They're Not Alive
We were not a very happy homestead this morning. Wendy returned from her daily walk and reported that she didn't see Bumper, our female Toulouse goose. We love that goose.
I mean, we loved that goose.
In early December I took the fourth step toward allowing our poultry to range freely. The chickens were land-locked by electric netting but the ducks and geese could swim in the lake and roam where they pleased. On December 22nd, I took the fifth and fatal step: opening the netting just enough so the chickens could explore and return to the enclosure. I knew a predator could enter through the same opening but I had hoped its limited size would ease our crew into the privileges and perils of true liberty.
I was wrong. Wendy returned from her walk the morning of the 23rd to report a chicken was missing. There were no signs of a struggle. She was just gone. I thought perhaps she had my famously horrible navigation skills and just couldn't find her way back to the enclosure. I searched for her in the fields and the marsh but she had disappeared without a trace.
The next day, Wendy returned from her walk to report that all of our chickens were gone. They had not simply disappeared this time though. One remained, lifeless, outside the enclosure. Scattered feathers told us where others had been attacked. In retrospect, the small opening I created must have doubled as an impossible-to-find emergency exit. Had I removed all the netting, our chickens would've had a better chance of survival. They could have scattered in different directions and fled into the brambles. Instead though, I essentially corralled them for a fox.
I walked down to the lake shortly after Wendy told me what had happened. Emerson came with me to collect the chicken's body. But when we got there it was gone. That was a small consolation; something needed to eat and while I'm not happy with its choice, I can't be angry with it either.
I could be angry with myself, but I'm not. I'm doing the best I can to bridge the gap between common sense (of course unprotected chickens will get eaten by a fox) and what I believe is possible - that poultry, just like other birds, can learn to avoid predators if provided with the proper tools.
I had hoped the ducks and geese had those tools, with their ability to swim and fly. And maybe they do. But it had never occurred to me that with portions of the lake iced over a fox could walk where it was previously unwilling to swim. The waterfowls' safe sleeping spot, tucked on a little sandbar in the lake amid some brush, is no longer a little island in this cold weather.
So Wendy and I spent the day moving back to Phase 3 of Operation Free Range Poultry. We carried Mr. Duck and Whitey while Gander and Splash waddled behind, all the way up from the lake to our side yard again where we had rebuilt the electric netting enclosure. We also included an additional wire on the outside edge near the ground to discourage a predator from digging under.
I'm not sure what we're going to do now but I'm thinking perhaps I expected too much from a first-generation flock. Perhaps I need to offer the common sense protections and see who, in the next generation, likes to wander beyond the safety I provide. Then perhaps their offspring will be better suited to be truly free without dying.