Yesterday one of my worst fears as a chicken keeper came true. My beloved chicken, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was taken by a fox.
It happened in broad daylight. I was inside, the girls were roaming free in the backyard as they often do when we’re home. We close the gate so they can’t get out. It never really occurred to us that something might get in. Of course we knew it could happen, but we just felt they were safe to free range as long as were at home. At all other times, we lock them in.
It’s both a tragedy and a relief that I didn’t hear a thing. I had been on the phone to my sister in the afternoon and when I hung up, I heard one of the chickens making a mournful sound. Until you’ve owned chickens it’s hard to explain how they communicate but there are definite communication sounds. When they’re feeding happily, they cluck. When they want to be let out, they make long, pitiful squawking sounds. When they are boasting they’ve laid an egg, there’s a high pitched, boastful carry on. And when they’re sad, it’s a cry.
I say it’s a tragedy and a relief because if I had heard it, I don’t know that there would have been a thing I could do. The fox would have outrun me, carrying Lady Catherine and leaving me with that awful sight forever. I could not have fought the fox. I could not have saved Lady Catherine.
I heard one of my girls crying. I found two of them standing to the side of the yard and to the other side, near the gate, I found Lady Catherine’s feathers. Lots of them. In three separate piles. Many of them were her soft, new season feathers. She was getting ready for Spring.
There will never be another Spring for Lady Catherine.
I won’t describe the moments between finding the feathers and the panic that hit me, turning quickly to the knowledge that one of my girls was dead. The devastation, the shaking inability to dial Sean’s number. Too awful.
Sean left work early to come home and help me clean up. We were grateful at least that there were only feathers. We’ve heard stories from other chicken keepers of much more gruesome finds.
This morning as I went out to see my girls in the crisp, frosty dawn, I felt so sad to be feeding only two. They were quieter. I’m sure they understand. One of their family is gone. In terms of pecking order, Lady Catherine was the boss chicken. She was the first one to come out of the coop the day we brought them home, the first one to establish there was safety and that we were OK. She was Top Chicken, the Grand Lady of the Coop.
For nearly two years we’ve kept them safe. Yesterday, we failed. Not through neglect but simply through nature beating us at her game. Not far from us is wide, open land. Wet lands. I wish the foxes that inhabit our area would stick to the wild birds down there and leave our girls alone because today, there’s a space in our yard where a beloved pet used to be.
As my mum said, one of the family.
I’ll leave you with words written by a friend yesterday, who came to mind our girls while we were away some months ago. Lizzy wrote on the photo I posted on Facebook:
Lady Catherine, I will miss your dignity, and your effort in trying to provide Shirley with a well-behaved role model. She may not have appreciated it, but as chicken-carer, I did.
So fitting. Shirley is the naughty chicken. Lady Catherine was the Mother Hen. And we will miss her so much.
I don’t think this photo is of Lady Catherine and me – but it does show how close I am to my girls. My dearest wish for my two remaining chickens is that they’ll grow old and fall asleep in the sun, forever, when their time comes. No more foxes but the reality is that it could happen again. We are on the fox’s watch now and we will have to be on alert. It’s changed my understanding of chicken keeping forever.
This is the last photo I took of all three of them together, just the day before she died. They were scratching about in the compost heap, and clucking.
Perhaps saddest of all is this drawing that my sister Adele gave me for my birthday. She wanted to draw something really meaningful to me and she hit the spot – taking the top photo of Lady Catherine as her inspiration. It’s on my wall now, it went up straight away when she gave it to me – but we had no idea it would be a portrait of a chicken that would be soon leaving us. Isn’t it beautiful?
Goodbye Lady Catherine. I’m so sorry.