Photos of prairie fire and monarch butterfly by LeAnn Spencer and Steve Duke
What happens when the farm meets the prairie
(in the humble experience of a novice in suburbia)
Copyright © 2007 Erin Tuttle. All rights reserved.
It was October when I heard the squawk. Sitting at my computer, I cocked
my head at the clear blue sky, showing through windowpanes. I heard it
again: Cluck, cluck, cluck –Ba-GAAWCK! I jumped to my feet and
trotted toward the back door to find the cause of this odd call. Since
I had started my small flock of hens in April, I had delighted in discovering
their array of clicks and clucks, chirps, hisses, honks and squawks, but
this new sound was urgent -- and loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
This last factor (the neighbor one), I wanted to avoid, since my “farming” is only quasi-legal. Okay, it isn’t really legal at all, rather permissible, as long as I keep the next-door residents supplied with fresh eggs. The joys of chicken-raising, however, far outweigh the furtive glances I must shoot over my shoulder each time I carry a bucket of feed to the “garden shed” at the back of my property.
Sliding open the door, I scanned the backyard with its carpet of elm leaves, until I spotted three feathered bodies huddled together under a brittle Baptisia, their eyes imploring my presence. Cluck, cluck, cluck –Ba-GAAWCK! What was it? I took half-a-step outside before I realized the source of their distress. At the top of the fence, a hawk perched in terrifying proximity, gazing sideways at my hens. Had I not been so startled, I would have found it humorous: a suburban barnyard, a novice poultry-woman, and a hawk -- of course a hawk -- staring a one-eyed sidelong stare at three hens bumping breasts in their fright, as if they thought they could walk into one another and disappear. In my panic, I conducted myself logically: I seized a nearby basket of tomatoes and began hurling them toward the enemy. He, unimpressed, spread calm wings and made a lazy launch into the autumn sky.
I was not convinced. Marching my way through the tomato fallout, I snatched the legs of my spooked chickens and carried them upside down to their coop, where I kept them locked in the dark (but safe!) for the rest of the day.
Thoroughly shaken, I paced the floor and rooted through my meager resources for solutions. A friend and I had raised a few hens on the West Coast, while attending graduate school. There, in an urban setting, we dealt with the unwelcome presence of raccoons and coyotes, so constructed a predator-tight chicken-dwelling under the porch. When I moved back to the Midwest, I missed having little feathered bodies scratching around outside, so I gathered some old fence boards from my neighbor, and constructed a coop that, in the end, looked a little like an outhouse sitting with aesthetic charm in the middle of my garden.
With the exception of mice, the coop proved to be a little fortress against any nocturnal assassins. During the day, however, the chickens ran unbound, and it wasn’t until now that I had ever considered the danger in such freedom. I called animal control.
“Uh…hawks are protected ma’am. You can’t shoot them.”
“I don’t want to shoot the hawk, sir; I’d just like to keep him away from
“Well hawks are predators. Eating chickens is just part of what they do.”
How very helpful. I took a breath and tried again.
“Is there anything that might keep them at bay -- like moving objects? Pie pans? Mirrors?”
“Only thing I know to keep a hawk away is a better chicken pen.”
I sighed. A quick online search told me that the two most common hawks in Illinois were the red-tailed, and the Cooper’s. The red-tailed hawk eats mostly small mammals, while the Cooper’s hawk preys on small birds. On paper, I seemed safe. But the more I prodded, the more stories I found from experienced farmers of the dreaded “chicken hawk,” most likely a red-tailed, who swings down from the sky with terrifying ferocity, and leaves again with a screaming chicken in tow.
A woman at a local nature center informed me that hawks and crows share a mutual dislike, and as she talked I could remember times when a hawk’s cry led my eyes to a scene of airborne squabble. Crows, I thought. The next day, I traveled to my favorite thrift store and bought several pairs of old black nylons, then spent the afternoon cutting and stuffing them to resemble (in the most creative of imaginations) fat, lopsided crows. Nevertheless, I hung them from fence posts and branches, the arbor, the coop, and every piece of lawn furniture. In the stark autumn sunlight, my backyard looked like a macabre marionette show, but my hens seemed a little less vulnerable. For good measure, I hung some pie pans in the mix. And a few mirrors. And silver streamers. I periodically urged my cheerful dog, a lab/collie-mix, to lap the yard on her lanky legs and look ferocious. When at work, I would call my most chicken-friendly neighbor.
“Marge, hi, it’s Erin. Hey could you look out your back window and check on my girls?”
Then again an hour later: “Marge, yes it’s me. How’re the hens?”
And again: “Marge, listen, I heard a hawk just now, and I’m afraid he’s going to fly your way. Could you close the chickens in their coop for a little while?” Before long, Marge began answering the phone with, “Yes, Erin, the chickens are fine.”
I stood with my nose against the sliding glass door. There he is, the little bastard. His form in the cottonwood seemed sloppy against the damp November afternoon, but I wasn’t to be fooled into thinking the autumn chill had my hawk apathetic. I narrowed my eyes, convinced that he could see me inside the house, and was waiting for me to step away before he made his move.
I used to love hawks. Loved to spot their secret form on branches or telephone poles as I drove down the highway. Perched with regality, they held a certain ominous authority over the world below. Did other drivers know to look up and watch this natural display of predator and prey? Now, however, simply the sound of their screech, haunting an autumn afternoon, was enough to strike a fear in me. No matter if I were two or two-hundred miles from my hens, the mere sight of a hawk’s muscular grip on the sky, was enough to send shudders through my limbs. .
But now, I was just mad. Fifteen minutes, and the hawk had not moved from his perch, the gluttonous devil. In a sudden burst of zeal, I pushed through the door and loped across lawn. The chickens, in usual form, turned talon and trotted in my wake. I imagined the sight: angry woman, three hens scampering a stiff-legged sprint behind her, and a dog, trotting goofy circles around the scene. I reached the back fence and swung my furious form over the entire six feet, only to slop onward toward the tree.
My crusade came to a surprising halt, however, when the ‘‘hawk’’ leapt from the branch with a high-pitched “weep-weep-weep-weep” and flapped spastically into the surrounding gray. A mourning dove? I couldn’t believe I had mistaken such a docile creature for an icon of death to my beloved hens.
I scraped my way back over the rough-board fence, where my beaky trio stood waiting with cocked heads.
“False alarm, girls.” They clucked a chuckle at me and continued their scratching, pecking, preening. I smiled at them and my waterlogged crows, took a breath, and spun a pie tin on its string. The sky might have been filled with mysterious peril, but for now … it was just wet.