We decided to go to Richmond Friday night to watch baseball. The weather was perfect, a slight breeze in the air, and the temperature right around 75. The game was at times exciting and we enjoyed ballpark food and drink. We watched a beautiful fireworks display and then came home. An hour later at midnight, we rode into the driveway. I went into the house to get the big spotlight and put on my garden shoes. As I walked up the hill to the garden enclosure, between the corn and cucumbers, around the corner, I spotted a trail of white feathers leading from the opening of the coop. Before the thought could hit me, I see "Mannie" on the ground, insides oozing out of her, headless and missing a leg. She was the highest in the pecking order, the biggest hen, and the only one at the time who was laying eggs. I reacted in a panicked cry and fell to my knees. Kneeling for a moment, I cried like I've rarely cried before and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I had just experienced the first predator attack on my chickens and it was my fault. Earlier in the day, in preparation for our trip we entertained the idea of forcing the chickens back into the run but in blind confidence, we opted not to.
I got up and stumbled inside the house where Al and his parents approached me, confused. I managed to say "chicken, dead". I still had to ensure the safety of the others and to dispose of what was left of Mannie. Al and I went back out, gloves, box and shovel in hand. When I opened the coop there were feathers everywhere and the chickens, shocked out of their trance-like night-time state, looked up at me. Feeling helpless to reinforce their coop in the middle of the night, I closed them up with the thought that it may be the last time. We buried what was left of Mannie at the tree line at the back of our property. I laid her in the ground repeating "I'm sorry" over and over and then covered her up. It was a long night.
The next morning Al and I pulled ourselves together and began putting together the events of the night before. I saw clear paw-prints of a raccoon on the top of the coop as well as over the nesting boxes. Mannie had been dug up and taken. In researching predators and what they do to chickens, it seems plausible that this is what we were dealing with. We began our reinforcements by digging a trench around the fence and coop. Chicken wire was skirted around the fence and coop and covered with dirt. We added a latch on the top opening of the coop and reinforced the lid on the nesting boxes.
I noticed more raccoon paw-prints on Monday morning, but since then there has been nothing new. Perhaps Monday's prints were leftover from Friday night. It's hard to tell. The chickens have been in lockdown for almost a week, meaning I haven't let them outside of the run. Although I am still paranoid at every sound and find it difficult to fall asleep at night, I think the loss of my first chicken is getting easier every day.
Where did I go wrong? I have learned to take that extra precaution of putting the chickens in an enclosed space if I'm not going to be home at sundown. I have learned not to pick a favorite. I have learned that if I'm going to name them and think of them as pets, I have to realize that there is always the possibility that they will be taken by a predator. It is how nature works and it's not always easy.