September 20, 2015
Wide shadows fell off the windrows in the early morning. The morning after the season’s last cutting of hay, I walked the field. A heavier dew than I like gathered across my boots and the pant leg that gathered at the laces. As I wondered how long it would take the cutting to dry, a coyote limped down a windrow along the eastern edge. With the right hind leg in the air, the coyote hunted one windrow after another hoping to rouse an unobservant vole or a slow gopher pushing up dirt. I wondered how the leg got hurt. The coyote looked young, so maybe he had made one of those teenage moves that twist an ankle. Then again, he may have wondered into the wrong field at the wrong time and ended up on the wrong end of a shotgun shell. Whatever the case, I went on about my business.
Two days later, one of the chickens thought little of my decision. In fifteen years we have lost only one chicken and one lamb to predation, that is, until that day. Losing another on the backend of seeing a limping coyote is normal enough. If we are going to manage the farm with an eye toward maintaining balance between wild and domestic animals, it is inevitable something is going to lean the scale to one side or another eventually (Like a hurt leg.). I don’t imagine the missing chicken nor the non-missing chickens agree with such an analytical assessment. When another hen went missing a week later, I also questioned my management practices.
A few days after losing the second hen, I was driving across the field in the balewagon and picking up hay bales. As I round the southwest corner, the coyote came out of the brush. No longer limping, he watched as I drove by. I wondered if I should pick up the rifle when I got to the end of the field nearest the house. Call it laziness or cutting the coyote slack one more time, I left the gun in the house and continued clearing the field of bales. A week later, the 22 rifle leaned against the wall near the back door. A third chicken was missing.
The decision to kill an animal is always difficult, more so when the kill is not for food. You might say killing the coyote is a food kill when the third hen is lost. After all the hens provide daily eggs (food), and when they stop laying eggs they provide for a wonderful winter chicken stew (food). Nevertheless, the killing of the coyote, itself, is not going to provide an evening meal. Since I also have no desire to skin the coyote, tan the hide, and use it for something or another, the killing of the coyote is only to try to reestablish balance and end the loss of chickens.
The hay field was in irrigation by the time the rifle leaned near the back door. Morning irrigation sunrises are always a wonder. Certainly true when smoke from northwest fires saturate the sky. Orange yellow sky tones give the morning hay field an iridescent color. Wonderment of color juxtaposed to carrying a rifle and the possible end of life in my right hand gave morning watering a weird edge. After a week and a half of irrigating with a gun in my hand, I put it away. Perhaps the coyote picked up a vibe from me the morning I drove by him in the bale wagon or maybe better health had him move to a safer location, whatever the case, I never saw him after I got the gun out.
I had gotten to locking the hens in the coop each night in an attempt to stop hen loss. Not something they enjoyed, because in my busyness there were days they never got out of the coop. Then four days ago—one of those forgetful days, I just finished moving cattle from one pasture to another when I saw the red hen outside the coop. I knew I had not let opened the coop door that morning and wondered how she had gotten out. Then I realized she was the missing red hen (two weeks missing by now). Resurrection?
As I opened the coop, the other hens walked out and she walked in. Walking straight to the feeder, she ate. Having her fill, she turned around, walked to the southeast corner of the corral, ducked under the bottom rail, and disappeared into the tall grass of one of the farm’s wild areas. I haven’t seen her since.
My guess is she will be back in a week or two. Mostly because the first chicken we lost to a coyote was our rooster. Chances are, somewhere in the tall grass she has taken to developing a clutch of eggs with every intention of hatching them. Having no rooster though, I expect a frustrated, chickless, red hen will return to us before winter sets in.
While I have found I am good with killing a coyote to protect the chickens (and our cats—Belinda has been putting them inside as well at night), I enjoy maintaining a balance between wild and domestic much more. Which allows, on this day of resurrected hen, coyote free hay fields, and gun free morning irrigation, the awe of the morning sunrise is a bit more enchanting.