Everybody likes chicken dinner

Way back in 2007 when it looked like chicken keeping was going to become illegal in Chicago I became a sort of spokesperson to local press. I was interviewed on the local public television news program, and was also interviewed for print articles in some major newspapers. I’m OK with the fact that my 15 minutes of fame are well over now, but when I do still occasionally get interviewed about keeping chickens in Chicago my favorite pithy tagline is “Everybody likes chicken dinner” by way of warning people about predators.

While I’ve dealt with raccoons and raptors regularly enough that they no longer surprise me, a couple of weeks ago I had to deal with an unusual predator: a mink.

To put the attack into perspective I first have to note another event that happened recently. The same neighbor who discovered my little rooster in the woods, found another chicken in the neighborhood recently. (This guy’s ability to spot chickens is phenomenal.) The poor chicken refugee had actually been placed in a box and dumped in the alley behind my house. The chicken found its way out of the box and hid behind another neighbor’s trash can, which is where the keen-eyed neighbor spotted it.

When dealing with an unknown bird, it’s never a good idea to mix it into your flock right away, so I placed the bird in a separate coop I keep around to quarantine or isolate chickens. The coop is one of my original Eglus, which are handy little coops that are quite safe for chicken keeping…if you close and lock the coop door at night.

On this particular night about two weeks ago the weather had been very pleasant and I had the windows open. At about 2 AM, I was woken by a chicken alarm call. I dashed outside in my PJs and some sandals, grabbing the keys to the coop as I ran. There’s a street light not far from my yard, so as I approached the coops I could take in a disturbing sight: the refugee chicken laying very still in the Eglu run, accompanied by lots of scattered feathers; a hen standing in the run of the big coop crying the alarm, and my little rooster laying very still on the bottom of the run next to her.

I unlocked the full-sized door to the run and flung it open, then stood there trying to figure out what had taken down two chickens and was causing the hen such panic. As I started to enter the run area, I saw something dark moving around under the ramp up to the roosting area. It had a body like a weasel, but a black pelt that gleamed in the low light. I screamed and stepped back out of the run. I needed that thing to get out of the run as quickly as possible, and it had moved in a direction away from me (thank goodness!) and closer to another exit. I quickly unlocked and opened the side exit the critter had moved towards, then dashed back to the house for a flashlight and to rouse B and the dog for back up.

By the time I got back outside with the flashlight, trailing B and Hannah dog, the critter was gone. The distressed hen had dashed out of the run and retreated towards the safety of the house, while the other three hens remained inside the roosting area. I grabbed a long stick and started probing around the run to make sure the thing was truly gone. At first I was too frightened of it to step into the run for a good look with the flashlight, but I finally managed to do so.

It was definitely gone, so my next task was to figure out how it had gotten in. There are several doors and entrances on my coop/run combo, but every single one was padlocked shut for the night. I probed around on the coop floor and found the likely entry point: a small depression in the floor of the coop. The critter had dug its way into the coop.

My coop is skirted with 1/2-inch hardware all the way around the outside…except for one small section. There’s a built-in feed storage area and when the coop was raised into place we lined that storage area with 1/2-inch hardware cloth. Stupid me to think that lining the area and skirting the area would accomplish the same thing. For two years the coop has withstood night-time predators like raccoons, but it wasn’t enough protection from a vicious mink who was OK with doing a little digging to get some tasty chicken.

I hastily added some heavy concrete pavers around the vulnerable area, retrieved the frightened hen and put her in the roosting area, and then turned to the grisly task of dealing with the dead. Except the rooster wasn’t dead! When I went to move him, he stood up and walked a few steps before pausing. His head and neck were covered in blood and he was unsteady, but he was alive! 🙂

The refugee chicken was not so lucky. I tried to turn the body so I could figure out how it had been killed. I couldn’t see any marks on it. Then I finally maneuvered it to a better angle and shined the flashlight on it. The head was completely missing. I found it the next day inside the coop. Apparently mink and weasel are known for decapitating chickens and leaving the bodies behind. They kill for blood and sport.

I went back to bed because there wasn’t much more I could do at that time of night. I only slept lightly, though, and decided about an hour later to go back outside to check on the situation. I found the rooster sitting in the run. He didn’t have enough energy to go up the ramp into the roosting area. I didn’t want to leave him there, so I brought him into the house to clean him up and assess the damages.

Chickens don’t actually have a lot of blood in their bodies and he had lost quite a bit. When the mink had entered the coop, Little Roo (that’s what we call him since he’s a bantam rooster) had taken his role as protector of the flock very seriously and engaged with it. The mink had bitten up Little Roo’s head and neck and apparently stunned him, which is why he was laying on the ground when I arrived outside.

I rinsed off blood and soil that had caked onto the side of his head, then I placed Little Roo in the dog crate in the basement with some water and covered the crate with a blanket. After about two more hours of sleep I had to get up and get ready to go to the office. As much as I would have liked to stay home that day, I had a very important meeting and was not going to be able to re-schedule it. I scrambled an egg for Little Roo and gave it to him to eat with some leftover cooked grains, then left for the day.

When I arrived home that evening, my first order of business was to bury the decapitated chicken. Then I had to address the deficiency in the coop security. I did NOT want to be woken up again in the middle of the night because of a predator attack. With B’s help, we added more 1/2-inch hardware cloth skirting to the area lacking it. I also walked around the entire coop/run, looking for any other areas that seemed susceptible and testing how well the wire was attached to the frame. Everything else was fine.

While I was working on the coop, I had several neighbors stop by to ask what had happened. Everyone was worried about Little Roo, who has apparently become a neighborhood favorite. One would think that a creature that starts making noise as early as 4:30 AM would not be so beloved, but apparently my neighbors admire his moxie.

Meanwhile, Little Roo was still resting in the quiet and calm of the basement. He seemed weak and wasn’t eating or drinking very much which worried me. By the time I had finished all the outdoor chores, it was nearly dark outside and past the time when the avian vet office was closed. But the very next day I was telecommuting and so I called the vet’s office and got a time slot to bring Little Roo in.

Yes, I am a softie when it comes to my chickens. I just couldn’t stand to see this brave little rooster die when it seemed like it would be easy enough to get him examined and perhaps even patched up.

I had to leave him over the weekend so he could get fluids and injections of vitamins and antibiotics, but he was ready to come home on the following Monday. I kept him in the basement isolation area for a few more days before returning him to his “ladies.” He promptly chased them all down and pecked them to re-establish his place at the top of the flock. Then everyone settled down and continued with life as usual.

My coop appears to be secure now since it’s been nearly two weeks with no attacks. And while Little Roo still doesn’t have his crow back to normal, the flock has been restored to a stable place.

As for the refugee chicken, while I feel bad that it’s life was ended so traumatically it wasn’t long for this world anyway. It was not a laying breed and was instead what is unofficially called a “meat chicken;” a breed commonly found shrink-wrapped in plastic in supermarket coolers across the world. These breeds often develop health problems if a do-gooder tries to keep them alive past their usual life span of about 8-12 weeks. I was planning to take it to the live poultry butcher so it was going to wind up someone’s dinner one way or the other. Too bad the mink beat me to it.