They are everywhere. They are nowhere. I set out on a walk with Chloe off-leash and one appears in front of us, ghostlike, staring us down as if we have no right to be there. Chloe thinks it’s another dog and thinks to greet it. I grab her by the collar. Stay! It takes our measure, decides we are too big to be dinner. It trots away, evaporating into the brush.
The drought, people say.
They were here before us, people say.
They are hungry, they can’t find water, people say. People with bigger hearts than mine, perhaps. People who don’t have small pets. People who don’t keep chickens.
So they come closer. And closer. And then, the unthinkable. Not once, but twice. On my watch, both times, and that is an anvil-sized weight to carry along with the grief, which, you may say, is outsized, but which crushes me.
They are just chickens. I know, I know. I cannot explain it, the way I wrap my heart around them, promising to nurture and protect these ridiculous, defenseless creatures. And then I fail them. Twice in a month.
First, it was Lola. Big, placid Lola, my Barred Rock hen, who, let’s say, kept her personality under a bushel for the most part. But she was a good layer, and when I stepped in the coop and saw her there on the nesting counter, I would stroke her sable-soft feathers and thank her for her work. She only barely endured my touch but she gobbled up the handful of scratch I brought as the baksheesh for trying to cross momentarily into her world.
I thought we had a contract with the coyotes. They have the brush and even the street and the night belongs completely to them with their shameless, triumphant yip-yip-yipping every time they make a kill. On our part, I thought, we rule the daylight hours, and we monitor our gates and fence and we keep our animals in and the coyotes out. A fair bargain. Until now.
Lola was nosing around under the oaks one afternoon, doing what chickens do, pecking for grubs, worms, an errant sprout. And then something happened that hasn’t happened in the 20+ years we’ve lived here. A coyote sprang over our four-foot-wall and snatched her. I was too slow and too late to save her.
This changes everything, we said. Chickens only let out when we are right there, from now on. And last Sunday, I was right there when my sweet, precious Luna was taken.
“It’s like they are watching”, a neighbor said. “Waiting for us to turn around.”
I turned around. And by the time I turned back around, even though I was standing just twenty feet from the hens, I was too late again. I wouldn’t even have seen it but for the swishing of the leaves on the bushes. I wouldn’t have seen it, a wraith the color of earth and fog, not really even there. I wouldn’t have seen it except for the cascade of white feathers, falling like tears as the coyote scrabbled back over the wall.
Luna, my sweet Silkie hen. Luna, whose every gentle cluck sounded like a question. Who minded her own business but brooked no fools. Her feathers were like dandelion fluff. She loved to be held and cuddled. She didn’t see very well under that Silkie top knot, so she surely didn’t see it coming. Her last moments were spent happily browsing beneath a bush, far into the interior of our yard, far, far from the street, in a sheltered place where surely she should have been safe.
First it was shock, then nausea, then days of that mind-twisting “If only I had turned around sooner” re-living the moment over and over as if by doing so I could somehow change the outcome. Then, there is capitulation. I quit. Flock keepers do it all the time. Like my neighbor up the hill who came out at dusk one night to find that a bobcat had massacred fourteen of her hens. Can’t do it anymore. It’s just too sad.
But I can’t quit, because a few days before we lost Lola, we brought home three day-old chicks (more about them later), who are growing and peeping and fully intend to be part of the flock. What used to be the flock, at least.
So we hunker down, focus on protecting what’s left. Two hens, Pippa and Ginger. Three peeping chicks. Two cats who are mostly indoors but stubbornly refuse to give up their little ambles around the yard. Soho, our eleven-pound dog, who is now no longer allowed to be in the front yard. The last coyote came two hundred feet into our property, really just steps from the kitchen door.
Yes, we’ve already had a fence contractor out. Not really anything we can do. HOA laws about walls and fences and all that. We hover over Soho and trail the cats. The hens can never again be what one friend calls “lawn ornaments”, free-ranging around the property. We do a sweep of the perimeter at daylight every morning, and if the sight of us out there in our bathrobes doesn’t scare away the coyotes, I don’t know what will.
The truth is, nothing will. In their 2004 paper Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem, Timm, Baker et al detail the progression of coyote behavior and posit that once there is “daylight observance of coyotes chasing and taking pets” the next step is “coyotes attacking and taking pets on leash or in close proximity to their owners, coyotes chasing joggers, bicyclists, and other adults and ultimately coyotes acting aggressively toward adults during mid-day. A friend of mine was stalked by a coyote as she walked her dogs one day for half a mile until she finally knocked on a door for assistance. The coyote slunk away, biding its time.
They are everywhere. They are nowhere. I saw one again the other night as we swung into the driveway just after dusk. It came careening out of our neighbor’s property, its eyes glaring harshly in our headlights. It melted into the brush across the street. But it will be back, I know.