Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Last year, we had good luck with turkeys. We never intended to raise turkeys, but a trade came our way (Turkey Trade) and we acquired four half-grown turkeys in exchange for one goat. We ate one, sold two, and donated one to the food bank. I decided pastured turkeys were a great return on investment - and also extremely delicious - so this past spring we upped our investment by 50% and bought six Standard Bronze poults.
All went well until just a few weeks ago - the turkeys all grew quickly and turned into handsome animals of about fifteen or eighteen pounds. I think they were all hens, although I wouldn't swear to that on a stack of bibles. Through Craigslist and Facebook, I had already sold four of them. But then one of them disappeared. There was no sign of "fowl play" (ha ha) - no feathers or blood. There was simply one less turkey.
My Facebook Farmer's group informed me that turkeys are known to wander. In fact, our turkeys had wandered over to the neighbor's a couple of times and had to be retrieved. But they had wandered as a group. Turkeys, at least mine, tend to stay in a pretty tight formation, and I thought it was unlikely that a single turkey had decided to strike out on his/her own.
Then, two weeks later, boom - another disappearance. Same modus operendi - simple vanishing, without a trace of violence. Once again, I went back to my Facebook Farmers. I suggested a coyote, as being the only local predator I knew of capable of carrying off a twenty-pound animal. Plenty of people responded, but with varying opinions - some people agreed that coyotes were a likely culprit, but others said that they would leave a big mess of feathers and blood. Somebody suggested bald eagles, which I discounted not because I think an eagle incapable, but because the turkeys disappeared at night. Again I heard that turkeys wander and I ought to check with the neighbors. And, as always, several people voiced the opinion that humans were stealing my turkeys.
Every time that someone in the group posts that anything has gone missing - apples off a tree, baby chicks, tame rabbits, pumpkins off a porch - the assertion surfaces that it was stolen by people. Personally, I find the idea that hordes of my neighbors are prowling through the dark looking for vulnerable apple trees or sneaking into unsecured barns to steal chickens patently absurd. It's been my experience that my neighbors are far more likely to bring me produce or game meat than they are to take it away. As a matter of fact, in my entire lifetime, I think I have been the victim of burglary twice or maybe three times, whereas I have been the recipient of totally unsolicited generosity hundreds of times.
So, I've learned a couple of things about my Facebook Farmer's group. Although a valuable resource for those who are willing to sift and verify, there is a lot of suspicion and ignorance. I could learn a lot more about the telltale signs of various predators from five minutes on the internet ( http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/18670/poultry-predator-identification, http://www.avianaquamiser.com/posts/What_killed_my_chicken__63__/) than by asking for advice form a random collection of farmers. Some of them are probably well-informed and right, but how could I tell which ones?
As it turns out, my initial suspicion about coyotes was almost certainly correct. Not only does my google search confirm that coyotes and foxes often carry off birds and leave little trace behind, returning again and again to the same place as long as birds remain vulnerable, but my neighbor (he of the hotel-sized-house, or the HSH) called me night before last to tell me that he had seen two big coyotes in my field, and has shot at them, but missed. Furthermore, when I decided, yesterday, to walk the pasture in a grid pattern looking for evidence, I found one fresh, well shredded leg bone and a small neat pile of guts.
Clearly, my flock is not well protected. I never know exactly how many chickens I have at any given time, but today I made a point of counting, and there are fewer than there ought to be. And the ones that remain are looking thin and harassed. I think I have a pack of coyotes who have decided that my farm is their snack bar.
Normally, the poultry is locked in a coop at night, but lately I have been leaving them to roost in the open main barn instead. This is because the weather has been unrelentingly awful, raining like mad for a couple of weeks on end. The chicken coop, which is just the space between my two barns fenced off and roofed, has terrible drainage and right now it is just a sea of liquid mud. The chickens would be utterly miserable in there. There is not even any land dry enough to feed them on. They have roosts, of course, but they can't stay on them all day. In this weather it would be inhumane to keep them in the coop. Ducks, maybe.
But something needs to be done, clearly. If I do nothing, the coyotes will likely eat my entire flock this winter. As far as the turkeys go, I think I will probably just butcher them immediately - they are full sized - and keep them in the freezer instead of the barnyard. But I need to finger out how to secure the coop and make it habitable before I lose the rest of my chickens.