her long enough to bring this friendly, little hen back into good health. During her week-long stay at Spa Juanita, Trooper experienced the luxuries of sitting by the fireside, snacking on scratch and cheese and being endlessly cuddled. It quickly became apparent that she was very used to being handled by people. As she recovered from her survivalist adventure, she grew more chatty and curious.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper enjoys every luxury at Spa Juanita.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper makes an easy transition to luxury at Spa Juanita.

After a few daily reports about Trooper’s progress at Spa Juanita, I succumbed to the gentle pressure to add Trooper to our small flock. I was initially resistant to take her on as I know too well the issues with introducing an outsider into a flock. But, in the end, I figured that being the lowest on the pecking order in our charmed flock was far better than living in an A&W parking lot, watching customers eat your deep-fried kindred.

On Tuesday, we scheduled the pass-off. Juanita brought Trooper to the school in a dog-sized cage and I finally got to meet her. I, of course, fell in love at once.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, ... only time will tell.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, … only time will tell.

I drove her home and placed her cage on the front porch so that she could have a look around and our flock could check her out. Waffles, our rooster, was instantly enamored with the addition of a red-head to his harem and danced around her cage over and over.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Benedict predictably did her bossy, top-hen routine of flaring up, leaping at her and doing some territorial pecking.

Benedict, in full flare, letting Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben's authority.

Benedict, in full flare, lets Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben’s authority.

When the flock had put themselves to bed, I brought Trooper, cage and all, into the computer room for the night. Once alone inside, Trooper became very vocal so FM and I brought her into the kitchen and let her explore for a little while.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. (Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house)

On Wednesday, Trooper’s cage was set up on the porch again, allowing everyone to sniff, chat and look at the new lady. Late that night, after all the hens had tucked in for the night, we took Trooper out of her cage and into the coop. We placed her on the roost right beside Waffles. The word on the street is that if a chicken wakes up inside a coop, she will understand that this is home and will be able to orient herself in her new area. No one seemed to notice her arrival and, as we left, she was looking through the darkness, trying to get her bearings.

On Thursday, I checked on her before leaving for work. She was still inside the indoor coop although the exterior door opening onto our five acres was open. She had flown to a high roost and was squawking away with the others. I made sure she knew where the food and water was and then I left. At some point on Thursday, Trooper was confident enough to leave the coop and free-range with the others.

But her lucky days ended later that day when a predator came through. Although I am certain that Waffles would have sounded his alarm, Trooper didn’t know where to hide or perhaps the other hens didn’t allow her under the porch. She must have made a mad run for cover but didn’t find any. When I arrived home after work, the first thing I saw was her rusty-red feathers strewn over the driveway and her lifeless body on the shop doorstep. I cannot believe that she was killed on her first real day with us.

The devastation I feel for this little hen is enormous. I truly thought that we were offering her a better life here at the Queendom. It seems inconceivable that she was able to survive alone in the city for a fortnight but was immediately killed upon joining our flock. Sheesh. I suppose that the first day or two in a new place are really the most dangerous for livestock. My one wish is that I had waited until the weekend before letting her out. Perhaps then we would have spotted the predator in action (although we still could have been too late to save her).

Before this, it had been over two years since we lost a chicken to a predator. We regularly see bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawk and owls at the Queendom and over the past three months we saw three raccoon, a mink and evidence of bear but they have all thankfully left us alone – until now. Sadly her body was completely intact – just her neck was eaten. The jury is out on what animal took her life.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

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A New Sheriff

We hatched Skana, our black beauty, just over two years ago.

Skana was a beauty - deep black and silver gray with some bronze in his saddle feathers. Although he was a Heinz 57 chicken, he may have had some Australorp in his genes

Skana was a beauty – deep black and silver-gray with some bronze in his saddle feathers. Although he was a Heinz 57 chicken, he may have had some Australorp in his genes

As a chick, he won our affections over his three brood brothers and attained the seat of honour and privilege within our small flock. He continued to hold his throne despite the efforts of four subsequent male offspring. We admired his rise up to alpha-chicken and appreciated how calm he was. Skana was bliss compared to our first roo, Roo – gentle with the hens, tolerant of us, excellent as an early-warning system. No hen was lost, hurt or killed during his reign.

Skana

Doing what he does best.

But, it seems to me that roosters wear out after a time. Skana had an awful crow (“scream-a-doodle-doo” like nails on a chalkboard) and, as time went on, he crowed more and more often. But more than the crowing, the true issue was the aggression. In recent months, my arms were regularly ripped up and scratched by his beak just from offering him scratch or other treats.  He had begun to chase after me too. So, with some pained consideration and discussions, we decided to fire him and get a new sheriff.

Waffles and Pancake came as a twin brother package, donated by FM’s co-worker. She had three young roos and three young hens and, from the treading marks on the hens, there was some nasty competition going on as they all reached sexual maturity. She gave us the two beautiful Lavender Orpington boys who we integrated into our flock of 11 hens.

Quickly dubbed "The Matrix Twins", Pancake and Waffles are Lavendar Orpingtons whose thick silver feathers shine an iridescent purple.

Quickly dubbed “The Matrix Twins”, Pancake and Waffles are Lavender Orpingtons whose thick silver feathers shine an iridescent purple.

Within a day or two, we could see that Pancake was going to be a problem. He was both extremely noisy and quite aggressive towards us. Waffles seemed to be the slower and dimmer of the pair, bamfoozled by the endless beauties that strutted by him at every turn. We gave them more time to settle in, thinking that Pancake was simply stressed out by the new surroundings. In the end, Waffles made the cut and Pancake ended up in the freezer.

Waffles has settled in nicely with our flock. He is remarkably quiet, crowing only a couple of times each morning and very occasionally otherwise. His crow is unusual, kind of like an old jalopy horn. He doesn’t mind being scooped up and can easily be removed from any situation. He will even contentedly sit on my lap and snooze.

But there are concerns with Waffles and we don’t know what is wrong. He seems to be bent to the left, as if he is perpetually looking over his shoulder.

Waffles' bent body makes him run and walk in semi-circle and often bumps into things like porch posts and furniture.

Waffles’ bent body makes him run and walk in semi-circle and he often bumps into things like porch posts and furniture.

sigh.

We can straighten his neck and stretch his neck longer but his body always curves back to his quadimodo posture. His left wing hangs down, almost untucked, and when he flaps, it does not fully unfurl. His head is often down, almost touching the ground, even though he is neither eating nor sleeping.

Sleeping on the job, Waffles is fighting some unknown illness. This head-sown, sleepy position is fairly typical.

Sleeping on the job, Waffles is fighting some unknown illness. This head-down, sleepy position is fairly typical.

He is ‘listless’, sleepy and often falls asleep standing up. Sometimes when I scoop him up, he burps or releases air in a strange way.

But despite these issues, he keeps an eye out for danger (sort of), makes the appropriate roostery sounds and gives all the girls a good chase now and then. We have real concerns for his health since we quite like this new sheriff and we don’t want him to wear out too soon.

Waffles may be the new alpha-chicken but he has no idea how to deal with the marauding band of ducks who are always on his tail. (Look carefully - there is a young buck beside the stump)

Waffles may be the new alpha-chicken but he has no idea how to deal with the marauding band of ducks who are always on his tail. (Look carefully – there is a young buck beside the stump)

 

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Twitcher’s Delight

Twitcher – A birder, or bird-watcher, who is willing to go to great lengths to see any bird species he hasn’t previously recorded, even traveling extensive distances at great expense to see a new lifer.

Living here, in the Queendom, has many perks that we never anticipated. One of those perks is the incredible variety of bird species who stop in. We have the typical Pacific Northwest birds – like the Junco, Chickadee, Nuthatch and Red Finch. We also have many ducks who frequent our pond – Mallards, Buffleheads and Mergansers. Our bird of prey varietals are also plentiful – Bald Eagle, Red Tail Hawk and Turkey Vulture.

But occasionally, we are treated to something unusual; something that stumps us for a while. It is a treat to watch, research and eventually figure out who the latest visitor is. This month, a Great Grey Owl has decided to call our Queendom ‘home’.

IMG_3293

In certain light, her feathers look similar to a Barred Owl.

She is magnificent to watch. Although her slate blue plumage is stunning, she is a perfect chameleon, invisible among the mixed forest unless she turns her head.

She is perfectly camoflaged against this hemlock. Invisible!

She is perfectly camouflaged against this cedar bark. Invisible!

She appears small, for an owl, until she drops from her branch and spreads her 5+foot wing span. Her tail is long and her mustaches are white.

Her wing span is a window to her true size.

Her wing span is a window to her true size.

But the true treat of having been graced with her visit is that she is an uncommon sighting on Vancouver Island. Birders, or Twitchers as they like to be called, have been known to travel inland, over the Coastal Mountain range and North, towards 100 Mile House, (a 7 to 9 hour trip) in order to see this bird. From what we have read, a Vancouver Island sighting is exceedingly rare. Yet she has been hanging out at the Queendom for over a month now. Our chicken flock can spot her long before we can and they live in crazed anxiety much of the time. Since they are free-ranging chickens, she sees them but seems uninterested in them. Instead, she is feasting on smaller fare – mice or voles who live out in our wild area.

A look of true concentration

A look of true concentration before the kill.

My biggest concern is that our precious visitor will be discovered by some twitchers and our Queendom will become a twitching ground.

Only she knows how long she will stay with us. I hope she is enjoying her escape from routine as much as we are.

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Off To Greener Pastures

In a small, backyard flock, there is only room for one rooster. We learned this lesson before with Pingu and Skana. As the old adage proclaims, there can only be one cock on the block. If there are not enough hens to go around, there will be a cock fight.

So, once again, with great sadness, we watched poor two-month old Jockey get kicked out of the nest and directly into the fray as secondary rooster.

Young Jockey learned quickly how to be the lowest in the pecking order.

Young Jockey learned quickly how to be the lowest in the pecking order.

In that role, he was chased, pecked, chased some more, kept away from food caches, forbidden from entering the coop and forced into solitary confinement. Although he could out-crow Skana with his strong set of lungs, he had to do so from far afield. He made himself comfortable each night on the woodpile, knowing that he was not welcome in the coop. Often his fair sister, Ash, would join him on the woodpile since she, too, was having difficulty integrating with the flock.

Jockey in front and Ash behind. At three months old, his crazy coloured plumage was just beginning to show.

Each night, as FM and I headed to bed, our final chicken chore would be to carry these two straggly teenagers into the outdoor coop area so that they would be safe from predators through the night. This was the routine for almost three months.

Throughout this time, Jockey remained the kindest and most gentle roo we have ever had. He flocked with me whenever I was home, chattered to me about his day and complained softly about his exclusion. He eagerly awaited the secret food stashes I hid for him alone.

Jockey ended up being quite a stunning looker. He grew this awesome 80s heavy Metal long hair with a soon-to-be-stunning greenish tail.

Jockey ended up being quite a stunning looker. He grew awesome blonde hackles which remind me of a 80s Heavy Metal frontman’s greasy long blonde hair. He is only 4 months old here and still will develop stunning greenish sickle tail feathers.

As soon as the automatic door opened each morning, he would be the first out of the coop, trying to avoid the inevitable bullying that would come. Each night, he willingly stepped onto our arms and balanced there as we carried him sleepily off his woodpile bed and onto his less-preferred coop roost.

Jockey is a big guy but he is as gentle as can be. He would easily step onto FM's arm whenever he was invited up.

Jockey is a big guy but he is as gentle as can be. He would easily step onto FM’s arm whenever he was invited up.

As if on schedule, at five months old, Jockey became interested in jumping Skana’s harem. In retaliation, Skana’s aggression increased exponentially. Things were going downhill quickly. FM and I discussed all the possibilities.

  1. We could slaughter Jockey. He is a big guy and would provide a couple of tasty meals. BUT he has such a lovely disposition and we have become so attached to him as a sidekick that we searched for a better option.
  2. We could slaughter Skana. He has been more aggressive with us, drawing blood on occasion. BUT the hens eagerly flock with him and he performs his protective roostering duties very well.
  3. We could obtain a whole bunch more hens so that both boys would have their own hens. BUT we don’t have either enough coop space or the time necessary to raise more chickens.
  4. We could give Jockey away. BUT everyone knows that a free rooster is simply going into someone else’s stew pot. No one wants more roosters.

There is no easy way out of this. Or is there?

Last week, FM directed my attention to a listing on our local Hobby Farm Network. Someone was looking for a rooster to protect her 50+ laying hens from a marauding hawk. Not only was this person living quite nearby, she was already a friend of mine from Book Club! A hawk had taken up residence above her hen house and was occasionally feasting on her hens. She decided to see if a rooster could provide some protection to her flock. But the rooster needed to be friendly since her young children love to hang out with the chickens.

This was exactly the job description that Jockey needed. All it took was a single phone call. Knowing that our chickens are healthy, happy and used to being held, she agreed to take Jockey. Two days later, I boxed him up in the car and drove him over to his new home. After being sequestered in a cat crate, watching his harem of hens and letting them watch him, he was slipped into his new coop in the dark of Halloween night. When he awoke, I’m sure that he thought he had died and gone straight to Chicken Heaven!

“Whoa! 72 virgins? All for me? Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

 

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The Unthinkable Happened

Precious Snowy Owl

Precious Snowy Owl with her ear tufts and fluffy beard

It is a regular summer morning. Just as FM is about to head to work, I check in on our free-ranging flock. There is a lot of noise this morning – with both roosters crowing and some of the hens begawking all at once. I peek inside the coop through the chicken door to see who is announcing their egg. There is Snowy Owl, lying on her back underneath the roost. I race around through the workshop to the other coop door. When I get to her, her feet and body are warm. Her eye focuses on me. I scoop her up, already awash in tears. Whatever happened JUST happened. Her neck is floppy and she doesn’t move as I cradle her in my arms. She dies soon after as FM and I are both trying to figure out what happened.

This is not the work of a predator. Initially, it looks like she broke her neck. With this new cockerel around, it isn’t unusual to have a panic in the coop and perhaps Snowy ran into a roost rung while trying to escape the chaos. But upon further inspection, there is no blood, no abrasions, nothing to indicate trauma like that. Could it have been a heart attack? A stroke? She was fine yesterday, free-ranging, laying her pretty blue egg and snuggling with me on the porch. How could she simply die this morning? Benedict is giving us a full report but, since we don’t speak ‘chicken’ and we have no webcam in the coop, we will never know.

The other hens are quiet now, perhaps confused or relieved. I leave Snowy Owl’s body on the porch for a while and each hen comes to inspect her – nudging her, growling low or circling her. Speedy sits beside her for a long while. This was her BFF, her partner in crime, her sidekick since they day they hatched. This death will be hard for me but it will be hardest for Speedy.

Speedy sat beside Snowy Owl's body for a long while this morning.

Speedy sat beside Snowy Owl’s body for a long while this morning. Inseparable since hatching, this will be a life-changer for Speedy.

Snowy Owl was my girl. She would come to wherever I was standing and wait at my feet for her daily scoop. She loved to burrow her head deep into my jacket or sweater and then snooze in the warm darkness she found there. But truly it is Speedy who has lost her Bestie and will have to learn to carry on without her.

Speedy was the brain of the pair. Snowy would follow Speedy's lead.

Speedy was the brain of the pair. Not-so-bright Snowy would follow Speedy’s lead.

Another BFF photo. These girls were made our flock LBGTQ-friendly.

Another BFF photo. These girls made our flock LBGTQ-friendly.

Even dust-bathing together - Snowy Owl below and Speedy above

They even dust-bathed together in the same hole under the porch steps most days, pecking and preening each other- Snowy Owl below and Speedy above.

Snowy Owl had congenital curly toes and a malformed thumb on her right foot. She could not hop down easily but managed pretty well all the same.

Snowy Owl had congenital curly toes and a malformed thumb on her right foot. She could not hop down easily but managed to get around pretty well all the same.

She loved both of us and was always willing to be scooped and held. FM's shoulder makes a fine roost.

She loved both of us and was always willing to be scooped and held. She even tolerated being pet by our two year old nephew. FM’s shoulder makes a fine roost.

We had a special connection and I will miss her terribly.

We had a special connection and I will miss her terribly. She was a consistent layer and a delicate soul who almost made it through her first year.

Keeping chickens gives me no end of pleasure but the pain of losing one is almost too much for me to bear.

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