The Good Life: Plague Of Possums Dines On Innards Of Tasty Chickens

Today, one lone Orpington hen seeks seed beneath the wild bird feeders in our yard. Just one month ago, a proud rooster had led dozen-strong harems there to snack.

What changed?

Buddy had surgery that left a foot-long incision on his hip and the need for a don’t-lick-it “cone of shame.” So Buddy, one of our dogs, spent three weeks away from his favorite sleeping quarters, the loose hay next to the henhouse inside our barn. The dirt floor barn is, by nature, unsanitary, so Buddy was relegated to the porch, house or attached garage.

For nine years, we had never lost a chicken to raccoons, weasels, owls, hawks, foxes or possums, largely due to our dogs.

When Buddy needed surgery, I focused on his recovery. I didn’t think about the effects on the chickens.

Buddy and Ralph came to us when both dogs were a year or two old.

“Get two dogs, not just one,” an old-timer had told me, cautioning against coyotes.

“Coyotes see one dog coming at them, they think ‘Lunch!’ They see more than one dog, they think ‘Pack of dogs!’ Coyotes know that if they get hurt, they can die. So they avoid packs of dogs,” he said.

Hmm. Then why not get three dogs?

“Ya damn fool! Coyotes can’t count!” he responded. Two, it seems, counts as a pack.

We had Ralph, a Lab/Aussie cross. We sought a companion. At the Humane Society, Buddy sat still, his amber-yellow eyes making direct contact, not moving, not barking. “What you see is what you get,” his posture said. So we got the collie/beagle cross.

We have grown to love him. He has grown, too, horizontally, earning the nickname “Buddley Waddlebutt.” He ambles nose-to-ground in beagle fashion, but can charge ferociously when varmints invade. And he loves to sleep near the chickens.

His surgery left the poultry unguarded, since Ralph usually stays near the house in good weather, retreating to the barn only after snow flies.

At first, I didn’t notice the thinning of the chickens’ ranks. Who counts the difference between 18 and 14? Not I.

But eventually, I started to look around.

The dismembered evidence lay outdoors, in the goldenrod-shaded borders of the chicken run. One corpse; two; even more.

The evidence pointed to a possum. About predators, I have learned: Well-fed dogs kill for sport, leaving chickens uneaten. Raccoons generally bite off heads. Weasels puncture necks. Foxes, hawks and horned owls carry prey away if possible.

Possums, however, dine on innards and leave opened-up corpses.

See CHICKENS,

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At about a dozen chickens remaining, I realized we were under assault.

The henhouse and outdoor runs had been built a decade ago. The enclosing chicken wire had become flimsy and gap-ridden. The decades-old snow fence used as an outer barrier had rotted or snapped. I had seen no need to keep them solid. The dogs would send varmints scurrying.

But Buddy was confined. Ralph, dependable if aroused and alerted, was sleepy-snoozy and content to loll about.

So the possum(s) feasted. The flock dwindled. Each night, one or two more chickens were turned into carcasses

Outraged, I counterattacked. A live trap turned up one possum, soon sent to Possum Heaven. Chance encounters while I was armed dispatched two more.

Last week, Buddy was pronounced healed, his cone discarded, his stitches removed. He returned to the henhouse. Sure enough, on the first night his ferocious barking sent me, rifle in hand, to defend the one remaining roosted hen.

I did. Generally, I relocate live-trapped varmints. They live here, too. But once they taste chickens, varmints won’t desist. They will return, unless dissuaded by dog, rifle or shotgun.

Buddy has restored order. He has grown reaccustomed to guard duty, willingly sleeping unleashed in the henhouse. He even seems proud of his service when I relieve him of duty by unlocking the henhouse each morning, giving him hugs, pats and dog biscuits.

Will we resume chicken raising? Perhaps. We never did profit from the enterprise, given the costs of feed, etc. We like the taste of fresh eggs and the knowledge that they come from drug-free, free-range, cheerful hens, serenaded by a watch-for-hawks rooster.

But rebuilding the henhouse will take work and money. Restarting a flock this late in summer bumps laying time up against our hope for a winter sojourn in Florida. Given the ages of Buddy and Ralph, another full flock of chickens would call for adding a younger dog. That, in turn, takes a full year of training.

So we ponder.

In the meantime, the solitary hen seems a mere speck against the spacious green sward of our yard. But that golden speck denotes “survivor.” She has her hopes of a bright future. So do we.

¯¯¯

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.

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