The dead Cornish chick lies wedged at the bottom of the gate, the bite on its neck as deep and bloody as the cut I was planning to make in just five weeks. Weasels only want the blood.
Three more dead chicks lay against the fencing to my right, forty more are scattered here and there, a hillside of horror.
It’s late Saturday morning. I let 57 healthy 2-1/2 week old chicks out of their overnight coops several hours ago. And then the Bearded One returned from his morning walk and found me here in the kitchen frying our next-to-last chicken from last year. “Oh my darling, you know that meat birds are not pets,” the Bearded One says, catching and holding my eyes with his. And then, “Because weasels got ’em all.”
Blood drains from my face and then my whole head as I register the massacre. I must make meaning of this, but I’m racing up the hill. My soul is already searching, but the event is still happening. I can’t make meaning on the fly, though I keep trying.
We find four survivors huddled in the far corner of the pen, and a fifth shows up later, while I silently dig the mass grave and the Bearded One gathers the little corpses in a wheelbarrow.
“We didn’t keep them safe,” I say. The Bearded One parks the loaded wheelbarrow near the three-foot deep pit and says, “Sorry, Meat Birds.”
“Let’s count them as we go,” I say. I’m surprised and comforted by the simple ceremony, how the enormity builds until I cry. One…TwoThree…FourFiveSix….Fifteen….Twenty-ThreeTwenty-Four Twenty-Five…Thirty-Six…Thirty-SevenThirty-Eight…Forty-OneForty-TwoForty-Three…and finally, Fifty-Two. We fill the grave in and resolve to do better.
The Bearded One calls Momma Goose and Brooklyn Man, our neighbors and poultry mentors. We ordered the Cornish chicks with them last month. They have 59 identical birds in their non-weasel-proof coop. Brooklyn Man is horrified. Another neighbor got wiped out precisely this way a few weeks ago. He says that they’ve never lost any birds to weasels. He knows that weasels can not only climb and dig and get through a one-inch hole, but they can also cross the road to his place. His chicks are doomed.
So we make plans to move his chicks to our aviary that evening. We’ll do the work and split the birds with him. The aviary isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s dig-proof (cement trench all the way around), there’s doubled chicken wire on super tall walls, plus goats patrol the perimeter. Our layers have been safe in there for almost two years.
Cornish fryers and grown layers would fight if they were housed together. So for now, the layers will be fine shut out of the aviary until we harvest the meat birds on August 2.
As he backs out the tractor and trailer to move Brooklyn Man’s chicks, in broad daylight, the Bearded One sees one of the supposedly nocturnal weasels loping across the tractor trail — long and dark and about the size of a stretched-out squirrel. We see them on the road once in a while.
It’s the hottest weekend of the summer so far, up to 90F, and sweat drips into my glasses as I move Brooklyn Man’s feeders and waterers into the aviary. The Bearded One catches dozens of chicks and then hauls them to our place.
The transfer takes a couple of hours and we are exhausted when it’s all over. “I’ve reached full kaput,” says the Bearded One. The house is an inferno, and before I go to bed, I look outside and ask the wounded Barred Owl I removed from the aviary last week to please eat the weasels.
Sunday is blissfully uneventful. Only Maybelline and Kimber, two of our bossiest layers, are out of sorts, furious about not having access to the aviary and their old nest boxes. They pace the aviary perimeter while the meat birds mock them, dust bathing and stretching their drumsticks in the sunray.
All is relatively well for two nights and half of Monday.
And then the Bearded One hurries back to the kitchen after just finishing lunch — “Six or seven meat chicks are dead,” he says. “Weasels again. I think it just happened. I heard a loud squawk. I left Ruby up top guarding the place.”
We move fast, I’m in the lead, and I see a dead chick by the aviary door, a deja vu of Saturday at the meat bird pen on the other side of the property. There are five more dead, but all the rest are still alive.
“You caught them in the act,” I say, and the Bearded One agrees. He gathers the bodies. “They’re still warm and loose,” he says.
I look up and around. “You know the weasels are watching us,” I say.
“There’s no safe place on this property,” he says, “except inside the house.”
“I’m entering the anger stage,” I say.
We decide that we have to move the chicks back to Brooklyn Man’s. At least they’ll make it through the afternoon. The weasels haven’t discovered his place yet. They’ll be back here the minute we leave.
I babysit the chicks while the Bearded One calls Brooklyn Man at work, and then we spend the afternoon catching and transporting 58 chicks back to the hopefully weasel-free zone.
At least for now. Any place is safer than here. We quarantine the aviary to clean it up for the layers, all of which we now wonder if we’ll lose. That’s how weasels are.