I agree with the narrator of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” that good fences make good neighbors – most of the time.
Several weeks ago we picked up two dozen Cornish Rock broiler chicks, transferred them to a pretty posh setup in the garage, watched them eat well and feather up, and then moved them to what we figured was a safe home for the remainder of their short lives down by the barn. We had bought a small dog kennel, thinking that would provide them with an ample opportunity to grow and enjoy life – space, clean air, good organic feed, shelter, lots of grass to nibble on. We strung small meshed game bird netting around the perimeter, covered the top to prevent aerial stealth attacks by the likes of hawks and owls, closed off the exposed end, and plugged up every possible entry point for ground based predators. We figured we had every base covered.
Not so. The next morning we discovered a partially eaten carcass and then over the next several days on average one a day. At this point our best guess is that we were outsmarted at every turn by a weasel. If we are right, then that is not too many ounces of natural stealth and brainpower – at least as much grey matter as is needed to breech an impressive defense system. I guess weasels, and all predators for that matter, have at their cognitive disposal all they need to get the job done.
Humans often complain about plants that are labeled invasive species. I have always admired their will to live, their tenacious unwillingness to give in to the most energetic of eradication attempts. Fact is, we humans are the most invasive species on earth. The irony is that our worst enemies are ourselves. We kill one another for incredibly indefensible reasons. Animals prey on one another to stay alive, to feed themselves and their young. While I have fewer chickens, which we were raising to hole up in the freezer at some point, the act of predation in nature is far more defensible than the many acts of aggression that humans practice against one another, all too often due to ethnic or religious differences. So, while on the one hand it ticks me off that we lost so many chickens, at least on one level it is an understandable and entirely defensible act on the part of animal predators whose very survival depends on such behavior.
Feeling both vulnerable, frustrated and, to be honest, outdone, I called my neighbor and asked him to stop by thinking two heads might be able to work up an improved containment system. Later that afternoon neighbors J and D arrived. Three heads ought to be able to deter the actions of any animal. We rigged up the pen with hardware cloth, wire, heavy paving stones, boards and fence rails. We plugged up every imaginable entry point. A few hours and a couple of beers later, we stood back to marvel at our ingenuity, at the same time reminding ourselves there were no guarantees. After all, it is a jungle out there! At any rate, we parted company feeling fairly confident that we had bested the beast.
The next morning, before doing my regular chores, I checked the broiler pen. Not a pretty sight. Scrape holes in three different places, one set of bodiless legs, and one partially eaten carcass. Now down to 14, there were really only two choices: Leave the door open and make less work for our nocturnal diner or take up neighbor J’s offer of housing them at his place where they would be safely housed in his well fortified hen house for the next three weeks of their life. I chose the latter option and that is where they have lived unharmed – at least for now. One never knows. Chicken terrorists are apparently a whip smart, dogged species. One has to respect them for their devotion to duty.
It strikes me as somewhat odd, even hypocritical, to be complaining about our chicken losses, since what we are doing might on some level be an act of predation. It is a different, perhaps more civilized, form of the same survival activity. But ours are, in fact, acts aimed at the same purpose. I guess the real difference is that we have far more choices about how we go about gathering and consuming our food. A weasel, if that is what it was, has fewer options. It is a struggle out there and we need to come up with better strategies and tactics if we are to prevail. While I am determined to win the war, my adversary has earned my respect. I am also lucky to have such wonderful neighbors, comrades in arms ready and willing to enter the fray when called.