A Fox in the Hen House

I used to keep and breed both chickens and Muscovy ducks. For a time they were my pride and joy. A mismatched flock of Isa browns, Rhode Island Red’s and crested silkies with their fluffy feet and pom pom hats would scavenge and peck their way around a parade of whispering black and white ducks.

The birds had gifted me an abundance of fresh eggs over the years, we ate a lot of omelette and hollandaise sauce back then. Use one duck egg in place of two chicken eggs in a cake and it will have the fluffiest texture you could imagine.

We’d built the coop well knowing that feral foxes were a problem in the area. A concrete border dug nearly a foot deep around the perimeter was connected to strong chain link wire fencing nearly two meters high.

Every neighbour had a tale of woe and carnage at the paws of a fox, they proclaimed that guns were the only answer. “Shoot ‘em dead between the eyes and string ‘em up on the fence to warn off the others!” It’s not unusual in these parts, to see a line of fluffy tails clipped along fence lines in a public display of sadistic victory.

They’re harder to come by in Australia, almost unheard of in the cities but it seemed everyone we knew in Tiny Town owned a gun. You have to have a bloody good reason to own one in this country, self defence isn’t allowed so their mostly reserved for land owners to control vermin and quietly chase away the odd trespassing teenager.

Getting a firearm licence involves a short course, a pile of paperwork and a police check. I held a gun licence for years but I had only ever applied for it because The Husband had drunk the town kool aid when we bought the farm and he wanted one. I only went along with him as moral support for the course, or more rightly perhaps, as someone to fill out his paperwork for him.

An animal lover from way back, I had zero intention of ever pulling a trigger aimed at anything other than a Coke can and somewhat ironically when The Husband was denied his licence due to a paperwork error, my mentally questionable self was approved.

The Husband had gradually lost interest in the whole affair while caught up in the government red tape and in the end neither of us could be bothered following up and so we never actually purchased a gun.

For eight long years while the gun toting neighbours lost flock after flock, we didn’t have a problem. Upon closer inspection we determined that other people simply hadn’t built their coops to the same standards we had, theirs could be dug under or scaled while ours was an impenetrable fortress.

Then things went up in a cloud of feathers. We’d had a bad week. Dramatic things always happened in a row for us and that week was no exception. We’d lost our beloved pet Rosella a few days before, Tigerlilly had been having problems in her latest placement and had been dropped off late the previous night by a desperate social worker and then when we went outside to feed the chooks she loved in the morning, the usually bustling coop was deadly silent.

My heart sunk immediately, the gate was still closed but the pen was completely empty, not a duck or chicken to be seen. Had they gotten out somehow? I went into the shed where the nesting boxes were and there was nothing but a few feathers.

Birds are vulnerable in the dark. You can pick up even the most feisty of roosters at night and the most he will do is mutter a disgruntled “Bererrrk”.

We mounted a search, heading off around the farm in different directions. The boys found piles of white feathers streaked with red scattered near the dam and signs of a struggle. The ducks were all dead. Clumps of brown chicken feathers a little further up. Hope was lost.

We returned to the barren coop and inspected the fence line like homicide detectives. There right near the gate the wire holding it to the frame had rusted away into brown dust leaving just enough room for a cunning fox to push it aside, slip in and take his pick.

I got startled by a sudden flurry above my head, I looked up and perched on a branch of the small gum tree in the middle of the coop sat a lone and very traumatised brown hen.

We lifted her out of the tree, re-named her lucky and secured the broken fence to keep her safe. Lucky refused to leave the corner of the shed. If we put food down in front of her she pecked at it furiously but would not venture out into the yard for anything.

For the next few nights the boys formed a plan to avenge Lucky’s lost tribe. They hid outside the coop with their bows and arrows, torches and snacks waiting out into the wee hours of the morning for the fox to return, but it never came.

After several weeks a shell shocked Lucky started to reluctantly come out of the shed again but she wasn’t the same, never quite shaking off the effects of the massacre that had taken her family. Not long later I found her dead in a nesting box. At least she had peace now.

A night or two after Lucky died there was a storm, winds battled the house and as if to admit final defeat in a secret war against poultry, a big tree in the middle of the chicken coop cracked and split falling dramatically to the ground and crushing the fence in its wake. I saw the destruction and only had the energy left to sigh and walk away. My chicken keeping days were over.

It’s incredible how quickly nature reclaims it’s domain once the humans walk away. We had walked away from that coop just over a year ago, some point after the arrival of the Wild Thing, but before the cancer diagnosis.

Today I had followed a strange yet familiar scent and found myself wandering up toward the old chicken coop again, it’s not visible from the house, hidden away in a place you’d never pass by unless you were intentionally seeking it out.

The odd musky smell seemed to grow stronger with each step intriguing me as I walked through the gate now forced open by tangled weeds and into the old chook yard. I surveyed the once bustling coop for a moment, it had become a wasteland.

The big tree lay dead where it fell, cracked branches all strewn about. An array of weeds now covered the ground that had once stood bare from the wrath of scratching hens and an unknown vine had weaved its way up around the fences and shed entwining itself up into the small Gum where we’d found Lucky.

Upon closer inspection there were tracks through the weeds, worn over time by an animal of some sort now apparently calling this place home. Scattered droppings similar to those of a dog were lying throughout the creatures lair, investigating further I noticed a pile of fresh colourful feathers in the corner of the shed marking the death of something once beautiful.

Then all of a sudden I remembered what the familiar pungent odour was.

It was the smell of a fox.

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