by David J. Blackley
They were supposed to provide the missing protein link in my burgeoning backyard food industry. At the end of the summer I bought three bantam hens–Blanche, Kathleen and Mabel–from a local farmer with one expectation: they’d get to live the good life in my quasi-urban backyard in exchange for sending a few eggs my way every week. Six months later, I’ve collected four eggs. Chickens are ridiculously cheap to keep; I may hold the distinction of the world’s only poultry owner not to recoup expenses.
“Keep” may be the wrong word to describe my relationship with the backyard flock. After previous birds were mauled in their pen by neighborhood cats, I chose to free-range these birds. This wasn’t my initial plan–the decision was made after I began clipping Blanche’s wing to keep her from becoming too flighty. Her blood-curdling shriek made me to realize I was depriving her of the one defense she had against cats and raccoons–the ability to fly. I decided against clipping and instead held an impromptu talk with the girls, warning them of the dangers inherent to the cage-free life. They all nodded gravely as they listened. Shortly thereafter, I released them into the uncharted wilds of my fenced-in back yard.
For the first few days, they stayed close to the coop, sleeping on tree branches at night. Becoming bolder, they began flying into neighbors’ yards, eventually deciding that they liked an adjoining lot better than mine. I began seeing less and less of them, sometimes going days without a sighting.
I recently returned to town after visiting family over Christmas. My now-feral chickens must have missed me, evidenced by their rare but appreciated appearance on my back porch to ogle me through the kitchen window while I enjoyed a sandwich (turkey, mind you). I watched them casually poop on the porch railing, marveling at how long they’d survived on their own in a neighborhood where they’re relegated to the bottom half of the food chain. Almost on cue, another neighborhood resident occupying a slightly higher position in that same hierarchy swooped in and snatched Kathleen. I dropped my lunch and ran outside, just as the hawk was trying to fly off with its quarry. I hurled a piece of two-by-four at the unwelcome predator, startling it enough to drop Kathleen to the ground, where she flapped her wing once before languidly collapsing. One look at her convinced me that her neck was broken. After covering her with an empty bucket (the hawk was perched on the roof waiting for me to leave), I went to the shed to get the axe. Nature had claimed its first victim from my newest brood.
Returning to the scene, I lifted the bucket only to see Kathleen make a miraculous recovery and scurry into a nearby shrub, closely pursued by the hawk. What followed was an hour-long process of simultaneously fending off the persistent hawk while trying to corral my terrified hens towards the enclosed pen. After evacuation to the safety of the coop was complete, I looked up at the red-tailed hawk as it mocked me from a tree branch just beyond my reach. I don’t speak Hawk, but I think it said, “They have to come out sometime.”