A short while ago I shared some tips on how I have dealt with problem skunks. I had mentioned them to be pretty docile, and said that to the best of my knowledge I had never lost any chickens to them. That all changed a few hours after I had gone to bed last night.
I had been sleeping pretty soundly, when I heard something I hadn’t heard around here in more than a year or so. A few times, I had been conned into thinking I was hearing it by hens that thought a blue jay was a giant bird of prey, but there was no mistaking what jarred me from a sound sleep. The terrified, pleading cries of a hen in a life and death struggle.
I jumped out of bed, and headed for the front door as fast as a fat man can do in the dark, and turned on the front lights. I saw my brood hen running across the yard in front of the porch. She jumped over a low stone wall, and went into the deep tangle of rose bushes. Not far behind her, and not moving very fast was a young skunk.
When she had escaped, and made her run for it, my hen had quieted down, and was now likely hunkered down and hiding. Not having a firearm handy, I started yelling at the skunk, and banging on the porch railing. It ignored me completely. It plunged into the dark tangle of thorns, and almost immediately found the hen.
She started her terrified pleas, and made a run for the gap in the roses she had just entered. The skunk was right behind her. I didn’t have a loaded firearm handy. The last fox attacks we had out here involved a mated pair in early spring, and killing both of them had resulted in their entire litter of kits likely starving to death. That was more than three years ago. (Before you criticize me, bear in mind, even with three cats on the acre of land we have, I still see mice in broad daylight, and there are acres of hay and cornfields a short distance away. The foxes gambled on what they thought would be an easy meal, and they were wrong.)
I started throwing things, a shovel from the porch, a candle from the counter beside me, a drill battery that no longer held a charge, and lastly a jar of pea soup. Finally the agonizing sound of my beautiful little blue Cochin hen stopped, and the skunk looked up at me as if to say, “Hey! what’s with the throwing stuff? I’m killing a chicken here!” and he began to drag his meal out of range of my throwing arm.
I made a run to the hall for my wife’s handgun, slid the magazine into the grip, slid back the action, and chambered a round, and stepped out onto the porch but it was too late. The skunk had dragged its prize into the darkness, and consumed it in private. It was gone.
Meanwhile, the hen’s most recent pullets searched the rose bushes for her. In a world of rainbows, and wildflowers I’d like to think they were sad, and mourning her loss, but likely they were just cold, as indicated by the more intelligent of the two jumping up on the porch rail to steal some heat from the larger old laying hens that were perched there trying to sleep through the racket.
Several times in the night I heard the pullet that didn’t join the laying hens giving startled cries. I went out to look for her a couple of times before I just got too tired to be concerned about it any more. Bad things happen, I cant prevent all of them, and finding a chicken in the dark, when it doesn’t want to be found can be tough.
Dawn brought the sounds of crows fighting over something in the tree line across the street, most likely the remains of my hen. Thus far the pullet that didn’t roost with my laying hens has yet to be seen. She may not turn up.
My hens are free range. Their job is to consume insects, and slugs. It is a job they do very well. There hasn’t been a tick in the yard since 2009, but just across the street, the tall grass is teeming with them. The life of a free range hen is a tough one.
I lose a few birds a year, most of the time they just vanish without a trace. In the past I have seen, or at least heard what was happening. Typically in broad daylight. Foxes, hawks, a stray cat. Almost always there are feathers scattered about, and after a while you learn to piece together an idea of what happened.
A big clump of feathers in a circular pattern typically indicates an attack from above. A bird of prey seizes its victim, and rips out a few feathers as it makes the kill, either in the throat, or the breast before flying off with its prize.
A trail of feathers typically means a fox chasing down a fleeing bird, and nipping out mouthfuls of feathers until it grabs onto something solid. The trail of feathers ends in a few loose feathers covered in blood.
A yard full of panicked hens wandering around wondering what just happened, maybe a downy feather or two blowing around on the breeze typically indicates a cat. With an ordinary house cat that is hunting for a meal, you will sometimes hear the startled squawk of the hen, that is abruptly cut off. More often than not, you hear nothing. Typically that is the work of a bobcat, and what most likely kills the most of my hens.
But last night was a first for me. The skunk was methodical, and determined. When my wife and I got home around 9:00 pm, I made a lot of noise. There has been a skunk in the yard every night for the past week, and I didn’t want any surprises. The brood hen was sleeping under a screen door I never installed, keeping her little pullets warm, one tucked under each wing. The skunk had to have waltzed up the front steps, and just reached over and made a grab. The first cries of fear came from just under my bedroom window, indicating the hen had fled the porch under the railing. and tried to hide in the lilies.
Were it not for the fact that there was no smell at all to the skunk, I would have thought it was sick. It showed no fear of me at all. It was very well aware of my presence, and I know the jar of soup hit him. Typically skunks fear nothing. The two sacks of oil located just under their tail provide them will all the protection they need. Dogs, young predators, sick predators, and humans are all that they typically have to fear. But he was on a mission, and nothing would have stopped him, short of me killing him.
Next time he comes back, there WILL be a loaded firearm handy.