December 16th, 2012

Wings of Desire

A solitary hawk circled above the orchard this morning, cutting loose, slow wheels of menace across the sky.  Chickens crouched under brambles, songbirds muted themselves in thickets.  All the mad, flitting bustle of life on the farm came to an abrupt stop.

CHICK FINALSomething dangerous this way comes.

A hawk on the hunt is a magical, ominous sight: it’s silent wings, its keen, focused hunger.  And from on high, the chickens are easy to spot; a fluff of life against a monotony of gray-grey grass.

The land below surely looked scrappier to the red tail than it does to us, with our edited, boots-on-the-ground view. Outside of raked and leaf-blown fields, the woods are a mess: an almost impenetrable tangle of limbs scattered by the latest hurricane, paper and mud stuccoed to trunks, swales sodden with leaves and brush, and above them a tree-line torn and broken against the sky.

The farm is a break from the chaos of wildness, and for the hawk it’s an easy place to spot the random flutter of a meal. Without the fleshed-out green of summer to protect them, the hens are vulnerable when out in the orchard each day in winter, with only the spiked bones of blackberry or a vault of primocanes to protect them.

The hawk perched in an oak tree above the stable and waited.  I scurried about like a protective daddy, trying to herd the terrified hens back into the coop, but they had hunkered down under the blackberries, not to be wrangled.  The red tail sat there preening and self-possessed, assuming she’d have the last laugh, or squawk.

CHICK FINAL  2

Lookouts patrol the snowy roof of the coop.

We lost a few hens last season, taken out by a swift set of talons in broad daylight, and I’ve since sworn a farmer’s version of the Hippocratic oath, charged with protecting all creatures and crops in my charge (the woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons have sworn at both me and my oath, as they’ve been trapped and shown to the exits).

Aside from keeping chickens enclosed in a run or pen, however (which would counter our free range philosophy), there’s really no protecting against a determined hawk. If you are small and yummy and out under the open sky, they will have you. This red tail, tired of my leery presence, finally flew off, if only to find a predatory perch somewhere else.

We lost a Cuckoo Maran hen  the next day.  She’s been too heavy for the hawk to carry off, and we found her in the back field, her body opened like a book, with an assembly line of eggs still waiting to be hatched.

Maybe I should have kept the hens cooped up for a day or two until the danger passed?  Or just console myself with a dirge-like chorus from The Circle of Life. But in the end, you try and be part of the harmony, and not tip the balance too much; that’s the goal of sustainability.  Hakuna Matata.  - Mb

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