Sunday, July 8, 2012

Parenting is hazardous to your health.

I was mortified to see that my "previous post" on poultry was - over a month ago.  I'd been intending some updates on our guineas, etc, right?  Hey, it was hot.

But, also; about 2 days after that post - chickens started to disappear from the two "tractors" we have going.  So I got preoccupied with tracking down causes, before updating; then... hey, it got hot.  : - )

It was particularly painful/frustrating/infuriating to lose birds because I hadn't lost any; not one, for months.  And zero chicken losses from the tractors, since moving birds out of winter quarters.  We did lose a few guineas immediately after the winter to tractor transition.  That happens.  The guineas are just a little too likely to take off on their own, and simply not come back.  We're hoping to select guineas that are better about that, eventually.  But the numbers had been stable for a long time.  Then, suddenly- 1 or 2 hens a day; failing to come in at night.  Long searches of their range usually failed to show either birds sitting on eggs or piles of feathers.

There were a couple piles of feathers, however; unequivocal proof of predation.  Both guineas and chickens have a "shed feathers" reflex, in response to fear of predation; suddenly their feathers become very loosely attached, and fly everywhere.  In normal predation circumstances, that might be expected to save their lives, once in a while- leaving the predator distracted, or with only a mouthful of feathers.

It can also help the forensics on the farm.  Got a big central poof, with a few feathers in all directions out to 10 feet- then nothing?  Probably a hawk or owl.  Big poof, then another poof 5 feet away, then a trail going in one direction for 30 feet?  Probably a mammalian predator.  Note the "probably"; lots of variations will happen.

But when the thief took my big Cochin rooster, Thor- with the 40' trail; that let out not only avian thieves but most wild mammals, and focused suspicion on - the farm dogs.  Sigh.

Daisy, alas, was looking guilty when I asked her "Have you been after the chickens?"  You think they don't understand?  I think they do.  We're down to two dogs, these days; Daisy's sister Schatze fell victim quite some time ago to her unbreakable desire to chase cars.  And Theodore, now far from this puppy.  Both have been trained, intensively, to behave themselves around poultry.  And both had been allowed totally free access for many months; with no indications of problems; on the contrary, both dogs accompanied me as I tended the tractors and birds- both dogs and birds behaving as if there were no tensions here at all.  But.  Daisy was now looking... shifty.  And we were down 7 hens at this point.

So; both dogs went on chains.  During the day.  Thankfully, and sadly, the birds stopped disappearing immediately.  Dogs were set free as soon as the birds were shut in for the night (our standard practice to prevent them from quickly become owl-chow), then put back on before letting birds out in the morning.  They weren't happy during the day; but are well trained enough that putting them on chain in the morning was easy- just call, they come right to the chain, not looking cheerful, but unquestioning.

After 10 days with no poultry disappearing- I let Theodore stay off-chain all day, trepidatiously .  Of the two dogs, he's the stay-at-home, oddly; usually males roam more than females, but our current two work the other way round.  And - no birds disappeared.  Sigh.

That would seem to be pretty convincing evidence. And I'm pretty convinced.  But.

Alas, there is more than one threat to free-range poultry.  This was a guinea.  And the cause in this case was- newly hatched babies.  Spice was out early, and found 5 newly hatched baby guineas (keets) running about.  She captured them, of course.  We have about 10 farm cats at this point, and while the adult poultry are cat proof; baby birds are irresistible cat morsels.  They have to be protected, at least until they can fly.

Only 5 keets were in evidence.  After catching them (no small feat) and bringing them in, she went back to see if there were more keets, previously hiding (or perhaps not hatched yet) - 5 is a very small number for a guinea clutch ... and found instead, this poof.

Almost certainly, a Cooper's Hawk.  We see them pretty often; and generally like to; they catch mice and bluejays.  Usually the poultry are too big for them to attempt; but if they're really hungry; they may try.  If they try, they'll pretty certainly succeed in killing the chicken, even if they can't carry it off.  The guineas rarely are caught, they're too wary.

Unless- they're new parents, or protecting a nest, and distracted.

A few days ago- we had 2 more poofs show up, in the woods.  Poof 1 was- an Araucana hen who'd been missing for weeks- presumed eaten by Daisy.  But, nope.  She'd evidently gone broody, and started sitting on a clutch of eggs, in the woods.  The timing of the poof- just right for the eggs to have hatched.  And the hen to have become hawk food, while watching the new chicks.  Poof 2 was- the Araucana hen who had been proven our best foster mom.  Probably- when the original mom disappeared, the chicks started calling; and the 2nd hen's maternal instincts called her into the woods, to also encounter the hawk.

Pretty sad.  No way around that.  These were birds I'd known for years, as individuals.  I miss them.  And I feel guilty that I somehow let them down- I wasn't able to provide them with a safe place, or a safe way, to be parents.  They'd survived just fine- for 3 years of free range - until there were unprotected chicks in the picture.

Still working on figuring out how to protect them in the future.  It'll be work.  But the benefits the birds provide are pretty clear.  (I'll make a list, one of these posts).

Meanwhile.  At least, the 5 keets are protected, and being tended by an adult guinea.  I'm pretty sure this bird was NOT one of the birds that hatched the eggs, but she responded strongly to the keets calling, went into the cage I set up, and now broods them when they get a little cool.

They're thriving.  With no heat lamp.  Life goes on.  For some.

Daisy is now resigned about being on chain all day.  But the reality is, we need her free, 24 hours, guarding the farm.  Particularly since we've now got reports of bears, nearby.  More work ahead, one way or another.


knutty knitter said...

There's always something to take the gilt off the gingerbread. Fortunately there is usually some replacement gilt hanging around somewhere :)

viv in nz

Lauren said...

Sorry for your bird losses but I admire your ability to find the causes. My guines have been out, paired up and nesting since about May. I won't get a complete head count for at last another couple of months. I only saw two small keets, neither of which survived. None of my guineas are good parents. At least five of the six keets a hen hatched for me are still going strong. I will let a hen hatch and brood another ten or so next spring. I'd like my guinea flock to stay at around 20 to 30 total.

Lynx said...

I saw that you were down to 2 dogs. What happened to the leopard catahoula dog?

And I'm sorry about the chickens. Harsh, for the dogs. Just out of curiousity, what do you feed your dogs?

Greenpa said...

Lynx- the catahoula/boxer- simply vanished one afternoon. She was attractive- and pretty friendly. We spent 3 days tracking her in the snow; found a place where she left the farm; something she did occasionally, alas. Called the neighbors, radio station- nothing. Best guess- somebody picked her up; stole her. She DID have a collar with her name and phone number on it; it's not like she looked like a stray. At least we know she didn't get tangled in wire or something equally awful.

Feed- we feed them inexpensive dog food; which they supplement constantly with rabbits, mice, apples, nuts- I've got a video of the stinkers lying down and eating hickory nuts; one after another; while I was trying to harvest them. Ah, well. Also a little lamb from time to time; from losses/culls; when it's ok. They're truly omnivores; so- anything.