Coop Lesson

Elihu came home from his visit to his father’s. He had only been gone a week, yet time away from him had done what it always did; it showed me just how much he was growing. The reunions that follow a time apart are the only windows in which I can objectively see this in progress. Seems I was picking up a twelve year old. Instantly our moods were happy and the chatter completely skipped the experience of his flight and turned straight away to his chickens and garden. (He’s now flown alone so many times it seems no different to him than a long bus ride and it hardly warrants discussion.)

It was getting dark, but I judged we still had just enough time to get home and put the chickens in. I got a little lax though, and mentioned some lilies I’d seen on sale at the grocery store, knowing full well he’d beg to stop – and then I could get my secretly desired avocado. I knew I was pushing it, that we really should go straight home, but since it was indeed right on our way, we pulled in for a ten minute detour.

When Elihu saw the lilies he flipped. It was a happy surprise. The high-contrast markings on the petals really stood out to him. I’d hoped so. After our light-hearted romp through the store we packed our lilies safely in the back and headed for Greenfield.

When we pulled in the sky was still glowing, and although night had for all intents and purposes fallen, it was still a little early for predators. At least in my experience so far. I pulled in to illuminate the coop and run with my headlights to discover half the flock up on the netting above the run. Madeline was in the flower box on the coop. Some were safe inside, but there was a strange feeling in the air. I scanned for trouble and saw a mass of light feathers – from one of our three mottled hens – in the corner. Further investigation showed one hen missing. Crap. Our mature flock had been doing so well. Now it’s getting to the point where it might be a monetary loss for Eggs of Hope, not to mention just plain sad.

Elihu and I gently picked up the few hens that were on the ground, still panting from a skirmish. We spoke softly to them and placed them gently on their high perches in the coop. I had to cut the netting (must remember to sew it back up today) to get some of the birds free. Thankfully the dark makes them a little slower to respond, less feisty in their protests, and so I was able to grab them and pull them in fairly easily. We counted them again, and yes, we’d lost a hen. I thought a red, Elihu thought a mixtie (that’s what we call our mottled hens who are an organgie-red with white details – daughters of Buddah, the patient hen in the you tube video who sits and listens as Elihu sings 911 on the Dance Floor to her). Whichever, it didn’t matter. We had to make due, and make sure the remaining ones were safe. I shut them in, made extra careful to pull the netting over the door crack tight, also laid a folded baby gate over the front to prevent raccoons from digging underneath and getting in below the door. Looked good. Couldn’t see how a creature could possible get in. Felt unsettled, but had done all I knew to do. Or at least all I knew to do in that moment.

Another two hours of our evening passed making and eating dinner, watching vintage Pink Panther clips (the cartoon) while a bath ran, getting into bed, reading. We fell asleep together, yet after he was out I returned to my bed and began my night’s sleep in earnest. Deep in a dream, a cluster of screeches and squawks reached my ears and I was up – I had been so deeply asleep I felt drugged – but I stumbled for the switch to the outside lights (which the woman who built this house in 1970, also named Elizabeth, had had installed in the bedroom for her peace of mind) and began yelling at the top of my lungs to let the intruder know mama was mad and on her way.

I ran out, flipped on all the lights and saw a closed coop – which normally signals a sigh of relief, but this was as weird as a dream – with no visible signs of possible entry points, there was something in the coop and the hens were going nuts. I feared the worst and kept shouting in hopes of getting the predator to at least leave them alone and start panicking herself. It took so much damned time to undo everything I’d done up so tightly, but finally, door wide open, I saw nothing. Just the chickens on their perches, all buck-gawking loudly, some dazed on the floor, panting, but all mostly in their place. I grabbed the flashlight I have hanging there, scanned the box and found a raccoon – not even a big one, probably the very one who raids our bird feeders – and she was trying to claw at the wood walls in hopes of digging her way out. Concerned that an adrenaline-filled raccoon might conceivably fling herself at me, I picked up a milk crate and waved it at her. “Go! You gotta get OUT of here!” I yelled as I swung the crate at her. She walked behind the row of hens to the end of the perch and jumped down, running away through the garage. How the hell did she get in here? This event was much darker than all my previous attacks. Maybe it’s because the injured were left behind. In the past, they’ve simply been gone. And we assumed, eaten. This time was frighteningly different.

The hens left on the ground were behaving as if they were broken. They were puffed out, some unable to move at all, some tottered out into the run, wobbling, uttering a constant high whining sound. ‘Oh man. They must be hurting so much’ I thought. I was close to tears, but these days in my life it takes a lot to get me there. And crying wasn’t going to help the girls at all. Like a movie when the hero stands pausing to assess his circumstances, I said ‘just think, Elizabeth, think’ over and over. Maybe more to calm myself down than to think.

I could not leave them in a faulty coop. I thought of options.. “I’ll just bring you into the house” I declared, thinking of the pioneers, their hens cozy inside those one room cabins. I remembered past winters when I’d brought them all in, one by one, into our warm basement on the coldest nights of all. But the poops were everywhere by morning, and there had been fewer birds then. I had thirteen in total, and it was too big a production to contemplate. I just had to so something.

Elihu called from his window. It haunted me with that old familiar feeling in my gut. The ‘oh no, it’s my kid, he needs me and I gotta drop what I’m doing and fix something’ feeling. My son seems to have needed me more than other kids might need their moms, I don’t know, but it sure feels like it. Can’t even go a whole night without calling to me to make sure I’m nearby. Remembering the grown-up child I’d spent the evening with, I experienced a shift inside, and I yelled back to him. “I’m right here, honey. There’s been an attack in the coop and I need to make sure everything’s alright. I’ll be in the house soon. You’re ok. You’re eight, you’re not six. You don’t need me right now. I’ll be in soon”. Must have made sense to him, for he was quiet. That was a relief. Now to assess the hens.

A couple mixties were on the ground panting. One red hen was stumbling about, making a constant cooing sound. These poor girls. I set about to making little boxes for each of the four most hurt, lining them with fresh wood chips and making sure the boxes were off the ground, but not by more than a few inches in case they couldn’t use their wings at all, something I feared. Once I made the spots ready, I gingerly picked each hen up, feeling for any obvious injuries, then set them in their new beds. I examined my hands in the light for blood. No blood. Good, I guess. I made sure they had a bowl of water inside the coop, then I set to work securing the coop.

The electricity was back on in the garage, and I had my chop saw. I would fix it. Now, what needed fortifying? Where and how did that raccoon get in? Amazingly, she’d dug far enough under the front door and worked it long enough that she’d managed to finagle a small hole under the door by which to enter, only not big enough to escape through. Hookay. Gotta cover that gap. I went to a pile of 2x4s I’d honed from my searches for free lumber on Craigslist and pulled out a board. I looked around for a measuring tape. Nope. They were all inside, being used by a young birder to measure wingspans. Ok. I set the board under the saw, found what looked about the width of the door, and chopped it. When I took the board to the coop, I found that the cut must have been guided by angels, for the board not only fit nice and snug, but with a slight tap from my sledgehammer it was in for good, nice and strong, covering up the breach just perfectly. For good measure I decided I’d cut a second and stack it on top. I used twine to learn the length of this perfect board, but even after three chops it wasn’t magic. Finally I installed it and used a paint stirrer stick as a shim. Pounded it in and the new board tightened up. Ok. All I can do for now.

I closed the door once again. I took a bean pole from the garage and wedged it against the door to tighten the gap. Now understanding how little space a raccoon actually needed to pass through, I didn’t want to leave the small breach at the top of the door unaddressed. I wedged it good and tight. Then I head back to the house, leaving all the lights on.

Elihu was up. So was I. How do you get back to sleep after something like that? It had me thinking of things folks went through three hundred years ago when their flock meant their nourishment, their survival. Talk about adrenaline. I felt sick knowing that some of our gals were probably in great pain at the moment, but Elihu and I reminded ourselves that we’d done all we could. And so we said a prayer for them, sent them our love and healing energy, and then tried to sleep. It took awhile.

I’ve been up for a few hours now and should get my son up soon, as his schedule is getting more out of whack the later I let him sleep. I used the solo morning to tend to the injured birds. God bless the internet. And my intuition. Did what I could. The really maimed birds are two of our three mixties, who are now quarantined in what used to be the chick’s pen. Each has an eye puffed up and closed, and each is hardly moving. Yet I managed to get a few eyedropperfulls of home-made juice in them (pediatlyte, baby aspirin, antibiotic) and they each ate a little fortified mash. They’re in the shade just hanging on.

I better get going. I have a piano lesson to teach in a few minutes. That raccoon sure gave me a lesson last night. Hope I learned something.

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