Monday, November 12, 2007

Chicken Heaven

When we moved the portable chicken house to the garden and set up a huge pen all around the dead tomato plants, I thought I was creating a "chicken heaven" where they could scratch and eat and rummage to their hearts' content, freely ranging within a safe 6' chain link fence. I ordered nearly $100 worth of netting to cover the coop to discourage the hawk that's already eying his new buffet.

And the chickens were, for a few days, very happy indeed.

But what an odd sight greeted me as I opened up the chicken coop this morning...four chicken carcasses in a row, evenly spaced along a bed lane in the chickens' new run in the tomato patch. A quick search revealed three more carcasses and a pile of feathers that I know were formerly attached to the rooster, Beau, who was nowhere to be seen.

I suspect a skunk.

As members of the weasel family, they share a propensity for gruesome mass murders like this--apparently killing for joy, and eating only the heads. One head was severed but near the body, most of the other heads were missing entirely. Who needs TV?

My method for disposing of chicken carcasses like this is to let "The Community of Life" finish what it started. I think of it as a midwestern version of "burial at sea": I take the carcasses out to the far end of the pasture and throw them over the fence into the tallgrass prairie of the CRP/wildlife area. And I speak to the creatures out there, all invisible but nevertheless most likely aware of my presence. And I tell them:

"All you predators! All you skunks and coyotes and foxes and raccoons and oppossums and weasels and badgers! Listen! I'll bring you the parts that I can't use. But I buy the feed, and I need you to let me have the ones that I can use. You are welcome to them when they are back here but stay out of my space."

Which somehow is at least a teensy-tinsy bit comforting. And, you never know. I've learned through working with Toss and the sheep that animals really DO pick up a lot of one's intent from spoken words, somehow. So it MIGHT help. It probably can't hurt, at least.

They are invariable gone within a day or two, just a few feathers riffling in the breeze, caught on a tuft of grass.

The walk back from such a "burial" always has a strange, unburdened feel that seems unjustified, undeserved...perhaps a glimpse of what true grace might feel like. There is nothing more for me to do for the dead. Nothing at all. I have given them back to their Creator for His own purposes, relinquished them to His care.

On the way back, I look at the grass newly sprouting on the north pasture (is there brome? is there wheat? I can see both wheat sprouts and wheat seeds, but the brome I see looks mostly like annual downy brome ("cheat" grass), not the desirable perennial smooth brome. But, it's hard to tell at this stage (and without my reading glasses. Bifocals are on order and should be in later this week, hurray, I'm really looking forward to renewed efficiency in reading and other forms of close observation).

Though it's so cool this morning that he's moving pretty slowly, I catch the slight motion that tips me off to a dung beetle. This species cleverly looks like a couple nuggets of the sheep dung it's diligently trundling off to its stash. I don't see them very often, but I know they're always hard at work on the farm.

Looking at the dung beetle makes me aware of the numerous small diggings in that area. These little angled excavations, not much larger than the dung beetle, are probably the work of Mr. Skunk. Not finding the hoped-for worms or grubs, he decided to raid the coop.

It's a hungry season. The Easter Freeze seriously affected the crops of nearly all wild animal foods...nuts, acorns, fruit of all kind, and I see it reflected in the wildlife around the farm. The squirrels are the hardest hit, and the biggest problem. They have now devoured three plastic trash cans that I used to store a corn/soybean mix for the sheep, the first somewhat slowly a few weeks ago, the other two just overnight in the past few days. I've never had a problem with this before, only with them harvesting my apricots and english walnuts before they're ripe.

They are a tough adversary, powerful little beasts. "Tree rats", one friend calls them. Their aeriel agility makes them an especially difficult foe.

I've set a couple live traps in the barn, after purchasing several galvanized trash cans for feed barrels. I'm also considering the pellet gun option, though I don't think I have a lot of time to devote to hunting them. I do entertain fantasies of eating them, if I ever catch them. After all, they're eating my expensive grain, not to mention the trash cans.

Why not just trap and release? Isn't it cruel to trap and eat them? The cruelty was the Easter Freeze, destroying their food supply, creating this famine that drives them to seek unnatural foods. The reality is that there is currently a huge gap between the number of squirrels running around, and the amount of resources available to support them. That situation will improve, in this season, only by me purchasing feed for them (which will just explode the population next year, and recreate the same situation next fall even if we have a good nut year) or by the population being reduced. If nothing is done, they will continue to desparately try to get at any perceived food source, chewing through incredible (and expensive!) obstacles to get at it. Then they will die of starvation, exposure, disease brought on by malnutrition. Somewhere in there they will devour the buds and strip the bark of the trees in mid-winter as the sap begins to flow. But nevertheless, despite their damage to facilities and depredation of trees, many will die.

It seems kinder, less violent, better stewardship, to simply and quickly take their lives before they are starving to death. Then those that remain (trust me, there will be plenty!) will be more in balance with their habitat.

Yes, I am playing God in their lives, deciding when they should live and when they should die. And I'm really a bit uncomfortable that I get to have that power. But somehow I was born a person, and they were born squirrels, and that's the luck of the draw. And I fear we're really a pretty good match for one another. My victory is far from assured, despite my opposable thumbs.

So what about the chickens? What is my role as God there? I can do what I as I am by circumstances. There is often no one home to close the coop up at night since the visiting Christian brothers and sisters left; hiring someone would be prohibitive. Perhaps I should find new homes for them...but predators may claim them there, as well.

Life is fragile and sometimes too short. No matter which side you're on.

No comments: