The empty chicken coop, with its door propped open and its aged red metal exterior, whispered to me. The sight of unbroken deep snow at the back edge of the yard, along the stream buffer, brought a little flutter of sadness, a soft tug in my heart. No deer tracks, as there had been in prior years. No feral kitty tracks. No rabbit tracks. No flock of frustrated Rhode Island Reds clustered in the doorway of the coop, yacking and complaining about the white stuff on the ground.
The chickens brought so much life to the “Back 40”. In my Grandpa’s lingo, the “Back 40” referred to the 40 acres of field behind his barn. In my slice of the world, the “Back 40” refers to the 40 yard depth of natural wooded area at the back of our property. Not only did the chickens bring their big personalities and their industriousness, but with their presence there was food, and a little food chain flourished in their area of the Back 40:
~ The mice that, no doubt, helped themselves to a bit of the chicken feed that spilled on to the floor of the coop ~
~ The feral yellow Mama Cat (named Dinner by our 3-legged Border Collie Mix – but that’s another story) and her many kittens who lived in, around, and under the neighbor’s outbuildings, dining on a steady supply of mice, well-fed and plump from chicken feed ~
~ The black snakes who had quite a racket going with fresh eggs offered up daily ~
~ The Red Shouldered Hawk family, nesting at the top of a tall pine across the road, soaring in ever-widening circles high in the sky, no doubt dining on the snakes and the mice who had been so well-fed by the chicken’s presence ~
As I stood just outside the back door of the house, admiring the beauty of the snow, missing my beautiful chickens, my thoughts turned to the hawk family. I had not heard their piercing calls recently, nor noticed them circling in the sky. I had not recently noticed the hawks perched in their usual vantage points, hunting along the stream. The unusual and frequent summer & fall flooding of that stream had very likely drowned or swept away many of the frogs, toads, snakes, etc. who lived in the nooks and crannies along the steep bank. I wondered if the hawks had moved elsewhere to find food, or, if they too had been swept away or injured in the tropical force winds or torrential downpours.
I stood there in the snow, wondering about them. Thinking back to our first winter here, noticing them daily, watching through binoculars as they took turns flying food up to their nestlings in the tall pine across the road. In that moment, I realized how much delight their continued presence had brought to our lives. And, how, as with many neighborly relationships, there were “complications”. For, on more than one occasion (and far more than I was aware of, I’m sure), the hawks set their sights on my chickens. There was no delight in those moments.
Those were moments in which the normally docile grey haired woman morphed into a screaming banshee – running to the rescue, waiving her arms or whatever towel, rake, or walking stick that might be handy, clapping, hooting and hollering all the way. Those were moments in which the Mother Hen in me switched in to high gear. Those were moments in which both the hawk and my neighbors undoubtedly thought I had lost my mind. Thankfully, although the hawks traumatized the flock on a fairly regular basis, and tore up a couple of the girls pretty badly, none of the chickens perished due to hawk inflicted injuries.
The girls (and I) learned to tune in to the warning calls and behaviors of the wild birds, the neighborhood gang of crows, and the squirrels. We learned that the hawks usually hunted along the creek and from the trees near the chicken yard twice a day – at about 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. and again about an hour or two before dusk. The girls developed a morning routine of fanning out and foraging near cover and in close proximity to the coop. Late in the day, toward dusk, the hawks seemed disinterested in the chickens, and by that time of the day the girls were usually hanging out under the huge Japanese Holly bush that we called The Chicken Bush, or they were already in the coop, getting settled and ready to roost for the night.
It worked out. We all co-existed.
As I stood in the snow, late in the day on Thursday, the chicken coop whispering to me, my head and my heart full of memories of Rhode Island Reds and Red Shouldered Hawks, I felt that unbroken snow along the stream buffer beckoning me, enticing me to break through the ice encrusted top layer, leave some footprints of my own.
I made my way to the earthen bridge, each step crunching as my boot broke through the icy crust. The water in the creek was gurgling happily as it swirled around and over the rocks and exposed tree roots along the bank. There was twittering and the sound of wings flapping as songbirds rose out of the cover along the stream bank and into the tree branches above.
I stopped at The Chicken Bush, near the gate, its branches laid low and sprawling under the weight of the wet snow. A large rabbit broke from her cover, popped through the fence, and headed for overgrowth behind the neighbor’s tractor shed. I walked to the grapevine arbor and looked all around for signs of wild neighbors – paw prints, hoof prints – there were none. I turned toward the chicken coop, stopping to free a couple of Redbud saplings from their heavy snow burden. As I approached the door of the coop I expected a couple of little wrens or nuthatches to drop down from the roost above the door and zoom past my head. Nope. Nobody.
The coop stood silent and dim inside, only the sound of a slow drip from snow melting above the entry. Standing there, looking in, I wondered why the coop had whispered to me. Was there something I was missing? I stood there for a moment, listening to the drip drip in the dim entry, and then turned and crunch, crunched my way back past The Chicken Bush and to the earthen bridge.
And then, there she was! Swooping and banking along the creek and through the tree branches. I could hear the sound of the air in her wings as she pulled up and landed on the lowest branch of a young oak, not more than 15 feet from where I was crunching along. I froze, drew in my breath sharply. I had seen her dark eye as she steered toward her landing spot. But now her head and her view of me was blocked by the trunk of the young tree. I could see her fluttering her striped tail feathers – shaking them from side to side as she sat there, focusing on the creek bank, waiting for some small prey to move. I remained absolutely still, a knot forming in my throat. Never having been so close, I literally felt her presence.
For some reason, I wanted to let my presence be known as well. So I slowly leaned to my right and peaked around the tree trunk. She caught sight of me, I saw the flash of recognition in her beautiful dark eye, and with a surprised little muffled squawk/gurgle, she rose from the branch, spread her wings, and disappeared among the trees lining the creek bank.
I stood there a moment longer, exhaled, and a smile started to form. I chuckled as I started my crunch, crunching back to the house. For I’m sure I heard her say “Eek!! It’s YOU!! The crazy grey-haired banshee woman!” (wink)
My hand on the door latch, I turned toward the creek, wished her successful hunting, and thanked that little red chicken shed for whispering me back to the chicken yard, late in that snowy grey day, about an hour before dusk.