As if there wasn't enough going on this year, it's been a doozy for predation for us.
(I would like to take a moment to say that in regards to everything else 2020 has going on, I have a lot to say, but I don't have a good way to say it. I'll talk about any topic personally, and though I am for the most part not being super public with my thoughts - it's mostly because most of my thoughts start and end with a certain four-letter word. I am not eloquent when I am mad. I don't say intelligent things when I am mad. So I am trying not to talk. I don't want anyone to think that this implies I am complacent and not doing anything, I am. And I will speak out when I need to, and we are doing what we can as a family to make change in our world. But every company I interact with has sent out emails regarding the climate of our country right now - and I don't have anything to add to what they are saying. I don't know anything better than they do, I can't offer anything on top of it, so I'll stick with talking about my farm, as I am not an expert in any of the major issues our country is facing. You don't need advice from me, it's out there to find. This isn't me hiding behind vagueness because I don't want to stir the pot, I am stirring the pot, believe me. I'm just a farmer and an engineer and a mom and a volunteer. I shouldn't be your resource for how to make social-political change in your life. So I'll keep my mouth closed. I hope you understand.)
Our poultry operation at this point is focused on meat for our family, and my daughter's show birds for 4H. All of Shannon's show birds were decimated over winter, due to predation. Her favorite show birds, ones we had planned to breed this year, and all our other oddball birds... they just disappeared.
After a coyote came to the farm and was 10 feet from me and within FULL VIEW of Loki, who didn't even react (he has an autoimmune disease and sometimes doesn't feel well)... and because we lost Goliath, we put aside Larry's German Shepherd purchase to get another livestock guardian. Thus we welcomed Odin to the farm to assist with protecting our birds.
Odin is getting older, almost as big as Hercules now, and he found his voice, but is still a big puppy and is learning his job. But he's helping.
But we've noticed that we really miss Goliath. He was a special boy, and we'll get to his special skills in a bit.
So we were gifted this sort of cage that a dear, departed friend used as a run for her backyard chickens. We moved in our old duck house, and decided to use this as a grow-out run for baby birds. This would help keep them safe from most predators, and any that are capable of digging under or breaking the fencing - well, the dogs would likely interrupt them in the act. Predators are successful if they can sneak in, grab a bird and get the heck out. So with all her show birds disappearing this winter, we thought this was not only a good solution to protect them from predation when they are at their most susceptible, but also gives them a safe place to be able to see and hear the bigger birds without any pecking order issues, until they got big enough to move to our standard coops.
So these little guys have been safe, and I've had several waves come into this coop. The actual birds in this picture are almost fully grown and we are slowly introducing them to our other specialty coop, that we use for Shannon's show birds.
The meat birds are a whole different story. They got a little extra time inside, they start in a small brooder in the tack room, to ensure in spring they can stay warm at night. Then, when they get too big, they get moved out to the big brooder in the barn. Still very safe from predation. THEN, they get upended completely and moved outside to their tent. Their tent provides two main functions - it provides shade and shelter from rain (and snow) as well as protection at night from the big Great Horned Owl that lives next door.
Shortly after they moved outside, I found a LARGE group of them dead on the ground. Some with their internal organs consumed, some with their heads consumed, some just with damage.
Hmm... it's not like a owl to kill that many at once. Usually, the owl will grab one, especially when they are teeny (they are not teeny anymore) and it will fly off with that one. But a dozen dead bodies? That starts to feel like coyotes - but as my dogs will atest, a coyote could easily consume these birds in a few bites. They would not eat JUST their internals and leave behind the rest. That starts to feel like bird predation, or smaller critters like skunks or weasels. Either way, very disappointed in my pups. Now, I give them credit when it comes to owls - they hunt at night, and they are virtually soundless. The dogs don't hear the bird, they hear the prey when it starts squacking from being picked up. If an owl is coming to grab dinner, usually my dogs' response is too late. I tried to lock Loki and Hercules in the run and they just climbed the fence and left. I really struggled, because I would often find a dog (usually Odin) with a bird in the morning. I couldn't tell if exuberant puppy got a taste for chicken and was eating them himself at night, or if he found a dead body and was just cleaning up for me. For the most part, our dogs know they do not get to consume a dead animal unless we give them approval. They usually guard the dead animal until we take care of it. (Atlas was the only exception, as on rare occasion, he would kill a duck - but only a duck!)
Then we discovered that my neighbor has been losing all of her chickens - to a fox.
Down the street, a family of foxes moved in under my neighbors' porch. Above shows papa. There are 4 kits. Mama was colored like a standard red fox, and I've come face to face with her in my driveway. Not too long ago, we saw her on highway 56, after having been hit by a car. We have evidence to believe papa fox may also have suffered a similar fate. But this is huge. My neighbor said they were coming in broad daylight to steal her chickens. Hers are locked up in a coop at night!
My meat birds don't get a coop. So we've been making sure our baby laying birds are safe at night, our big birds typically go in their coops at night, and our turkeys are usually too big, and sleep up on fences and trees, and don't usually get targeted.
But my meat birds keep getting killed.
So I got me a bunch of these...
I actually bought some prior to the house fire. I never got them installed and lost them. So I bought a bunch more. And I installed them all over. There are ones low to the ground around my Love Shack coop to discourage skunks and foxes. There are ones higher up on posts around the perimeter of our chicken runs, to discourage coyotes. And I have 4 high up on a pole to discourage owls. I also have a motion detection solar flood light on the fenced in coop run and the Love Shack coop that should trigger if a critter is in the area. Hoping that a combination of sounds, smells and sudden bright light will help guide our dogs to trouble, so they can encourage it to leave. All of these things assist with night time predators. Owls, skunks, etc. We have evidence that the foxes were coming during the day, but over winter, they did come at night, when the dogs were inside or asleep.
So my backyard looks like a laser light show. There are 16 of those lights out there. Sorry, neighbors. I still have one more flood light, and since my baby turkeys are starting to move outdoors (still in the barn at night) I think I'll put that on the turkey coop. They should also help in winter to get birds to go to their homes at night!
So of course, feeling like maybe I was getting a grip on this, I was still finding a dead chicken or two in the morning. And then Larry saw the predator.
A bald eagle. It's hunting in the early morning. Somehow my dogs are missing it. And all those blinky lights and motion detection lights - they don't work when the sun is out. They are dusk to dawn lights. I can't be mad at a bald eagle. But this is why I miss my Goliath.
We are learning the hard way that our Great Pyrenees boys were diamonds in the rough. They were akin to winning the lottery and we didn't even know it. We either did everything right by them, or they were born with it (it was NOT Maybelline).
Those boys had absolutely different personalities. Goliath was Mr. Personality, and Atlas just wanted to be left alone. Goliath was our alarm bell, and Atlas was the great protector (they both loved swimming in the stink pond, as you can see in this photo.) At any given time, you would find Atlas laying somewhere, with his focus on the flock, and his eyes scanning. Goliath could be anywhere, but Atlas found a spot, preferrably shady, where he could see the sheep and see where predators usually came from. Goliath's special skill was not just the alarm bell, he kept everything out of our pasture.
As a team, Goliath would be the first responder. He would bark and run at the proposed threat. Atlas would judge the situation. Did he need to move the flock to safety? If he did, he would. Did he need to provide back up? He would. He would do whatever he needed and join Goliath if needed. A coyote? Goliath would approach, Atlas would move the flock then join his brother. A flock of geese? Goliath would run underneath them, barking, until they were no longer over our pasture, and Atlas wouldn't even budge. That was Goliath's special skill, not a single bird was allowed on the pasture - from eagles to hawks to geese to pigeons. Goliath kept them all away. And he freaking loved it.
It's now been over a year since we lost Goliath.The barn is full of pigeons. We are losing chickens at such a pace, we are down more than 50% from where we started in the brooder. It's BAD. Larry saw a bald eagle casually sitting on an h-brace at the edge of our pasture. Not a single dog was barking or approaching. The dogs we have now are a combination of Atlas and Goliath - they have the personality of Goliath (friendly and happy) and the laid-back nature of Atlas (just hanging in the pasture and watching). We are missing our alarm bell, and it shows. We have a month to go before processing day, and I am not sure how many birds we will have left by that time.