On the morning of New Year’s Eve, my 10-year-old daughter climbed into bed with me. She had a nightmare that one of her laying hens, Milk Shake, had killed her beloved hen (and surrogate mother to our silkie chick), Bonnie. I did my best to calm her, telling her it was only a dream, and she shortly fell back asleep. Fast forward an hour or two. I climbed out of bed to check on the animals (part of my daily ritual), my family still asleep. Before I opened the back door, I spotted it by the rabbit hutch–an extremely large red-tailed hawk. My heart seemed to stop as I flung the door open, sending the large bird flying to the top of the neighbor’s maple tree. The body of one of our hens lay on the ground the hawk had just vacated. I wasn’t sure which one it was–Milk Shake or Bonnie. The baby silkie was nowhere in sight. Running to the horrible scene, I felt underneath the wing of the hen, checking for life. Nothing. Looking all around our large fenced-in backyard, I failed to notice either of the two other chickens. Surely the hawk hadn’t dispatched all three of them. No evidence showed that they too had been slaughtered. Running back in the house, I called to my husband, who was in the shower. He hurriedly got dressed and we both went back out in search of the lost chickens. Their coop was empty as was their regular hiding spots. I walked on the outside of our fence, checking the field behind us for feathers or any other evidence the hawk might have left behind. Several crows flew overhead, flushing the hawk from its perch in the tree next door.
Running back in the house, I called to my husband, who was in the shower. He hurriedly got dressed and we both went back out in search of the lost chickens. Their coop was empty as was their regular hiding spots. I walked on the outside of our fence, checking the field behind us for feathers or any other evidence the hawk might have left behind. Several crows flew overhead, flushing the hawk from its perch in the tree next door. My husband checked the woodpile next to our fence, not seeing Milk Shake lodged in between several pieces of wood. I would find her a few minutes later after finding the silkie chick huddled underneath a shrub five yards away from where her mother had been killed. My husband moved Bonnie’s body, placing it in a kitchen garbage bag before placing it on the outside table. It was raining, so an immediate burial was out of the question.
I swaddled the chick in my coat, holding back tears. My daughter pecked on the kitchen window from inside the house. She was awake and now she would see that her favorite hen had been killed. I held my daughter, who now held the chick, and I tried to explain that Bonnie had died gallantly. What greater death could an animal (or person) ask for–saving the life of another? If anything, the chick would have been an easier kill (our silkie is small and solid white), so I reasoned that the mother (who blended in perfectly with the leaf litter on the ground) had surely been protecting it–or at least distracting the hawk so the chick could hide. This is what I told my daughter. Later that night, we said goodbye to Bonnie and to 2016.
Loss is never easy–whether human or animal loss–especially when you have to explain to a child that her pet is never going to wake.
My daughter has now become “mother hen” to the silkie chick–a role she took up with gusto. We’ve raised chicks by hand before, but the circumstances were different. No death was involved–or none that we saw with our own eyes. Hawks will always be a problem to those with chickens and other small outside animals. It’s just part of the “circle of life” and I understand this after 35 years of losses. My daughter is beginning to understand this too.