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A Rare Combination: Beauty and Toughness

By: Randy Tucker

The hens were scattered in a random pattern throughout the coop. To my disgust, a nocturnal predator had breached the chicken wire and plywood security of their large coop and killed seven of them.

Chickens are not native to America, arriving here from Europe, via Southeast Asia originally. Native predators have battled with farmers since the first birds jumped off the ships at Jamestown and Plymouth.

A wide variety of predators will enjoy a nice chicken dinner. In our area of paradise, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and raccoons are familiar predators. In the greater Wyoming ecosystem, more exotic predators like wolves, bobcats, weasels, martens, ferrets, and even marauding black bears can destroy laying flocks.

Our chicken coop is more of a chicken fortress. A wooden 10x14 henhouse with insulated walls, a winter heat lamp, and perches along the outer walls, it has just one opening to the east. Only seven feet high, behind a wooden fence to protect it from the wind, it has two screened windows.

The 30x50 foot pen is completely wrapped in heavy gauge chicken wire, with railroad ties set around the base horizontally to prevent digging varmints from making an underground entrance.

That’s why I was upset to see my maximum security poultry version of Alcatraz breeched.

Old-timers have told me how to determine what predator is killing your chickens by the way the carcasses have been attacked and eaten.

A fox is precision in action. They’ll enter a pen, take a bird, and exit quickly, leaving no trace aside from a few scattered feathers. Sometimes they won’t even wake the other sleeping birds. A coyote creates mayhem, chasing the frightened birds before grabbing one and disappearing, not as silently as the Ninja-like fox, but as effectively.

Skunks will kill and eat the birds on the spot, ripping through the hindquarters and leaving the head and neck eerily untouched.

Raccoons go for the head and some will destroy an entire flock in one visit, killing wantonly, eating just a little, and moving on. Raccoons are very similar to some humans when it comes to killing for the sake of killing.

The seven birds we lost that night showed the pattern of a marauding raccoon. The problem was I couldn’t find a hole in the fence.

My friend Tad McMillan had peacocks. Tad’s late father Chauncy raised peacocks and championship border collies on his farm near Powell, Wyoming. Chauncy was downsizing and asked me if I’d like a pair of these beautiful birds. Tad and I drove them back to Riverton with the two big birds in a traveling cage in the back of our SUV.

A strutting peacock rooster creates a brilliant image in the barnyard. They have other hidden talents that most people don’t know about.

In the chicken pen, the peacocks got along famously with the barred rocks, Plymouth rocks, white leghorns, and Rhode Island Reds.

About three weeks after their arrival a cacophony from the chicken coop woke me up at 3 a.m. Still in my underwear, and barefoot, I grabbed a flashlight and ran outside about 50 yards to the pen. I caught a glimpse of something bumbling away towards the open fields to the north of our haystacks, but just a glimpse.

There was blood everywhere around the laying boxes where we collect eggs. I shined the flashlight into the pen. There were a few new feathers on the ground, but no dead birds. I was saddened to see the peacock’s head covered in blood. What a waste I thought, he’s probably not going to make it.

It was pitch black, in the middle of the night, so I went back inside and waited for sunrise to check out the peacock.

At 5:30 I went back and there he was, preening himself calmly, surrounded by hens waiting for the morning toss of grain.

The peacock wasn’t hurt at all, but he had crusted blood on his head and neck. I caught him and scrapped off the blood to check him for injury. His only blemish was a dime-sized area of missing feathers on his neck.

There had been an epic battle in the chicken coop the night before, a battle the colorful rooster had won. I followed the blood trail from the pen and finally caught a clear track. The raider was a raccoon, a raccoon who thought he had an easy meal but ran into one tough bird instead in that peacock.

Peacocks are the poodles of the domestic poultry world. Most of the time we think of poodles as effeminate, puffy little, helpless lapdogs, but a full-sized poodle, with its natural fur in place, is an incredibly tough hunting dog, fearless and immune to the cold and wet of winter. Peacocks are similar. We humans rarely think of beauty and toughness ever combining.

Raccoons are alarmingly intelligent omnivores. They’ll eat anything, figure things out that they shouldn’t be able to, and are largely underestimated by us.

After checking the battle damage, I surveyed the fence around the perimeter and on the top of the pen to see where the coon had entered. The blood trail eventually gave it away.

I had a simple latch on the top of the egg box so I could open a lid and gather eggs without disturbing the birds inside the yard. The raccoon figured out how to turn and slide the latch and then open the lid. A red paw print on the side of the laying box as he sprinted away from the peacock provided the evidence.

I changed to a more complex slide-and-lock latch that afternoon after a visit to the hardware store.

The hens were never threatened again as long as the peacock lived with them. It was a little Mike Tyson with Miss America in the chicken coop.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

 
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