Chickens at the White House

With the Presidential inauguration nearly upon us, we’re all focusing our attention on the White House as President Obama gets ready to move out and President-Elect Trump gets ready to move in.  So of course the question foremost in my mind is “What about chickens at the White House?”  A natural progression of thought, right?

Amazingly, there’s a dearth of information on the topic.  For instance, when I Google, “Chicken White House” I get a lot of results for the “White House Chicken” restaurant chain.  That’s followed by some fried chicken recipes by various former residents of the White House.  And then there are a few articles where the writer thinks that the White House is displaying cowardice.  Which brings up the question, “Why did ‘chicken’ come to mean the same thing as ‘coward’?”  The person who created that meaning for the word never met my brave little rooster, Emile!

Anyway, I challenged myself to uncover what I could regarding Presidential chickens, and was eventually able to uncover a pretty sizable trove of material about White House pets, but unfortunately, only a paltry bit of information about White House chickens.  But here goes.

First, let’s just say that Presidents are big on dogs.  Almost all modern Presidents brought dogs with them when they entered the White House.  One of the two exceptions was President Clinton who had only Socks the cat when he assumed the Presidency.  He’d had dogs when he was growing up, though, and while he was President, Buddy the Labrador retriever joined the Clinton family circle.  The other recent President who was dogless, and in fact petless, when he entered the White House was President Obama.  The endearing story that circulated at that time, you will recall, was that he promised his daughters that they could have a puppy when they moved to the White House.  They had to use care in choosing a dog since Malia suffered from allergies, but eventually Bo, the Portuguese water dog, a hypoallergenic breed, came to live at the White House.  Bo was joined later by Sunny, also a Portuguese water dog.

When First Lady Michele Obama established a large vegetable garden and a beehive on the south lawn of the White House, there was speculation that the next logical step would be to add some backyard chickens.  White House chef, Bill Yosses, was asked about chickens.  “I don’t see it,” he replied.  He went on to say “I would love it.  But there's so much scrutiny in the White House, it has to be something [unprovocative], like a garden.  It's jaw-dropping isn't it? We live in a warped world."  The garden, in fact, caused a kerfuffle all by itself as various interest groups debated whether the garden should be organic or conventional.  Chickens, Mr. Yosses pointed out, live for a long time after they stop laying eggs.  No doubt there would be people opposed to chickens getting a free ride at the White House if they weren’t producing anything for the White House table.  And, of course, killing and eating the chickens would be a public relations disaster.  Then there are animal rights groups who would be opposed from the get-go to the whole concept of keeping confined animals. 

Apparently, things being what they currently are, chickens at the White House have too much potential for generating controversy and might not be a reality any time soon.  We have to go back to a simpler time to find the last instance of chickens residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The simpler time, in the case of Presidential chickens, was World War One, and the President was Woodrow Wilson.  To set an example for the contributions to the war effort that could take place on the home front, First Lady Edith Wilson instituted fuel and food conservation measures like meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays.  Then the Wilsons took it to the next level by adding a flock of backyard chickens and a flock of sheep grazing the White House lawn.  The chickens proved to be entirely uncontroversial in that era, and the sheep were actually a huge hit with the American public.  Each year when the sheep were sheared, the White House put the wool up for auction to raise money for the Red Cross.  The 1918 sale raised $30,000 and the 1919 auction raised an amazing $52,823—an average of $1,000 a pound.  It still holds the record for the most expensive wool ever sold.

The Woodrow Wilson flock grazes on the White House Lawn (Library of Congress)
The President prior to President Wilson was President William Howard Taft.  President Taft didn’t have chickens or sheep, but there was Pauline Wayne, a Wisconsin Holstein dairy cow, grazing on the White House lawn.  Pauline, or Miss Wayne, as she was referred to by the press, provided milk for President Taft and other residents of the White House.  It could be argued that Miss Wayne was more popular than President Taft.  Her picture appeared often in newspapers, and the Washington Post interviewed her regularly.  For example, in a November 4, 1910 Post article, she was asked her opinion on America's obsession with celebrities like herself.  "I have been much amused, and I confess, rather bored by the omnipresent photographers," she stated, "Civilization has developed so many irritating conditions."  Apparently cows could talk in those days.

Miss Wayne, the Taft cow (Library of Congress)
And prior to President Taft was Teddy.  President Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in every respect, didn’t disappoint when it came to White House animals, either.  Yes, there were chickens!  Two of them—a hen and a rooster.  Then there were, by one accounting, ten dogs, two cats, five guinea pigs, two ponies, a lizard, several snakes, a couple of rats, a bear, a rabbit, a badger, a pig, a hyena, and a barn owl.  During the Roosevelt Presidency, ponies were seen wandering the hallways of the White House, and the snakes interrupted at least one cabinet meeting.  Each animal had its backstory, and I’m sure the President would entertain his friends with those stories given half a chance.

For example, there was the story of Josiah the badger.  In 1903, the President took an eight-week trip by train through the western States.  It was a chance for him to meet the people and a chance for the people to see the President in this pre-television and radio era.  One of his stops was in Sharon Springs, Kansas, and it was there that a group of children presented him with a baby badger.  The President was quite pleased with the badger, personally hand-fed him potatoes and milk, and showed him off to all the children at subsequent stops.  By the time the train returned to Washington, he had also acquired two bears, a lizard, a horned toad and a horse.  Not all of those animals ended up taking up residence at the White House, but Josiah the badger did.  Josiah would cavort on the White House lawn with the Roosevelt children and dogs and became a personal favorite of Roosevelt’s son Archie.  Unfortunately, Josiah developed the bad habit of leg biting.  Since Archie often carried the badger around, Roosevelt wrote that he suggested to Archie “that it would be uncommonly disagreeable if he took advantage of being held in the little boy’s arms to bite his face; but this suggestion was repelled with scorn as an unworthy assault on the character of Josiah. ‘He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces,’ said the little boy.”

As Josiah got older and larger he became more problematic.  In addition to digging large holes in the White House lawn, he also "constantly gnawed into any leg within reach of [his] teeth, occasionally drawing blood," according to one observer.  Unhappily, Josiah was eventually sent to live at the Bronx zoo.

Josiah the badger sits on Archie Roosevelt's lap
 and does not bite his face (Library of Congress)
Not much information remains regarding the two chickens.  The rooster had only one leg.  We have a picture, but his name and his story are lost in the mists of time.  The hen’s name was Baron Spreckels – an unusual name for a hen, for sure.  No other information remains about Baron Spreckels, but I have some theories about her name.  First, I suggest that she was named for a real person – Roosevelt was fond of naming his animals after his contemporaries.  The guinea pigs, for instance, were Admiral Dewey, Bishop Doane, Dr. Johnson, Father O'Grady, and Fighting Bob Evans.  Second, I propose that she was a speckled hen – President Roosevelt was fond of puns.  Finally, I suggest that she was named for Claus Spreckels, a kingpin in the sugar industry, who was one of a group of financial and an industrial capitalists referred to as the “Robber Barons.”  Have I hit the mark on any of this?  I don’t know—it’s mere spreckulation on my part. (Sorry.)

The Roosevelt one-legged rooster.
His name is lost to history. 

(Library of Congress)
So there it is, a Randy’s Chicken Blog post where animal stories are abundant but the chicken tales are short.  What can I say?  Most of the people we’ve elected to lead us apparently were not chicken people.  Or if there were chickens, those who record history have not seen fit to chronicle their stories.  If you were hoping for a story about flocks of happy hens flapping their wings in the East Wing, well, so was I.  Sorry. I guess I’ll have to file this one under “Wild Esoterica.” 

And finally, what about President-Elect Trump?  Will there be chickens in the Trump White House?  My prognostication is “no.”  Will there be animals?  Like President Obama, President Trump will be entering the White House with no pets.  However a Palm Beach philanthropist and Trump family friend has already offered up a nine-week-old Goldendoodle puppy.  So my guess is that while White House chickens may not be a reality, White House animals, as in the past, will continue to flourish in the future.

Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.

Battening Down the Chickens

A faithful reader of this blog asked this question during last July's heatwave, "Dear Randy's Chicken Blog, What are you and your chickens doing to beat the heat? Your fan (who is now in front of a fan), Katie" Her question resulted in the blog post I called "Hipster Hens Hate Heat!".

And now it’s December and how the weather has changed!  Last night we hit 24 below zero and the predicted high for today is destined to wind up somewhere in the negative numbers. So the time has arrived for me to write a blog entitled "Hipster Hens Are Completely Disgruntled With Cold, Too!"  But since that title’s a little unwieldy, I’m going with “Battening Down the Chickens.”  That’s probably a more appropriate title anyway, since this post is really about preparing your coop for cold weather.
Veronica the Easter Egger turns herself into a cold-resistant
 feather ball by tucking her head under her wing.
For starters, here are the three absolute basic requirements to keep your chickens happy and healthy during the cold winter months: 

1-Close that coop!  A draft is a bigger problem than cold temps!  Chickens are bundled in insulation.  If you’ve ever experienced the amazing warmth of a down jacket on a cold winter day, you know how down can keep you warm.  Well, chickens are wrapped in a layer of small down feathers under their large exterior feathers.  The down feathers keep chickens pretty toasty, but become less efficient if they’re exposed to a winter gale blowing through the coop.  So in the winter you need to close all those open windows that let in the cool summer breeze.  And you need to stop up all those holes.

2-Keep them dry.  If down feathers get wet and matted, they just don’t work.  The secret of down’s insulative quality is the air pockets.  Fill those air pockets with water, and all that superb insulation becomes nothing more than soggy feathers.  Keeping your birds dry means providing deep layers of dry bedding that you change out on a regular basis.  Chicken poop is mostly water, and chickens, as we all know, are pooping machines.  You also need to make sure that your coop is well ventilated so all the moist air from evaporating chicken poop can escape.  Ventilation may seem in direct conflict with my first point about keeping the coop free of drafts, but you can do both.  Some sort of vent in the ceiling or near the top of the coop works well to allow moist air to escape without creating a draft on the birds.

3-Now that you’ve got them dry, add water.  Wait…..what?  Yeah….I’m talking about water to drink, which is more complicated than you may first think.  Water freezes. So if the temperature inside the coop is below freezing you either need to come up with a plan to change out the frozen water several times each day, or rig something up to keep the water warm.  I know there are a few flock keepers out there who expect their chickens to maintain hydration by eating snow and that horrifies me.  Those poor birds are already working hard to maintain their body temperatures, and eating snow obliges them to work that much harder.  Plus, cold chickens will eat a bare minimum of cold snow because it is cold and become dehydrated.  And dehydrated chickens will stop eating.  Then they’ll become malnourished, stressed and sick and that’s just not good.

Here are a couple other things that I do in the winter that I know some flock keepers will disagree with.  These practices may be a matter of personal preference, or perhaps it’s a matter of geography.  I trust that you’ll form your own opinion on what’s best for your situation after reading them over and will use your own judgement:

1-Let there be light.  Chickens are light sensitive and stop laying when the days get short.  Some people feel that chickens need this “rest” from laying.  I suggest that chickens stop laying in the winter because the original purpose of chicken eggs was to make baby chicks and chicks would probably not survive if they hatched in the winter.  A non-molting hen getting good nutrition can lay eggs in winter with no more issues or problems than would occur in summer.  Providing extra light will keep her laying and also provide more hours of wakefulness for her to eat, drink, and maintain herself against the cold.

2-Let there be heat.  Other chicken bloggers will tell you that heating a coop is not necessary or perhaps even bad.  I suggest that none of those bloggers live in Minnesota.  Here in the Northland, we’ve had long stretches of days like today—where the temperature drops to 20 below zero every night and the high doesn’t reach zero.  That’s cold.  Chickens evolved from tropical birds with bodies designed to throw off heat.  Combs are essentially blood-filled heat fins designed to radiate heat and large combed chickens kept in cold climates can easily suffer from frozen combs.  There are, of course, small-combed cold-tolerant breeds, but even with these chickens it’s a matter of how much cold they can tolerate.  I prefer to keep the coop temperature above freezing most of the time.  The hens appreciate it and I don’t have to worry about the eggs freezing.  But during those times when it’s 20 below outside, it’s maybe ten degrees in the coop—not very warm but still 30 degrees warmer than outside.

And that’s the basics.  Doing these few things will get your flock perhaps 90% prepared for winter.  The other 10% is the tweaking you need to do depending on your preferences, your flock, your location, and your specific situation.  Here’s the scoop on the specifics for my coop:

Closing up the coop: My coops are built inside my pole barn and the walls are four feet of plywood at the bottom topped by fencing to the ceiling—that allows for lots of good air movement in the summer.  In late fall I cover the entire wall—both plywood and fencing—with foam insulation.  I leave small gaps at the very top to allow for ventilation.
A picture from the November day when I was
 wrapping the coops in foam insulation
Keeping them dry: I use pine shavings for bedding and I thoroughly clean the coops once a month.  I also have poop trays under the roosts to collect droppings.  For a complete discussion of all things poop-related, take a look at my recent post on poop.

Keeping water from freezing:  I use heaters designed to go underneath double walled metal water fonts. They’re thermostatically controlled and turn on at 35 degrees, so they only run on the coldest days when the coop air temperature drops below freezing.  The other advantage of the heater is that it elevates the water font off the floor and keeps the chickens from scratching pine shavings and debris into the water tray—I leave the heater in place year-round just for that reason.

Providing light: The coop lights are on a timer—the hens get 14 hours of light every day, summer and winter.  Even then, some of the older hens stop laying in the winter, but some don’t—and the young hens lay right through until spring.

Providing heat:  Heat lamps are easily available and are a popular way to provide heat for chickens and other livestock.  I don’t recommend them.  There are just too many reports of heat lamps exploding or starting fires that destroy coops and entire flocks.  Full disclosure:  I do own a couple heat lamps.  The last time I used one was when I nervously set it up for supplemental heat for my baby chicks for a few days this spring during an unusually cold period.  The main source of heat for the chicks was a broody hen and in normal circumstances, not only is a broody hen a sufficient heat source all by herself, she’s a bazillion times better than a lamp.  And I’m not aware of any reports of a broody hen ever blowing up or starting fires.  You can check out this Chicken Chick blog post for her assessment of the dangers of heat lamps and her suggestion for a safe alternative for brooding chicks. 

For my adult birds, my preferred safe alternative to heat lamps are 400 watt two-foot square ceramic heat panels.  I use them with a thermostat.  Farm Innovators makes a thermostat that’s ideal for my situation. It turns on at 35 degrees and turns off at 45 degrees.  The panel plugs directly into the thermostat with a standard electrical plug and the thermostat plugs directly into a regular old outlet—nothing could be simpler! That’s really all I need—it keeps the coop above freezing on all but the coldest days.

One last cold-weather trick worth mentioning is one that all the old farmers know about:  Give your chickens a little scratch grain right before they roost.  The extra carbs help the chickens maintain their body warmth through the cold winter night.  On the really cold nights, I take it to the next level and toss the scratch into a pot with twice its volume of water and cook it like oatmeal.  The chickens love this warm treat and it warms them from the inside out!

Postscript:  For additional tips on helping your chickens get through the cold winter here are a couple excellent posts by other folks who also blog from the Northland:  Counting My Chickens writes from Iowa about “Caring for Your Chickens in Winter” and HenCam in Massachusetts discusses “Cold Weather Care.”

Another Postscript: Many of the items that I use to batten down the chickens and that I discussed in this post are available on Amazon:

Farm Innovators 35 degree thermostat
400 Watt Two-Foot-Square Ceramic Heat Panel

Water Font Heater

Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.


Are you considering the possibility of having a few pretty little hens pecking around your lawn?  You should!  Chickens are the best!  But before you head out to pick out some little peepers, let me introduce you to one important and necessary fact:  Chickens are pooping maniacs!  I can’t say that I’ve conducted any scientifically controlled measurements in my coop, but the estimates that I’ve read tell me that one chicken produces somewhere in the range of 50 pounds of excrement in a year.  Assuming you’ve got a hen that weights five pounds, that means that in one year she makes ten times her weight in poultry-doo.  Or to look at it another way, suppose you’ve got a really good laying hen who produces 300 eggs in a year and that each egg weighs 60 grams.  If you do the math, that hen produces about 40 pounds of eggs in a year—so I think it is safe to say that a chicken’s per capita manufacture of guano outpaces her egg production.

This, of course, is all an esoteric discussion unless you’re considering getting some backyard chickens.  Once you’ve got chickens, figuring out what to do with all that poo becomes a real dilemma.  It’s important to keep the coop clean.  It isn’t healthy for your birds to be walking around in an accumulation of their own excrement.  It’s also important for them to have dry litter.  Chicken poop is 75% water by weight, so the bedding can become soggy pretty quickly.  Also, consider the fact that chickens poop pretty much 24/7—even in their sleep.  The area under the roost can develop a pretty significant pile of droppings after just one night.  And then the chickens will hop off the roost in the morning and happily scratch through it.  For sweet and lovable animals, they do have some pretty disgusting habits.  OK, you still want chickens?  Good.  Let’s talk about how to deal with the mess. 

First you need good absorbent litter or bedding to cover the floor of the coop.  There are a variety of options.  Straw, hay and sand are all popular choices.  Some people use shredded dry leaves or grass clippings which are inexpensive, but also have some inherent problems.  Shredded paper works.  I like pine shavings because they are fairly absorbent, don’t break down, are relatively dust-free, are available at most farm stores, and when freshly placed in your coop give the whole coop a fresh piney smell.

I thoroughly clean my coops once a month—that involves replacing all the old, soiled bedding, plus general dusting and cobweb removal.  I would probably have to do the thorough cleaning more frequently if it weren’t for my secret weapon:  poop trays! 

Remember those piles of droppings under the roost?  If a chicken spends half the day on the roost, that’s where half of her daily output of poop will wind up.  So I’ve created a collection device.  I use those flat plastic boxes that are designed for storing garments under beds.  I covered the tops of the boxes with a “lid” that I made out of wire fencing stretched over a wooden frame.  I put a layer of old bedding from the coop floor in each tray and slide the trays under the roost.  The poop falls through the fencing and into the tray.  Every couple of days I just pick the trays up and dump the contents into my compost pile.

Mary the Campine proudly walks by one of the
 poop trays I made out of garment boxes
Oh yeah!  The compost pile!  Chicken manure makes an excellent fertilizer for your garden, but it needs to be composted first.  Composting destroys any potential pathogens that may be in the manure.  Also fresh chicken manure is so “hot” (high in nitrogen) that it can actually kill the plants in your garden.  Composting the high-nitrogen manure with the high-carbon litter material creates a beautifully balanced compost.  I maintain two piles—one is the working pile to which I’m continuously adding fresh material from the coop, and one is the “ready’ pile—composted material from the previous year that’s ready for use on my garden.  

Under this pristine veneer of snow is a year's-worth of poop from 24 chickens - this is my working compost pile.  I'll start a new pile in January.
Your compost pile can go in any secluded corner of your yard—but it needs to be in a spot the chickens can’t reach!  You can simply have a pile or you can use a barrel or some other sort of container—it all depends on your situation and your aesthetic sensibilities.  You don’t need to dither over your pile.  It will compost just fine without your intervention.  But you should turn the pile periodically to aerate it.  Fresh chicken manure has an odor that I wouldn’t want to incorporate into a cologne or scented candle, but it’s still not that bad.  Composted chicken manure actually has a pleasant, sweet, earthy smell.  But manure that has composted anaerobically (without oxygen) produces a stink so horrific it could knock a bird off a branch a block away.  An anaerobic manure pile in your back yard won’t kill you but you likely will wish that you were dead.  And your neighbors may wish exactly the same thing.  Anaerobic digestion produces all sorts of sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and dimethyl sulfide, as well as volatile fatty acids, aromatic compounds and amines with colorful names like cadaverine and putrescine.  Trust me, you don’t want these organic compounds in your compost.  So grab that pitchfork, rake or whatever tool you choose and turn your pile at least once a month.  It makes all the difference! 

Your reward will be a heaping helping of wonderful, earthy compost.  Eggs AND compost from your chickens!  Who knew?!  

(Under-bed garment boxes like this one make excellent poop trays!)


(...And while we're on the subject - Chicken Poop Lip Junk...)


Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.

Lawyers Guns and Money

The last few days I’ve often caught myself humming the Warren Zevon song “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”  I think the song is playing in a loop in my subconscious mind – for obvious reasons. No, you don’t need to worry that the Hipster Hens and I are incarcerated in some foreign prison as the song lyrics would suggest.  But I did allow ads to be placed on my blog—you probably noticed.  And I did have to jump through a few legal hoops in order to do that.  So there you go—money and lawyers.  Please trust me when I say that “Randy’s Chicken Blog" is not involved with gun running.  It’s just that my subconscious mind doesn’t know any songs that refer to just lawyers and money.
Picture: Clipartsgram

So what’s up with the ads?  Let’s just say that if you ever anticipate getting some backyard chickens so you can have really fresh, humanely produced, locally sourced, high quality eggs and save a few bucks, you should go for it.  And if you do, you’ll achieve half of the goals outlined in the previous sentence.  Don’t expect that you’re going to get cheap eggs.  If that’s what you’re after, stick with the grocery store.  Everything I said about the eggs is true, though.  You’ll also discover that chickens are amazing—beautiful, interesting, intelligent, amusing—if Emma Watson was poultry instead of an actress, she’d be a chicken!  So then, if you’re like me, you’ll give all your chickens names and then when they become “hens of a certain age” and aren’t laying so well anymore, you’ll be horrified when anybody suggests the stew pot.  “Eat my sweet elderly hen?  Are you nuts?!  We’re talking about Florence here!”  And then, if you’re like me, you’ll go out and get more chickens when Florence can no longer provide the fix for your egg habit, and no doubt many of those new hens will be poor egg layers, but you’ll like them anyway because they lay unusually colored eggs or have really bizarre and beautiful crests, or really unusual feathers.  And then you’ll have to build a few more coops so everybody has enough room.  And, of course, with all those chickens hanging around, your chicken feed bills will skyrocket.  I wish the guy who started using the phrase “chicken feed” to refer to cheap stuff would pay my feed bill!  So then, if you’re like me you’ll have started writing a blog about your chickens by this point, and it will occur to you that if you monetized the blog, you could make a little spare change to fill all those hungry beaks.

So that’s why there are ads.

My ads are placed on the blog by a Google advertising program called “Adsense”.  While Google claims that the ads will be relevant, I don’t have much control over what shows up.  I can block ads that I deem to be nonpertinent or offensive.  The “Date Foreign Women” ads went away pretty fast, and I’ve blocked a few others as well.  So if you see any ads that you find objectionable, please let me know and I’ll deal with them.  In addition to Adsense I’ve also joined the Amazon Associate Program, which allows me to link to specific products sold through Amazon.  The way it works is that if you click on an ad or an Amazon link, it doesn’t cost you anything, but the Hipster Hens and I get a little pocket change.

All the legal niceties are now spelled out in great detail at the bottom of each page of my blog.  I’ve tried to run through all the necessary information without being teeth-grindingly dull, so take a look!

And while you’re down there, read the new mission statement.  I did spend some time thinking about why I write this blog in order to capture it in the statement.  I think these four bullets sum up the inspiration and motivation behind every post I write:

  •        My chickens are really cool.
  •        All chickens are really cool.
  •        The majority of chickens being raised for meat or egg production, in spite of their inherent coolness, are treated cruelly. You can help make changes by your purchasing habits. Educate yourself! Read labels! Check company websites!
  •         If you have the means and desire to keep some chickens, go for it!


The Hipster Hen Ranch sits on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The house, other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs take up maybe an acre, and the rest is pretty much mature oak forest.  One nice thing about living in the oak woods is the abundance of wildlife.  Last night when Bailey and I took our final trip outside before bed,  I listened to two great horned owls having an extended conversation.  We often hear or catch glimpses of owls, eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears and gazillions of squirrels and rabbits.  There have even been occasional reports of cougars and bobcats. 

I truly appreciate being able to interact with all these wild critters, but there’s a downside.  Most of my neighbors and I choose to live in the country for the country lifestyle.  That usually includes growing big gardens and raising a few animals.  And that’s where our interaction with the local wild critters can become tricky.  Critters can be divided into three categories:  The carnivores, like the hawks, foxes, and coyotes have a pronounced appreciation for chickens—but not in the same way that you, my blog readers, appreciate chickens.  The herbivores, such as the deer and rabbits, have an insatiable fondness for my garden and apple trees.  And then there are the omnivores, best represented by the raccoons, who would be happy to have a few tomatoes from the garden for an appetizer before settling down to a fine chicken entrĂ©e. 

We all do our best to deal with this problem.  In the not-so-distant days past, the solution was to shoot every critter in sight.  When I was a kid, I learned that the birds I now call hawks were “chicken hawks”, that they existed to eat our chickens, and when you spotted one, you reached for your rifle.  Fortunately, most folks are a bit more enlightened now.  I realize that I have chosen to raise my vegetables and chickens in habitat that was occupied by wild animals long before I arrived.  So I share the space—one acre for me and my domestic plants and animals, and the other eight acres for the wild animals.  But I prefer not to share my chickens and tomatoes.  To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house, spray copious amounts of repellent, and of course I have a ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever.  And to protect the Hipster Hens from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range.  When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire.  And of course there’s the ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever. 

My system to protect against predators does seem to make a difference.  Last summer, a nearby neighbor lost an entire flock in one night to a weasel attack.  A friend who free-ranges her chickens had almost her entire flock picked off one hen at a time over the course of the summer by an unknown predator.  By the end of the summer she was down to two war-hardened and apparently very savvy old Barred Rock hens.  On the other hand, I've never lost a single chicken to predators (I’m knocking hard on my wooden desktop as I write this).  There has been one hawk attack that all the chickens escaped unscathed (more on that in a later post), and then there was the July 2015 raccoon incident.

Back in early June of last year, I saw a raccoon hanging around my backyard on several occasions.  The coon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top.  Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other—directly out of the tray.  I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens.  While the chickens were pretty well protected in the hen pen, it would be an easy thing for a raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence.  The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and had no problem snuffling around the backyard in the daylight. 

The Raccoon
Raccoons are nocturnal and it has been suggested that seeing them during the day is one indicator of rabies.  This coon did not act or appear rabid at all, though, and as the Raccoon in Attic website points out, “While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies. You see, although raccoons are primarily nocturnal, they do often get some stuff done during the day. It is not at all unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day. They can't just sleep from dawn to dusk without doing anything. They may go off in search of food or drink. This is especially true of nursing female raccoons, who have a bunch of babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements, because they are nursing their young.”  And speaking of nursing mothers, I saw the babies a couple of days later—two little tykes that were cuter than heck.  Now I had to worry about three raccoons getting the chickens. 

Baby Raccoon
Over the course of June and into July I frequently saw the mom and her babies going after the backyard bird feeders.  Then one day the babies came to the backyard without their mom.  They showed up almost daily for the next few days for their birdseed, always without their mom.  Since they weren’t old enough to be on their own I begin to wonder if they’d been orphaned.  And that presented an ethical dilemma.  If they were really orphaned, it was possible that they wouldn’t survive unless I intervened.  But what if I captured them and they were really with their mom?  Maybe she was just keeping her distance as part of the weaning process.  Then again, what if they really were orphans?  The woods around my house is filled with wild animals and the drama of life and death plays itself out every day.  Was I ethically compelled to intervene in this situation just because I was aware of it?  These thoughts continued to thread their way through my head, but I didn’t act.  I was in the last days of work before my retirement, so there was a loom’s worth of thought threads running through my head then.

Second Baby Raccoon
Then my last day of work arrived.  Some of my co-workers were treating me to an evening baseball game that day and my big dilemma was that I had no way to get the chickens shut into the coop at dusk.  My wife was out of town, and the neighbor who often helps with the chickens wasn’t available.  In the end I decided I would hold my breath, cross my fingers, and close the coop door after dark when I got home.  So the hens wouldn’t get their usual tucking-in or bedtime stories (sort of kidding about that) and the coop door would be open to the night for several hours.  But when I got home after eleven o’clock, the coop was dark and quiet.  I did a quick check with a flashlight and everybody appeared to be on the roost and sound asleep, so I just shut the door quietly and went to bed.

The next morning, when I hiked down to the coop and opened the door, I found all the chickens bunched against the door.  As soon as I opened the door they all bolted out in a panic.  There was a raccoon hunkered down and snarling in the far corner of the coop.  I obviously had locked him in the night before.  A quick count confirmed that all the chickens were truly there.  And I soon figured out that the raccoon was one of the babies.  No doubt this little guy was in the coop looking for eggs or chicken feed when he got locked in – he was much too young and small to tackle a chicken.  Then I wondered if this tyke had made this bold move because he was really orphaned and he was starving.  I had been waffling about whether or not to insert myself into the baby raccoon situation, but now he had forced my hand by inserting himself into my chicken coop.

With the chickens all outside, I shut the coop door to keep him in and after some quick wrangling I got him penned up in a dog crate.  I acted carefully.  I didn’t want to cause him any injury, and I was also aware of the fact that while he was a baby, he was also a sharp-toothed, desperate, wild animal.  So I had a coon.  What next?  I live in the country.  Animal Control is a nearby shelter that only deals with stray cats and dogs.  There is no local police department—our police protection comes from the county sheriff.  So that’s who I called.  The dispatcher put me through directly to an officer who was nearby.  Let me just say that the folks at the county sheriff’s office are dedicated professionals.  If you report a burglar in your house, they will be there in minutes and competently handle the situation.   But as it turns out, if you have a coon in your coop, the response is not nearly as impressive.  At first the officer told me she would help me take the crated raccoon outside to release him, then she talked herself out of even that degree of assistance since she "didn’t want to get bit by a coon.”

Fortunately, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota is about 45 minutes from my house.  I called them next, and explained the situation.  I was able to convince them that this young coon was probably orphaned.  They said they would take him.  They don’t do pickups, so I loaded the dog crate containing the snarling little coon into my truck and drove the 45 minutes to the rehab center.  At the center, I turned the crate over to the folks there, and while they were coaxing the little guy out of the crate,  I filled out the appropriate forms, left a $50 contribution (they do great work—check out their website!), and then drove home.  I accomplished all this by 11 AM. I had not managed to accomplish breakfast or anything else, but the baby coon was in good hands.  The little guy seemed unusually subdued for a wild creature after I captured him and perhaps that was an indicator that he wasn’t doing very well, so I was anxious for the follow-up report.  They promised a full report in a month, but they couldn’t commit to any report earlier than that because they are so very underfunded and understaffed.  Until that report would arrive, that was the end of the story of the baby coon.

This is the point where you say, “But there were two babies!  What ever happened to the second one?” That question got answered around 5 PM that very day when I spotted him under the bird feeder, looking thin and worse for the wear. When I went outside he hid in the day lilies – but not very convincingly. If I had been a coyote, he would have been a meal. As it was, I tossed a box over him and then got him in the dog crate, the dog crate into the truck, and made my second trip of the day to Wildlife Rehab.  Again, the folks at the center assured me that the two little coons would be checked by vets and released into the wild if they were okay.  Meanwhile, the chickens were all fine—except for being freaked out by sharing their coop for a night with a predator.  And I learned that under no circumstances could I ever leave the coop door open after dark.  It could have been a lot worse.

Here’s the sad part:  A few days after the baby raccoon incident I saw another raccoon in the backyard.  It was ragged, emaciated, and had three legs and a stump where the fourth should be.  I only saw that raccoon the one time, and have no facts other than the ones I report here.  But I can speculate that it was the mom.  Maybe she got caught in a leg-hold trap and eventually gnawed her leg off, as animals caught in leg-hold traps are known to do.  And maybe she was coming back looking for her babies.

Here’s the bittersweet part:  In August, I got a report from the vet at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The baby that I took in on the first trip was found to be thin, dehydrated, and had infected wounds on his neck. He died shortly after I brought him there. His brother had a wounded paw that was badly infected and also infested with maggots. Because of his condition he was still there nearly a month later, but was doing well. He was nearing a point where he could be moved to an outdoor area and the vet said that as soon as he felt he was ready he would be released into the wild.

I started this story talking about predators, and I suspect it didn’t go the direction you thought it would, but we nevertheless have come to the end.  And to finish the story, let me just say that nature being what it is, I’ll continue to protect my chickens from predators.  But that doesn’t make predators “bad guys”.  Predators are simply what they are.  Once there were two raccoons and one died as a baby and one survived and maybe will live a full life and kill lots of other animals, because he’s a predator.  The wild animals that live in the natural world around us are born, pass through the sum of their experiences and die practically unknown to us.  But their invisibility to us and the part they play in the natural structure of things doesn’t make these wild ones any less valid or in any way diminish their existence.  Each of them, the Desiderata tells us, like each of us, is a child of the universe.  Each of them, like each of us,  has a right to be here.  And while it is often difficult to parse out, the universe continues to unfold as it should.

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 228]