Tag Archives: chicken aviary

A Midsummer Night’s Owl

What is wrong with that chicken?  Hens run clucking from all corners of the aviary for their breakfast oatmeal, all except one that is.  It’s off to my right, by itself.  Frozen on the ground.  I look closer and see freakishly huge eyes, a shockingly wide head.

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I gasp.  This is impossible.  It’s a foot tall owl standing there calm as Yoda, a young Barred Owl with closed eyes and a bloody spot on its beak.  I hold my breath to hear any tiny noise it might be making.  The hens behind me cackle over the oatmeal and find their way out the chicken hatch I opened in the tall aviary door.  We built this 30’x30′ enclosure two years ago to keep the predators out.  This is the first owl that ever made it in, and the hens couldn’t care less at the moment.

The owl flexes its talons and I notice the soft furriness of the feathers on his toes.  I could pick him up, he’s that still, but I know I shouldn’t.  He’s wild and wounded.  That beak is quite a hook up this close.

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Maybe he’s young enough to have a mama nearby, I don’t know.  I watch him for a few minutes and wonder what happened.  I remember hearing quite a ruckus out here shortly after daybreak.

Owls love to eat chickens.  They hang around a lot.  There are several different kinds, and all have enormous wing spans.  Barred owls fill these woods with their distinctive “Who-Cooks-For-You?” hoot.  I’ve seen many smaller birds, sparrows and chickadees and nuthatches and towhees, all fly in and out of the aviary through a six-inch gap at the top.  Being young and crazy, this owl must have thought that he, too, could enter at night and eat his fill right off the roost.

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But last night was the super-full moon, and with the Solstice and 16-hour-long days, the nocturnal types among us are bone tired.  I think of the Bearded One and His Majesty, our 22-year-old son, still in bed, cherishing their sleep.  This young owl was tired and his judgment was off.  He obviously crashed into something, whacking his beak so hard it sent him tumbling down into a chicken’s dust bath.  Now he’s trapped inside with a bloody nose.

I talk to the owl in soothing tones.  He rotates his thick head and rolls his eyes, like he has a bad headache.  I see that his eyes are blue and look like the Earth.

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The hens must have discussed this intruder at the top of their lungs — I remember hearing them at daybreak through our open bedroom window.  Here was an arch-enemy, a predator, not to be trusted.  They decided, however, that he seemed harmless enough sitting there with his eyes closed.  Let the humans figure it out.

I race down the hill through the morning mist to offer this amazing once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to the males in my life.  I slip off my boots and my hands are shaking I’m so excited.  His Majesty’s room is first, at the top of the stairs.

“You won’t believe it,” I whisper loudly from his doorway.  “There is an OWL in the aviary!  Who knows how it got in?  But it’s still there, not moving, its eyes closed.”

As are His Majesty’s.  He groans and barely lifts one eyelid.  He is not coming to see the spectacle.  He rolls over.

I have hope that I can stir the nascent wild man in the sleeping Bearded One.  “Sweetheart?” I say, quietly, tenderly, “There is an OWL in the aviary.”  He hears, but he does not hear danger.

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He doesn’t even open his eyes although I can see the pupils quivering under the lids.  I don’t press.  “I’ll take a picture,” I say and tiptoe out.  I grab the camera and the broom.

Back in the aviary, the owl hasn’t moved.  I take his picture.  Then I set the broom down by his toes.  Just like that, he climbs aboard and I carry him outside the aviary and lift him up to the sky.

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Here I am with an owl on my broom.  Just another day in the country.

And with that, the owl stretches his magnificent 5-foot-wide wings and sails thirty feet up into the cedar tree by the trampoline.  Where he stays for 3 hours, long enough for both men to finally get up and have a look.

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Guess Whooo’s Coming to Dinner

We have an owl on the farmlet.  Maybe even more than one, in which case we’d have a parliament of owls, but I think it’s just one.

This Great Horned owl is a stunning creature with a 4-foot wingspan.  Both the Bearded One and I have seen it on several different occasions.  It’s playing a game of chicken with the chickens and the chickens are winning.  So far.

“Awkkk!”  Each of the 13 chickens sounds off and the Bearded One hears them from where he’s working in the barn.  This is an unusual noise and he leaves the new, bigger roost he is constructing for the coop to check on them.

New bigger roost under construction in the foreground, aviary through the barn doors in the background, Ruby in between.

He sees the owl in flight right at the top of the southwest corner of the aviary, its body sideways, wings vertical.  It is mottled grayish-brown, has a white throat, prominent ear tufts which really aren’t ears but feathers, and yellow eyes.  There’s no question what it’s there for.  It angles laterally and slices silently through the forest, staying about 10 feet off the ground.  Great horned owls are one of the best hunters on the planet — cats with wings.

Stick drawing of the owl showing its position when sighted

In and around the aviary, the entire flock is frozen stiff.  One chicken is out front, most are crammed into a corner.  It’s a freeze frame, with every chicken absolutely still, locked in action poses as if they’d been flash-frozen, especially the ones more nearly caught out in the open.  They don’t do this with Garfield, but they do it with both owls and chattering chipmunks.

It’s a good five minutes before the chickens move.  Maybe ten.  The Bearded One walks among them and tells them everything’s okay now but they do not move…at…all.  Do chickens have heart attacks?

The new roost accommodates the entire family tree: Kimber the banty hen mother alone on the top branch; Kimber's chicks on the middle branch in this order -- Dusty, Stevie, Marilyn, Steve, Spot, Tux, Blackie and then, on the end is Leah, a Rhode Island Red chick; the bottom branch has the two Wyandottes, Anna and Danielle, then the two Ameraucana chicks, Jane and Cheetah. Note the conspicuous size difference between the bantys and the "normal" chickens.

Then it’s dusk and I’m on the deck calling Garfield in when a giant dark cape sweeps smoothly and rather slowly through the trees from west to east, a Harry Potter apparition.  I hold my breath.  I try to hear something, anything.  Not a sound.  The bird book says the front edge of the owl’s wing has a fringe that silences the flight.  I can’t even hear leaves rustling as the ghost-bird floats away.  Our chickens have escaped Death another day.

Garfield actually always comes when I call him, but he is wired and it’s going to be another long haul for him inside.  We help him decompress.  Tonight our Twenty-Something son gets the flashlight and Garfield chases the light beam across the couch, behind the chair, up the wall.  Again and again and again.  He is single-focused and fierce, the stakes always life and death.

I think of the time we saw an owl pick a chipmunk off the side of a tree, its great wings vertical to the ground as it grabbed the distracted chipmunk — which was talking to Ruby — with its talons.  I remember watching it glide away through the trees holding the meal like luggage or landing gear.

I felt sorry for the chipmunk.  And I’ll feel sorry when this owl catches one of our chickens.  But with a creature so ethereal, it’s hard to cry fowl.

Dust Baths

“Meow.”  It’s 4:15a.m. and I hear this inches above my head, outside my dirty-but-open bedroom window.  Garfield is on the roof.   I leave the windows closed on this side of the house during the day, when there’s dust from our beloved dirt road.  At night, I like the cool breeze.  Our second story bedroom is right over the cat condo which was the temporary evil cat Ditto’s territory all summer.  Now Garfield is bravely experimenting with the idea that the exchange cat from Attackistan really has returned to nursing school with our daughter.  He won’t take our word for it.

“Go to bed,” I whisper to him, and close the dusty window.  It’s been two days since she left, but he still won’t go back into his old digs even though I cleaned it and smudged it with sage smoke.

It’s the time of year when dust coats everything, when cleaning feels pointless but also more necessary than ever, and when I realize just how much dirt there is on the farmlet.  I see on the calendar that last year I cleaned the blinds and ceiling fan this week.  They need it again already.

I could have legibly drafted this go-round of Farmlet in the dust on the side of the truck, but instead the Bearded One and I go to the farm supply store for root cellar straw and more chicken wire for the coyote-proofing.

Our neighbor who was going to supply us with our first chickens told us this week that she’s been wiped out by eagles, never mind the dang ground forces and coyotes.  The eagles are relentless.  Another neighbor saw an eagle soaring straight down the middle of our road earlier this summer, 8 feet off the ground, never flapping even once.  We see owls doing this from time to time.  The neighbor presumed the eagle was after a chicken she’d seen loose up at the dead-end of the road.

All I’ve seen on the road lately are fog banks of dust and loud gangs, very appropriately called murders, of crows.  Twelve angry ones scream bloody murder at us at the road entrance as we turn onto the main road.  I’m thinking about my compulsion to clean, which I’d like to be shed of.  The Bearded One (who wouldn’t notice dust if he was swimming in it…) talks about eagles and says we should be okay because they need a pretty long glide-path and we’re a small clearing in the middle of some really big trees.

The lady at the farm supply store tells us that bulletin boards and Craigslist are the best places to get laying hens this time of year.  “Do you want hens or chicks?” she asks.  “Hens,” I say right off.  “We’ll work up to chicks.”  I tell her that we need a chicken starter kit, and she says that chickens are easy.  “Just have a dry place for them.  They clean themselves in the dirt, you know.” 

I go out to the parking lot and the huge bank of ripe blackberries I spotted when we drove in.  I pick while the Bearded One loads the straw.  And then he comes over and helps me.  The berries are huge and bursting with juice and we fill my gallon jug in fifteen minutes.  I just happened to bring it along.  Blackberry jamming this afternoon.

Blackberries, marionberries and boysenberries.

When we get home, the Bearded One hauls the straw bale up to the chicken house with the hand truck.  I see Garfield curled in a ball in the lower goat pasture.  He felt safe from Ditto over there, but after the eagle stories, I go out and scoop him up.  “She’s gone, dude,” I say to him.  “You don’t know, man,” he says.  “That’s what I thought last time.  She’s around here somewhere…”  He was about half her size.  This may take a few days.

He and Ruby follow me up to the chicken house which is wonderfully eagle-proofed.

Eagle, coyote, weasel and we hope racoon-proof aviary and chicken coop.

Garfield checks out the straw and then rolls in the dirt for a nice bath.  All the animals do it, chickens, cats, and Ruby especially, after I bathe her, she wants nothing more than to race outside and roll in the dirt.  And her coat positively gleams!  This strikes me as incredibly profound.  What is dirt?  What is dirty?

Hanging out together in the dirt.

Garfield feels so good he races down the hill ahead of me.  By the time I open the gate, I can see he’s jumped up into the open window of his cat condo.  He’s perched above his very own little bed, the dust billowing off his golden fur in the sunshine. “MEOW!” he calls out.  “She’s gone!”