Domestic Disturbances: The chicken chronicles

Margaret Knight's chickens. —Margaret Knight

A couple of summers ago, a crow with one white wing feather showed up in our yard. It was always by itself, and I figured it was an outcast because it looked different. I started putting out some little tidbit whenever I saw it, and pretty soon it had me trained. If I didn’t see the crow was there, it would stand outside my window until I caught sight of it.

Crows are social animals. You can hear them passing information from tree to tree off into the distance. I think it’s crazy to feed a crow, because soon every crow in the neighborhood will show up, and they can be big pests. But this crow was always by itself, and besides, I told her (by then I’d decided she was a she) that if she brought anyone else with her, I wouldn’t feed her anymore.

I’ve had a mixed relationship with crows over the years. One year they stabbed their beaks into every tomato just as it ripened. Last summer they feasted on our apples by biting through the stems while the apples were still small, and devouring them when they fell to the ground. But I also admire crows, and love the way their black bodies look like cutouts against the blue sky. I enjoy their amazing communication skills, too.

We’ve kept a flock of chickens for about 10 years. They used to be free to wander around the yard during the day, getting shut into their house at night. Eventually, it seemed like we were just raising them as hawk and raccoon food, so I built them an enclosed chicken yard, and only let them out to roam occasionally.

Since crows and hawks are natural enemies, I thought that having crows around might help keep the hawks away. Crows gang up on a hawk in flight and noisily chase it. If they see one, they let everyone know — including my chickens, who are always listening to crow talk when they’re out and about.

In the second summer, Crow (her name) found a mate. I was glad she found a companion who didn’t mind her difference, and I decided to still feed her because she only brought her mate. She’d lost her white feather and was harder to recognize, though. Sometimes an imposter crow strolled in the yard, but I learned to tell the difference. After all, I didn’t want to be feeding just any crow.

This past spring, Crow must have molted again, because her white feather was back. She started coming around with her mate, but other crows would hide in the trees nearby. The others couldn’t keep quiet, and when I’d come out to feed the chickens, they would pass the call: She’s on the move. Then I wouldn’t feed Crow, and eventually the others stopped coming with her.

In early spring, my chicken flock consisted of Edward, the banty rooster, and the two Reds — Big Red and Little Red, a Rhode Island Red and a New Hampshire Red, respectively, both at least 5 years old. I’d been especially careful about letting them out ever since Elaine, the banty hen, had been killed. The chickens had been in the dense brush when it happened, so I think it might have been a sharp-shinned hawk, the kind that can zip through a thicket. Chickens get traumatized after an attack, or when one of their flock has been killed, and after Elaine’s death, they barely came out of the house for days. They wouldn’t leave the yard for a long time.

Eventually things got back to normal, and all was well until a fateful evening in late April. Just at dusk, before the chickens were shut into their house for the night, a raccoon got into the pen through a small gap in the fence. Edward, in his rooster role of protecting the flock, was grabbed first. My son was home and heard a commotion at the hen house. When he arrived, the raccoon tried to escape out the same gap, but he couldn’t fit. The two Reds were cowering in a corner. Somehow my son got the raccoon out the door, but it was too late for Edward.

Having crows around helps keep hawks at bay. —Margaret Knight

In the days after Edward’s death, the Reds were very subdued. They mostly stayed in their house, and were spooked even by us coming to feed them. After a week or two they were calmer, and agreed to come out of their yard. They headed straight to their favorite dust bath, where the dirt is the right combination of fine and dry. They scratched the dirt up into their feathers, and blissfully lay back in the sun.

Suddenly a lot of crows in a nearby yard started cawing loudly. Big Red jumped up and sprinted for the chicken house. Little Red looked around a little bewildered, and then followed at a run. I figured there must be a hawk around somewhere, and I was glad Big Red had been listening. She’d taken over the rooster role before, when a raccoon had gotten the rest of the flock. That time I became her flock, and she’d call me over when she’d find a worm, just like the roosters do.

The two Reds are getting along pretty well, with an occasional scrabble, since they seem to vie for the rooster role. The flock is a little small, though, and if something happens to one of the Reds, I’ll have to be the flock again. So I’m in the market for a nice older banty rooster — old enough so he won’t bother the ladies too much, but young enough to be ready to die for them.