Unwelcomed Winter Visitor at The Farm by Tom Motley
The red colt, Charlie, and Eli, the little miniature Sicilian donkey were recently found trespassing in the chicken coop. Literally scrounging around for chicken feed, the two equine bandits had managed to wiggle their fat bodies through the narrow, but left-open screen-door of the chicken yard.
These two young farm-slackers would like me to think them nutritionally deprived, even to the point of pity. But Eli’s too round belly belies him having missed any meals. Infant colt Charlie follows tiny Eli’s every lead, so hasn’t any idea that in less than a year, there’s no way his future big Quarter Horse butt will be able to pass through the chicken coop door. Eli, the miniature, of course has reached his full potential height. He was hoping, I’m sure, to make it to an expected 30” tall, but no luck yet. Now two years old, all that’s left for Eli is hope. Well, his Napoleonic confidence will probably always overcome any obstacle, especially when he has really important horses like Charlie following his every devious directive. Charlie’s eyes don’t equate Eli’s smaller size to be representative of anything significant, but somehow the colt knows that Eli is older. So, young Charlie is often led down the wrong (and narrow) path by the cunning ass, Eli, the elder.
The sun was setting over the neighbor’s barn, distracting me from chores. The sky was streaked with bright pink, paint brush-like strokes, glazed over with orange and yellow layers. Stars already appeared in the dark, navy-blue sky above. A single, thread-like line of pale powder-blue appeared just along the horizon, the last of daylight’s evidence waning. It looked like a thin, celestial Navajo turquoise-bead necklace, in the near, night heavens.
It was a cold evening already, with a hard freeze coming overnight.
I walked into the fenced chicken-yard, rounded up the little mustangs, and escorted them back into the barnyard. Immediately both equine heads were in the hen-feed bucket I’d carelessly left by the yard door. All critters love chicken feed for some reason. The crushed corn, I guess. I shushed the boys away, and shook the bucket so the chickens would hear the grain, while calling them to roost for the night. They weren’t far away, having been hovering near the coop, just waiting for the four-legged bullies to exit their little protected poultry cloister. The chickens followed me, and the bucket, into their yard, to enjoy a snack and then climb the cedar ladder up to their roost to settle in for a cold night. I’d certainly have the heat lamp on for them later, what with the night’s forecast.
The look I was going for in the design of the chicken coop, by the way, was sort of a cross between a Ma and Pa Kettle type casual edifice and a Swiss chalet. It’s a hodge-podge of re-purposed materials, including rusty corrugated tin, spare plywood and scrap cedar boards of varied dimension. The hens seem to approve of their home, eager to turn in after a hard day’s free-ranging. The empty feed bucket becomes the full egg bucket at day’s end. I move the day-time door-stop (a brick) from the bottom edge of the old wooden screen-door and lock it up with a 2X4 that spans the frame, which secures their tuck-winged world for the night.
I originally took great pains with the construction of the chicken yard. I buried the chicken-wire in a foot-deep trench, and even extended a continuous wire ceiling over the whole top of the yard, not unlike traditional, draping circus-tent systems. An ancient overhanging cedar tree, trimmed of lower limbs up to about eight feet, provided lots of stiff branches as support for the assorted colorful bungee cords I attached in order to suspend the whole the chicken wire canopy. It was a pain to complete, but I was able to smile with relief as I closed the last gap in the free-form chicken-wire cover over the yard. No night-hunting critters would be able to climb over the wall and into the chicken coop.
The waning evening light was darker, still, beneath the shade of the tall old cedar tree that served as the center pole to my ersatz chicken-yard circus-tent. Suddenly, a Great-horned Owl swooped right over our heads (mine and the chickens). The handsome, floating raptor glided silently only a few inches above, arrogantly peering into the wire-canopy enclosure, no doubt with plans of upcoming poultry meals at my expense.
Modern flying drones are meager shape and temperature counters, when compared to the computational and analytical eyes and ears of a winged winter visitor, like the owl. With all its sensory nerves and muscles and tissue responding to those time-proven sound and sight messages, such an ancient, wise hunter usually finds a way to outsmart even the most protective farmer.
We are blessed with beautiful owls and hawks on our place, but we like them better without valuable layers in their talons. And of course we don’t let any of the chicks free-range in the daytime until they’ve become much larger and heavier talon-targets.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Guard your chickens.