Flying the coop

It was a disquieting calm, like that which lies upon the land just before a storm breaks. It was only a short time after becoming involved in the rehabilitation of wildlings that I learned to brace myself for a crisis whenever things appeared to be going smoothly and serenely. So, despite the tranquillity of the lovely late afternoon, I was prepared for anything. Or was I?

Emerging from our wildlife shelter, where new ceilings were being installed in the floor-to-rafters pens, I was met by a man carrying an injured Cooper's hawk. The bird had been picked up by the roadside, an apparent traffic victim.

While I was settling the bewildered creature in a cage prepared for him, he decided to share his pain with me by clutching my bare fingers in his sharp talons. I was struggling to remove the talons gently from my flesh when a noisy commotion broke out at the far end of the shelter. The Canada goose and his three domestic penmates were honking and flapping their wings wildly. Their attention was riveted on a lively scuffle taking place above the newly installed ceiling along the corridor.

Leaving the hawk unattended, I ran over to find our two large roosters had flown from their ceilingless pens and were battling it out among the rafters. Just as I arrived on the scene, the old red chanticleer plopped into the pen containing Vixen, the fox who was occupying another topless enclosure. Before I rushed through the door of the pen, the huge black rooster had also plummeted into the pen to continue his go-round with Old Red. The fox was so surprised by her impromptu visitors, she seemed frozen in her tracks. Then she attempted to get into the act, only to be attacked by both roosters.

In my haste to break up the fray, I had left the door of the pen wiiiiiiiide open. Vixen quickly discovered my error, and went dusting down the long corridor and out the door of the shelter. Aware that two rabbits and several peacocks were freely roaming outside, I left the roosters to their exercise while I raced off in pursuit of the fox. Each bound I took was accompanied by my loud shrieks, which I hoped would warn the peacocks and rabbits, or frighten the fox away from them.

Just as I streaked through the doorway for the shelter, Husband John drove into the yard and my neighbor came panting up the hill on foot, breathlessly asking who was being murdered! While I was incoherently babbling what had happened, I saw the fox taking to the woods with two peacocks hot on her heels. Although our peacocks unravel at the sight of a butterfly, chipmunk, or small bird, they'll attack such large creatures as cats, raccoons, skunks . . . and foxes.

As I expressed my concern for the rabbits, Husband John assured me the fox would never return - that she had ''gone over the hill'' for good. Knowing Vixen , I had my doubts about those assurances.

After guiding the young peacocks back into the shelter, I came outside to find the happily panting fox and the composed but curious rabbits staring at each other across the driveway. When Vixen saw me, she began trotting close to me, tail wagging like that of a pleased puppy. It was no problem to retrieve her and return her to the shelter. She looked relieved when she was settled in familiar surroundings, and began shaping a nest in the piled straw in a corner of her pen.

It was then I began to check the other participants of the fracas. Surprisingly, the roosters were in their own pens. The black one was grumbling deep in his throat as he rearranged his ruffled plumage. Although the red fellow wasn't bleeding, his comb drooped crazily over one eye. The two peacocks, after pursuing the fox into the woods and straggling back into the shelter, had earned their thoroughly bushed look.

The shelter's feathered occupants clucked, quacked, honked and chirped as they discussed the exciting incident they had witnessed - or been involved in. Then, as their conversations melted into sleepy sounds, a calm settled over the hill. You could almost say, a disquieting sort of calm.

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