Karina

Kilo is growing like crazy and we see glimpses of his future potential as a livestock guardian from time to time.  He is now 4-½ months old and it will still be awhile before he is old/big enough to protect them.

Meanwhile……livestock guardians work best in pairs.  And male/female pairs generally get along together better than male/male or female/female pairs.  We had always planned to get Kilo a partner, thinking we’d do it when he was about two years old.  However that would mean raising him up and having him work alone for a considerable period before adding another puppy and then waiting for HER to be old enough to be a reliable partner.  So the plan changed.

A few days ago HWA and I spent an entire day on the road to pick up this little girl – Karina:

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Like Kilo, Karina is a Bulgarian Karakachan and she is 12 weeks old but being female and 7 weeks younger than Kilo, is substantially smaller.

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She came from a breeder who doesn’t handle his pups.  At all.  Consequently she was very shy initially but is coming out of her shell very quickly and seems thrilled to have a human of her very own.  To get her used to us and bond with Kilo, we are doing pasture walks three times a day and having her sleep with Kilo in his dog run (see next post for details on that).  So far, she has spent her entire time with us in the barn or pasture.

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We are looking forward to watching these two pups grow into their future roles as our livestock guardians.

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Farm Dogs

This post is a little different because it is about our dogs, who have come to hold great value to us as farm dogs and unofficial livestock guardians.  The dogs are Tequila (left), a cattle dog mix and Sammie, a Black Lab/Border Collie mix.

Tequila and Sammie

Tequila and Sammie

Since we had poultry before dogs, it was important that they be poultry safe, so we adopted from a rescue organization – one that allowed a home trial first, to allow us to assess their behavior around the poultry.

Sammie was first, and, had we known then that Lab/Border Collie mixes will “never” be good around poultry, we probably would not have agreed to try her.  Fortunately we didn’t know that then, and asked her foster parents to bring her for a visit.  As she wandered the yard, on leash, she sniffed with interest at all the new smells.  A few minutes later, a free-range hen wandered around the corner.  Sammie froze and “pointed” towards it, while the hen spied the threat and ran away cackling and flapping her wings, giving Sammie the perfect excuse to take chase.  However she decided it was of no interest to her, and resumed smelling the far more interesting scent on the ground.  And THAT is as much interest as she has ever taken in poultry.

Tequila came a few months later.  Not only did she show no interest in the birds, she actually tucked her head down and gave them a wide berth when passing, indicating submissiveness and possibly even a little fear of them.

I mentioned here that only three weeks after moving to our homestead, a fox did major damage to the flock.  At that time, the dogs lived up at the house, and were oblivious to the attack.  However following the attack, we moved their dog house into the chicken yard.  In the years since then, we’ve lost only a handful of birds to predators – and none of those losses occurred in the coop or chicken yard.  Our theory is that while the dogs are only there at night, that is the time many predators visit, plus their scent is there even when they are not, deterring those same predators from attempting a break-in by day.

I am asked sometimes “How did you train your dogs not to kill your chickens?”  Sadly, I have no answer.  While training may be possible, I’m not sure a dog that requires training will ever be completely poultry safe.  I think the key is to select a dog for whom birds hold no interest in the first place.  It is not that they have no prey drive at all.  Both dogs will chase rabbits, squirrels and deer every chance they get.  But, whether it is because the poultry live here and are part of their pack, or because birds in general hold no interest for them, I have never had to chastise them for undue interest.  Ever.

By day they are pets, accompanying us when we go out, and enjoying a lengthy session of ball-fetching almost every day.  By night they stay on alert, keeping our livestock safe and, occasionally, getting skunked in the line of duty.  These two dogs, cast away by their original owners, are therefore priceless additions to our homestead.

Snake!

HWA and I were out late one night a few months ago, and on returning, I went to make sure that all the birds had made it into the coop before the door closed.  They’re pretty good about going in, so I was surprised to see most of the flock outside instead.  Opening the people door, I discovered the reason why.

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My coop is 10×10, and this guy stretched most of the way along one wall, and had turned the corner with some more along the next wall.  BIG BLACK RAT SNAKE!  Given time to think, I might have leapt backwards, but a 3-week-old chick was standing 2″ from the snake’s mouth, and, thinking it was going to strike any moment, protective mother hen mode kicked in and I grabbed the snake by the tail and dragged it out of there.  After stopping at the house to show off my prize to HWA and snap some pictures to show my friends, I carried/dragged it across the street to let it go in the large pasture there, hoping it would not find its way back.

Returning to the coop, I discovered that the chick had probably been safe.  Prior to the snake’s visit, I had about 8 broody hens sitting on clutches in various areas of the coop.  While doing a head count, I found that although I hadn’t lost any birds, I HAD lost many of the eggs that were under broody hens. I also discovered a sure-fire method of breaking broodies.  It turns out, a hen who has had her eggs stolen by a 12′ long black rat snake will permanently cease brooding.  Effective immediately.  Who knew?

The chickens and turkeys that had been on the 3′ roosts apparently felt safe.  (They weren’t.  A few weeks prior to this we saw what we presume was the same snake, 12′ high in the rafters of our barn.)  They recovered quickly.  The ducks — who spend their nights on the floor — were another matter.  Apparently traumatized, they were terrified of the coop for a week afterward.  You’ve heard the expression “like herding cats”?  Well, that expression should be “like herding ducks”!  For nights after, I was at the coop for an hour or more, trying to convince 20 ducks to go into the coop.  They’d dutifully file towards the door, then at some unseen signal, break and scatter left and right.  Most of the time muscovies waddle lackadaisically around, giving the impression that they are slow and lazy.  It turns out, they can move lightning fast when they want to.  If you’d been nearby, you might have heard my pathetically whiny entreaties to them, “Please just go IN!”

Eventually they got over their fear and life went back to “normal”.  And the snake?  We haven’t seen him since.  Which is fine by me and the birds.

Coyote Attack!

Two days after our fencing was complete, and while we were still enjoying the new thrill of watching our sheep out grazing the pasture, we all left for the evening, and returned late that night.  Next morning HWA commented that he could only see 5 lambs.  This isn’t unusual – if one gets behind the others it is difficult to pick it out from the crowd, so I wasn’t alarmed, certain that all of them must be there.  After all, one of them wouldn’t wander away from the flock.

However, after finishing my coffee, when glances out the window continued to reveal only 5, I decided to take the dogs and walk the pasture, to relieve my mind that we didn’t have an injured lamb out there somewhere.  Shortly after starting out, I noticed one of the dogs very intent on a spot in the middle of the pasture so I joined her, and the sight was not pretty.  All that was left of the missing lamb was 3 legs and a pelt picked so clean it looked as though it had been professionally cleaned.  Even the flies weren’t showing a lot of interest.

Sickened by the loss, HWA and I walked the fence to try to figure out how they – the work couldn’t be anything other than a pack of coyotes – had gained entry, and it didn’t take long to find it.  While abutting our new fence to the back of the lagoon fence, the contractors had left a gap approximately 10” wide.  Our dogs had no problem walking through it, and as they are about coyote-sized, we didn’t have to look much further.  HWA found a piece of plywood in the shop that fit the gap perfectly, wired it in, and then we held our breaths for a few weeks, hoping that had solved our problem.  If it hadn’t – or if they found a different entry point – we knew they would be back.  After all, an easy source of food doesn’t come by every day.

Fortunately, our losses ended there and, months later, we still have the remaining 5 lambs.  Mid-summer we added a ram.  The original plan had been to butcher all 6 lambs before winter but we decided it is more cost effective to keep the 2 ewes and add a ram so we can make our own lambs next year, than to buy new stock every spring.  That leaves only the 3 wethers to butcher which will be easier on our limited freezer space anyway.

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A Fox Attack Survival Story

When I interrupted a fox attacking for the second consecutive day (see story here), my Cuckoo Marans hen ran across the yard towards me.  There was no sign of injury although her feathers looked ruffled.  In any case, my focus was on getting rid of the problem so I didn’t have time to check on her.  After the fox had been dispatched, I went looking and found her already starting to withdraw.  There were 4 deep bite wounds on her back and, fearing infection, I squirted liberal quantities of Neosporin into each separate wound. I try to avoid segregating, since poultry are such social animals, so unless a bird is contagious or has a wound that will be pecked by the others, I treat and return to the flock.  In this case, the hen’s wounds weren’t visible unless the feathers were spread and I didn’t think the others would mess with her.  So, I returned her to the flock rather than adding to her stress by separating her from her mates.

Next morning she was completely withdrawn.  She wouldn’t eat, drink, or even move out of the sun.  I knew I was losing her.  I moved her around all day to make sure she didn’t overheat, and dipped her beak in water often.  At night I lifted her onto the roost and woke early so I could lift her down again next morning.  I figured she was probably in pain from her injuries and getting on and off the roost might be more than she could take.

Three days went by.  I didn’t see her eat or drink in spite of my best efforts, and, desperate to find some way to snap her out of it, I decided to offer her an egg. When I cracked the egg into a bowl, I saw her look towards the bowl with interest – the first interest she had shown in anything since the attack.  Slowly she dipped her beak and started to eat.  She didn’t eat much but that she ate at all gave me hope that she would make it.  From that moment on, she never looked back, and a few weeks later started to lay again.

Since this happened I have noticed a change in her.  Prior to the fox attack, she was an aloof hen, but has become more friendly, approaching me when I go out to the coop and often walking between my legs, letting her feathers brush against them on the way through.  I don’t pretend to know what a chicken “thinks” but it really does feel that she understands how much I tried to help her.

It often feels hopeless nursing an injured animal who has given up, and I well know the frustration of trying, only to lose them anyway.  I hope this survival story will provide hope to anyone with an injured bird, that, fragile as they sometimes seem, it IS possible for them to recover from a serious injury.  At the time of writing, it has been 16 months since she was attacked, and she is now almost three years old, but this hen is still a part of my flock, who lays a lovely dark brown egg 3-4 times a week.

Fox Attack!

July 3rd, 2012

Devastation here tonight.  Upon approaching the chicken yard with a bowl of kitchen scraps, I saw my silkie roo lying in the sun in the middle of the yard and something didn’t look right.  I called to him and started running.  He raised his head at the sound of my voice but when I got to him, he was in bad shape.  I saw a dead body near him, and then another.  Between 3pm and 6:30pm, something got in and wiped out a good portion of my flock.

Dead chickens everywhere, but none of them eaten — not even any visible blood!  Whatever it was that had done this, as soon as one bird stopped fighting, this predator had proceeded to the next moving target.  I built a “Fort Knox” coop because most of the predators in my area are nocturnal, but all these chickens died on a bright afternoon!  It is so distressing and so frustrating.  What did this and how do I stop it?  I can’t even see where anything got in.  HWA and I walked the yard multiple times after my discovery and there were no gaps in the fence and nowhere that is dug under.  What dog (s) or coyote(s) could kill so many birds without leaving a trace of their entry or exit?

Needless to say, I am feeling pretty devastated.  3 years keeping hens in the city, and I only lost 2 to the neighbor’s dogs next door.  3 weeks living in the country, and 1/3 of my flock is gone in a matter of hours.  HWA and I were here – but heard nothing.

July 4th, 2012

I am moving slowly today – there is this terrible sadness whenever I think about it.  HWA and I are both carrying our handguns (9mm) with us and have a .22 rifle by the backdoor too. I want it to come back so I can deal with it.  I can’t relax not knowing what it was or when it will be back but knowing it WILL be back sometime.

Later on July 4th, 2012

It was a fox and I got him!

I spent most of today nervously checking on the birds.  They were clearly freaked out by the horror of yesterday and spent the whole day within feet of the coop.  Fortunately there is a lot of shade there.   HWA and I were eating dinner when I heard a sound.  What I saw when I dashed to the window wouldn’t have alarmed me yesterday but it did today.  Several of the chickens were wandering in the chicken yard.  Since they had stayed so close to the coop all day, I was concerned this meant the predator had returned so I grabbed my 9mm and RAN down to the coop, with HWA right behind me.  I didn’t see any predator, but neither did I see any chickens.  All the birds were hiding as best they could; some in the coop, some in the longer grass, many in the weeds behind the run-in.  With birds back in hiding, I knew whatever it was, was back, and I wasn’t leaving until the birds were safely locked in their coop for the night.

About 10 mins went by and I suddenly realized I was being watched by what I thought was a small coyote.  I watched it cross the road and hide in the hedgerow.  HWA took his AR-15 to the front porch while I stayed at the coop with a .22 Long Rifle.  Time went by and the chickens started singing the egg song which under the circumstances sounded like a song of distress.  I figured they could see it but although I kept scanning back and forth, I couldn’t.  The adrenaline was really pumping now.  And then I saw it and it was close.  First it solved the question for me as to how it was getting in: it climbed my fence like it was a ladder!  Sighting on it, I was able to get it in the crosshairs and fire.  It was a clean kill – one shot to the head and it dropped immediately.  By the time I set the rifle down and ran over to it, it was dead and for the first time I realized it was a fox and not a coyote.  It looked pretty darn small lying there on the ground but it was hard to feel sorry for it given the devastation of the previous 24 hours.  All told, it had killed 16 of my 40 or so birds.

The predator became the prey

The predator became the prey