I realize it has only been one night, so it may be premature to celebrate. But I was afraid we'd find feathers flung in the field, perhaps a corpse or two.
Yesterday I initiated the fourth phase of Operation Free Range Poultry. In the first phase, our chickens, ducks, and geese were in an enclosure near the house protected by electrified netting with a tarped section to protect against aerial predators. In phase two, we exposed them to aerial predators by removing the tarp. In phase three, I swapped the electronet for four strands of electrified wire, exposing them to any predator that may crawl or dig under.
Phase four? I set up electronet down at the lake. As Wendy refers to it, I "Pied Pipered" them from the house through the field and into the netted enclosure. My flute was a little container of feed, and I kept tossing some in front of me so the chickens would run to the next place. The geese are good at keeping up, and in fact prefer to walk just ahead of me if they can. The ducks? Well, they kind of do their own thing. We only have three and one of them turned around mid-migration and walked home. She didn't even look back. (I had to carry her down later.)
Although the poultry are back in electronet, they're more exposed to predation than ever. The netting is on three sides, with one end open to the lake so they can drink and swim and generally just try to figure out how to make it work for them. This means they're exposed to any predator who doesn't mind swimming a bit for its dinner. There are even more predators away from the house, including boar, foxes, snakes, pine martens, hawks, and owls. In fact, I heard the familiar scream of a hawk while erecting the electronet, as though it was thanking me for dropping off dinner.
If it's so dangerous for them, why am I doing it? Because the poultry are an important part of the natural pest control system I'm trying to create. Flies and ticks are a problem for our cows in the warmer months; chickens are adept at consuming ticks and removing fly larvae from cow patties. There's also a liver fluke here that's hard to avoid because its eggs travel in the water, using slugs as intermediaries. Ducks like to eat slugs, so their job is to interrupt the life-cycle of the liver fluke. The geese don't do much to protect against pests, but they're big and loud and don't sleep through the night so they're like the poultry alarm system. If the poultry are able to survive and accomplish these tasks, they'll more than pay for themselves even if we never get a single egg or roast dinner.
They do have some tools. When the chickens were still chicks, we lost one to an aerial predator. The other chicks watched it happen. They don't tend to lounge around in open space; they lounge under bushes or in brush. Maybe they learned from watching, or maybe they would've hidden themselves anyway. One night while we had the electronet up near the house, a fox dragged a duck under (or through) the netting and we found a trail of feathers leading into a thicket of brush near a stream, far from the house. I suspect that duck had chosen to sleep on the ground near the fence. The remaining ducks don't do that; they choose something to roost on, away from the perimeter.
There are places to hide and take cover in the temporary enclosure I've created - trees, reeds, blackberry thickets. And I moved a large compost bin with a lid down there too where the chickens can sleep if they'd like since they no longer have a coop. At my mom's suggestion, I also added a battery-powered light with a motion sensor and pointed it where I expect the poultry will sleep - just to give them a heads-up if something tries to sneak up on them in the dark.
I don't know if this will work, but I sure hope it does. I watched the chickens drink from the lake today, and the geese and ducks have all been for a swim. I love observing them in nature, doing what they do, without my involvement. The chickens can't leave the enclosure yet but the ducks and geese can. The ducks can easily fly over the fence and all the waterfowl can swim and exit the lake wherever they want. (Only a small portion of the lake joins with the enclosure.) But so far they keep returning to the enclosure.
Fingers crossed everyone continues to be okay. If so, I'll remove the netting when I feel like they've made their new home there and won't come back up to the house. That will be the fifth and final phase: true freedom for all of us.