Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Missing Storm Hen

Yesterday was special here, the first real snowfall of the season was coming to Cold Antler and I was ready. I had spent the morning stacking and covering the last of the firewood delivery. (Happy to say I am wealthy in firewood right now!) I had doubled-down on the pigs' bedding, the goats' grain and comforts, and made sure all the sheep and chickens were fat and ready to sleep the snow away in their respected barns. Mabel had her winter blanket fastened and Merlin had his prehistoric coat donned. Before I had left the farm to go hunting I filled the indoor firewood stack to the brim, did the dishes, and prepped the coffee maker. Baby, I was ready.

What I didn't anticipate was a trio of white hens who had never seen snow before losing their minds.

When I returned home from my hunt the roads were bad. The seven miles took half an hour, the roads became sheets of ice and sleet so fast I had to count my breaths to stay calm. I was so relieved to pull into the dark driveway I went straight into the house and hugged my dogs. I re-stoked the fires that had faded to coals while I was not-shooting deer. I let out the dogs, did a quick head count of the sheep and horses, and then headed inside for a quick dinner of chicken and angel-hair pasta from my winter food stores and started a movie to watch while I ate. Maybe watching a movie while eating is low class but I live alone. I like the company of a story.

After my meal was done I set the dishes on the counter in the kitchen and did what I do every night around this time - Night Rounds on the farm. It's just a walk to make sure everything with hoofs, tails, claws, paws, and talons are safe and settled in for the night. I bring a flashlight and the dogs and we make sure Aya is on her perch, the chickens in their coops/barn, and the sheep settled in from the now raging snowstorm! two inches had covered the ground in the hour I was home and eating. And it was during this nightly routine that I realized there was only one Silkie Bantam chicken in the Space Coop (the Eglu) - Falkor the Rooster. His three hens were all gone.

Sidenote: there were Five Silkies but I had the second rooster without a name butchered with the meat birds a few weeks back. Too much testosterone in a small coop.

Where had his hens gone?

I realized then that this was the first time these spring chickens had ever been around a true snowfall. It had started in the daylight and covered the farm before the sun set. That meant what was a familiar world turned into a foreign moonscape to the three hens. So it was time to find them, as I was certain a night out in the snow for birds used to the comfortable, wind-proof, Eglu was a death sentence. the dogs and I began our search.

I found two of the hens quickly, and by listening more than looking. Chickens aren't always easy to see but most chirp or coo if a person comes close. The pair of hens I found were covered in half an inch of fresh snow, in the snow, next to a truck of an old tree. They were nowhere near their coop. I picked them up and felt the ice on their feathers and instantly brought them inside to the brooder. The living room brooder has a trio of just-hatched chicks on one side and a spare room, so to speak, on the other. It doesn't have a heat lamp but it is dry hay ten feet from a woodstove.

One to go.

The dogs and I searched two more times for her. There was no sign. We checked the pasture and every white lump on the ground. We checked the barn and around the coop. We checked the woods, the trees, every dry spot from the nook below a wheelbarrow to the back of the woodshed. No bird. I figured she was picked up by a lucky owl, or had been unlucky enough to stray from the other hens and laid down to die in this hellscape. With a heavy heart I accepted the loss.

I took the hens back to Falkor before bed. They had a meal inside, water, and were dry. While out I checked again, all the spaces and places a bird might be. No luck. This was not a year for venison or white hens. I tucked into bed with the dogs accepting I was now down to three silkies.

Then came the morning light!

Alas, no hen. I didn't see her. All I saw was a farm glowing with the radiance of sunrise and fresh snow. I went about the usual chores, looking for her. No sign, none at all. The goats, pigs, sheep, horses—everyone else—seemed fine with the new snowfall. This last hen was still gone.

So I gave up on her. It's sad when this happens. Sometimes you fail your animals. Sometimes you just can't be everything to everyone on a farm - regardless of the size. The health of the entire farm comes first, always. It mattered more to me that all that prep of bedding, feeding, stacking, fires, food and water came before the mad hunt for the snow hen. I could have spent the night looking for her and then came inside to a cold farmhouse late and slept until 9AM missing the morning appointment to feed the animals on time - but why? The care and import of the majority always rules. So I went to bed normal time the night before. I gave up.

 ... But luck was on my side. The hen made it! She had found a roost deep inside a honeysuckle. The snow covered it, creating an igloo of sorts, and she was okay. It wasn't until later in the day I found her. I was happy and glad she was okay but didn't regret the choice I made to give up the hunt the night before. The farm is a big, moving, hungry animal. You stop to stare at a toenail too long and you miss the beautiful gait as it trots by.

Here's to snowfall, lucky birds, luckier deer, and a warm night ahead!