Our hen outfoxed the fox – and us

Free-range poultry are easy marks for predators, and our flock of black and yellow laying hens has dwindled despite our best efforts to give them both liberty and life.

We faithfully shut them in their protective coop each evening, and keep a few roosters who jealously guard them by day in the barnyard. The male birds stretch and spread their feathers to appear much larger and bolder when they are threatened or riled; most often by each other, at times by interlopers – the major one being a certain red vixen raising a litter of pups under a neighbor's shed.

Her home, like ours, fringes a small Midwestern city growing by leaps and bounds. Desperate for nourishment in a largely suburban landscape, she took a bead on our farm, one of the few wide-open spaces around. She then began to snatch our hens in broad daylight from under the very beaks of their gloriously strutting bodyguards.

One day we caught her in the act as she crept from the barnyard, low and sinuous, a seemingly spellbound hen cradled in her mouth. We yelled. The fox jumped, and the hen, released from surprise-slackened jaws, came to life and flapped to the shelter of the hayrack in record time. Others were not so fortunate. Over the ensuing weeks the fox made a noticeable dent in the flock.

We never once considered harming this beautiful animal as she provided for herself and her young. Instead, we started keeping our flock locked in their barn coop full time, ignoring their disgruntled clucks at being closed in with mash and water when the barnyard offered much richer fare – fly and other insect larvae, seeds, and whatever else hens scratch up in their unfettered gleanings.

After a week, hoping that the fox had moved on to a sustaining menu of field mice, we let the hens out again to scratch for their meals. When their numbers once again began to dwindle, it was back to the coop, where they were frustrated but safe.

To our chagrin, a few more succumbed to shock one day when our own dogs managed to squirm under a barrier from their barn kennel to the coop in a fit of pique and boredom at being confined during our brief absence from the farm. Hens simply are not made for rough and tumble games with spirited, tongue-lolling canines.

Along with the hens went egg production, and regular customers soon stopped pulling in for the dozen or two that had always been available for sale in the barn refrigerator (its vegetable bin serves as an honor-system cash box). Most of what the remaining hens produced we used ourselves, or put aside for one fellow who needed a single hard-boiled farm egg to begin his day on the right foot. It did not seem too much to ask or to share.

As of mid-July, we had six laying hens and a couple of roosters. I was thinking how I missed the energy and movement of a larger flock around the place as Charlie and I pulled into the barn drive the other day with a wagonload of newly baled hay – some of the first we'd been able to harvest this abnormally wet season.

Even over the noise of the Farmall tractor we heard the urgent rhythmic cheep of a newborn chick. One of our remaining hens had gone "broody" over incubating eggs a few weeks back. Though we never spotted her nest, we knew she was setting on them somewhere.

This vocal bit of yellow fluff offered a cheering birth announcement, but it hopped about in the center of a hay stall all alone, apparently without a friend in the world. Charlie switched off the tractor, and we strained for the complementary noise of other newborns, for the low, calming cluck of the hen answering and directing this wayward hatchling back to her breast. Surely she must be nearby – unless the fox had fallen upon the scene.

The wind was picking up and rain threatened, but we delayed unloading the hay to make a rapid search of the barn, peering into its nooks and crannies, bending low to scan the soft, well-scratched dirt and chaff under the hayracks, and stretching to check the post-and-beam construction of the ceiling, where there were plenty of barn-swallow nests, but no sign of a hen and chicks.

I probed Cynthia's stall. She's our nanny goat who has shared her space with broody hens in the past. But we came up blank again and again. Cynthia and the draft horses watched our quest with a lively but maddeningly self-contained interest. I'm sure they knew exactly where that nest was; our animals keep uncanny track of one another. But they weren't talking, just watching, content with the unexpected entertainment we were providing.

Then it struck me: The chick had been stretching its tiny vocal chords to their limit right under the trapdoor to the loft, which was wide open. I climbed the ladder and the sound filled my ears like music – seven more active, cheeping hatchlings and the soft clucking of the hen trying – as quietly as possible – to keep track of them all.

We delayed the unloading a bit longer to reunite the fallen chick with its family and barricade them in the still-empty half of the loft, well away from the opening in its floor. With regular deliveries of water and grain, it will be a superb nursery, airy and dimly lit, inaccessible to foxes, dogs, and rain, which poured in earnest after the last bale rode up the motorized elevator.

We're finally on our way to filling half the loft with the feed to winter over our horses and retired dairy cows. And one wise and wily hen is more than welcome to the other half in which to raise her brood: may she be as successful as that fox, and may most of them be hens.

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