Roosters Playing Possum
By Billy Roper
One would think that any self-respecting rooster would defend his flock. Especially if he likes to obnoxiously crow and wake us up an hour before dawn, every day, right outside our window. Especially if he is the Alpha rooster. Or, in our case, the only rooster. No, not so much. Step-rooster had to step in as a surrogate and do the job for him. Captain Save-A-Hen, to the rescue.
For the sake of full disclosure, my wife and I are both animal lovers. We raised our first clutch of chicks in a big cage with a heat lamp in our bedroom this past Spring, before the boys and I, my stepsons, spent a few weeks making a chicken coop and small yard for them, in our own front yard. So we could keep them safe, of course. About the time we expanded the flock by catching some free range birds a retiring farmer was getting rid of, a family of raccoons and, less welcome, a couple of possums began eating the cat food left out on our porch each night. My wife wasn’t quite sure that the marsupials were as cute as the masked bandits. Frankly, she called the possums “the spawn of the devil”. It turns out that, as is often the case, she was right.
I don’t think the ASPCA would hunt me down if I admitted that, at her bloody-handed behest, one of the possums overestimated our charity, and met his final reward there among the Friskies. Before long, though, the first runner up, obviously not Miss Congeniality, took its place at the feed dish. It was about that time that our flock began diminishing. The Lady MacBeth of the house had stopped leaving the food offering outside for the nocturnal deities. They were not pleased.
Preoccupied as I was by their propensity to eat their own eggs, my sympathies for the chickens was strained by their lack of alarm that they were being picked off, one by one. From the ground to the roof, every crack and cranny was reinforced, filled in, and boarded over. Then, plastic mesh was placed over the top of the yard, to minimize the chance that a varmint could climb in that way. From my perspective, it didn’t seem that any critter larger than an amoeba could get in. Meanwhile, I tried to convince my helpmate that the little possum eating her cat’s dinner was just as cute and cuddly as the coons. She wasn’t buying it. Or, more outside cat food.
First, a hen disappeared without a trace. Then, there was a splatter of blood on the wall, and a few loose feathers. I interrogated the surviving flock, but they simply looked at me sidewise. The rooster sat morosely in a corner, looking down. I think he felt his manhood was being questioned. After all, it was.
I followed a sparse trail of down out into the woods, then lost it behind a log, in a pool of blood. My pulse quickened. This was becoming like an aviary version of “Predator”. Two more were lost, one gutted and left half-eaten, though I had my suspicions that the cannibalistic descendants of velociraptors I kept as fruitless pets may have finished that particular bit of nastiness; and then, one which was left with its head neatly shorn off, and otherwise intact. My flock was endangered. Action was required. The stupid rooster just pinned his hens to the ground, and otherwise was useless. Well, I’d show him how it was done.
Another round of chinking cracks won the day, indirectly. The next night as we lay in bed dozing, a thrashing cacophony came from outside, in the direction of the bird hostel. Arming myself and grabbing a flashlight, the dog and I charged in while my wife observed from the porch. I flung open the gate, the light’s beam forming an arc which swept the yard. All clear. Thrashing continued from inside, along with the muted whining of hens under distress. The dog barking ferociously as backup, I neared the door, and unbarred it.
Out onto my feet fell four hens who’d been crowded against the opening in attempted escape, right on top of me. My fantasy film imagination anticipated a bear, or bobcat, or chupacabra would be close behind them. I braced myself for a fight. Nothing came at me, so I took a deep breath, and walked into the abyss of darkness, alone. That’s right, the dog wanted to guard the gate for me. Since he already was, I told him “stay”, to make him feel better about his decision. There was his self-esteem to consider, after all.
More cackling hens trickled past me, squeezing between my legs as they made their great escape to the relative safety of the yard. I illuminated the ground first, looking for torn apart carcasses and puddles of viscera. Apart from a handful of feathers in one corner, it was bare. Or, as bare as a busy chicken coop floor ever is. In one corner, a half-plucked hen quivered. Over rising spirals the light climbed, flashing on and past, then returning to, the cowardly rooster trembling on his roost with his two favorite hens flanking him like chicken shields. I shook my head in disgust, and continued my search. There! Wedged into the opposite corner, trying to get out of the much-diminished crack I’d patched that morning near the roof, was an innocent-looking possum, staring at me. I still have no idea how he got in, and then couldn’t get back out, again.
You all know what had to happen next. For those of you who have dispatched a possum before in defense of your flock, you also know that they don’t go easy. I brought him back up to the porch, the dog dancing around me in self-satisfied victory, to show my wife the trophy. She wasn’t any more interested in seeing it dead, than she had been in seeing it alive. I had to admit that it had lost a degree of cuteness factor, even to me. After taking it for a final walk off into the woods where it could continue its part in nature’s cycle, I returned to the henhouse for triage. No blood was visible on the offended hen, but I half expected her to have been pecked to death when I brought them their morning corn a few hours later. She was fine. And, we haven’t lost any more chickens, since. But there’s a lesson to be learned there about misplaced altruism, I guess. By the way, since the possums have been dispatched, the chickens have no excuses left for their lack of egg production. Maybe it’s the beta male rooster, who refused to protect his girls. Somebody has to take the blame. Or, learn a lesson. I think that the possum, the rooster, and myself all took something away from this experience. Here’s my moral:
- Don’t leave pet food outside where it may attract varmints to the vicinity of your chicken coop.
- If possible, locate your backyard chicken coop within sight or hearing of your home.
- Make sure there are no openings where predators can enter the coop once the chickens are shut in for the night.
- Don’t send a rooster to do a man’s job.