My birthday nearly took a grim turn when a puppy guest suddenly chased after our chickens. The dog managed to grab a mouthful of Featherfoot’s feathers before the rooster—through sheer survival instinct—summoned a burst of speed that was remarkable, given his bad leg. When Cherisse went to investigate, she saw only one of the pullets, who she assumed was dead. The chicken was lying lifelessly and appeared to have no head, although there was no visible blood. But when Cherisse knelt down and touched her, she popped up and raced off toward the coop. She had been playing dead, and had buried her head in some grass and leaves.
All of the other chickens had vanished, slowly reappearing only when the dog was clearly gone. As darkness began to fall they filed into the coop. I went out to take a count, and two were still missing, but upon hearing my familiar “hey chickies” call, the stragglers came inside. Only Featherfoot seemed traumatized—he was huddled in the bottom nesting box, and the hens one by one came over to check on him. I wasn’t sure if he’d been hurt but thought that trying to look closely at him would upset him too much, so I locked them all up for the night. By morning, though, he seemed fully restored, and came right out of the house with everyone else, the fright of the day before either forgotten or relegated to the past.
Earlier in the week the last remaining Dominique was killed. Something attacked her, right in the front garden, although evidently not for food. Our neighbor Marguerite thought it might be a weasel, and Cherisse did some reading and thought that was certainly a possibility. For one, they are small, and could easily gain access to our front yard. They also kill for sport. When we lost other chickens to predators it seemed clear that it was because they were an easy food source.
If a hawk flies low overhead, we’ve seen the chickens freeze. When they are too close to the fence line and hear something in the woods, they run/fly back toward cover. Still, we haven’t witnessed the previous predator attacks, so we wondered what the other chickens had done while it was happening. Did they even notice? Were they terrified? Now, after the dog scare, we think they all might run and simply melt into the landscape until they feel safe again. The hen who played dead did so for some time—and I find that utterly fascinating. She was hatched in our own coop, by one of the hens, and we witnessed most of what the mother hen taught the babies. But playing dead wasn’t one of them; this was pure instinct, not taught. It is an astounding example of nature’s way of protecting its most vulnerable creatures. One of the wonderful miracles of natural life.