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unbelievable tragedy

Above: my babies.

One month to the day after they were hatched out into this world, twenty four chicks lost their little lives to a marauding fox.

Last night, as I was getting into bed, I had a bad feeling. This happens a lot to me, though, so I dismissed it as simple overworry. But for some reason, I found myself thinking about how protectiveness of my chicks had made me second guess my previous pro-wildlife-at-any-cost stance: specifically, I thought, Heck, I think I could actually bring myself to shoot a fox if it were going after the little ones.

I never got the chance. This morning, twenty-four of my babies were dead or missing. A predator — presumably a fox — had dug underneath of the coop, deep enough to avoid the coop’s chicken wire skirt.

Last night, Emmett and I tucked them into bed. We made sure they were all together to stay warm, moving the four chicks on the top floor onto the ground floor with the rest of their buddies. Where the chicks were huddled — underneath the ramp, in a warm all-wood section of the coop — was precisely where the fox dug. Our decision to move four chicks (including my favorite, Buffy) down to the bottom floor may have cost them their lives.

Emmett’s dad was the bearer of the bad news; he couldn’t reach Emmett by phone, so he actually stopped by the house to tell us. Emmett and I raced over to the coop, combed the surrounding area, calling out “here, chick chick chick” through our tears, to no avail. We found one White Leghorn dead inside the coop; two others were left in a nearby salad bed, along with one wing of my favorite chick, Buffy the Buff Orpington. The predator didn’t even bother to eat them, just kill them.

The sole survivor, now named Hope, was found huddling beneath the coop’s ramp. Nobody noticed her until I moved the ramp to check for more bodies — and to my surprise, heard a little “cheep cheep cheep” emanating from the coop’s first floor.

We swabbed Hope’s wounds — bite marks — with Neosporin, and put a heat lamp over her to warm her little body. She’s now in a box with two other Araucanas for company; we’ll see if she makes it. She’s a bit wobbly and lethargic, but she drank water from the waterer, ate food from my hand, and snuggled against my neck the entire car ride home.

I can’t quite express the horror of losing 24 chicks that I’d doted on, lost sleep over, and — most importantly — grown to love and know, as bird-brained and silly as they might be. A number of the ones I lost had names and distinct personalities; all were very friendly, and would come right over to say hello when I stopped by the coop.

I understood, going into this, that predators could be a problem — but somehow I didn’t think it would happen this suddenly and this severely. Every single chick but one? I’m lost: I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I still can’t look at the old pictures of the chicks without tearing up…

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mysterious moonlight diggers

I can’t think of many things more devastating than leaving your happy, healthy plants in the evening and finding them destroyed the next morning. Destruction can come in many forms: a swarm of cucumber beetles, a broken water pipe, a fast-acting bacterial disease. But one form of ruin is particularly frustrating to me right now: mysterious holes dug haphazardly throughout our planted beds.

For months now–ever since we started growing our baby salad mixes–we’ve been finding small patches of salad dug up each morning. It always looks the same: scattered depressions of moist, scuffed soil, each about the size of a saucer. Around each one, uprooted lettuces mounded with dirt. The lettuces are resilient enough that we can generally push them back into the soil and they’ll keep growing. So it’s never enough of a loss to take out a week’s harvest, but just enough to drive us crazy. And the anonymous digger doesn’t stick exclusively to the salad bed. He also leaves us holes in the radish bed, the leeks, young beets.

Every farmer or gardener has to dedicate a fraction of each week to sleuth work. Sometimes I feel like Sherlock Holmes in overalls (with less of an intuition for catching the bad guys, sadly.) So, who is the mysterious moonlight digger? What are his motives? Let’s look at the evidence. First, the digger seems to have zero interest in the plants themselves. He tosses them aside in search of a greater prize. Second, the digger also targets areas where we have young plants growing–baby salad greens, beet seedlings, tiny leeks. What’s unique about these beds? They’re watered more frequently than the more mature plants, so the soil is always moist. Third, the digger only attacks at night.

So from these observations we’ve deduced that the perpetrator is a nocturnal animal searching for grubs or insects that thrive in the constantly wet soil below the salad bed. But still, we don’t know who it is specifically. Top on the list are skunk, fox, and raccoon. My bet is with the skunk, because I know they have a real soft spot for grubs. ( Skunks are omnivores; they eat everything from insects, larvae, and earthworms to rodents, frogs, birds, berries, and fungi. One recently attacked a wasps nest near our farm, ripping it apart to get at the tasty larvae inside.) Which means I’d better be careful if I try to confront the mystery digger in person. I’m not keen to take a tomato juice bath, in the event of a skunk spray.

We’ve been plotting to camp out in the field for a night to catch the crook red handed (if only we had nigh vision goggles). Since the damage hasn’t been catastrophic, it’s hard to justify putting up any serious fencing or netting, but I’d at least like to know what’s causing the problem. I guess it’s the inner detective in me. In the meantime, we’ve started lightening up on the salad bed watering, especially in the afternoon– to slacken off on the moisture content of the soil.

So, for now, we’ll tuck this case into the unsolved mysteries file and keep you posted if we mount a sting operation to catch our supposed skunk by moonlight.

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