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 entrée.
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.
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.
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]