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The Barnyard Chronicles: Chickens and Foxes

Tuesday August 1, 2006

By Larry Johnson

   Almost any competent chicken farmer worth his scratch will heatedly remind you that chickens and foxes don’t mix. One is genetically programmed to be a predator and the other to be the prey. It is a game that strengthens both species, but one that has an adverse effect on the farmer’s bottom line. Therefore, the fox is the enemy of the farmer, not the chicken.

My relationship with chickens and foxes goes back much more than half a century, and during that time, I have grown to really appreciate the delicate balance between predator and prey. As a farm kid, growing up in Weybridge, my connection to chickens was primarily adversarial. It was often my job, or my brother’s, to dispatch one of our organically grown, free-range chickens whenever we expected guests for Sunday dinner. However, I found it a distasteful job, one that always diminished my appetite for the victim.

Not until I grew up, and decided to forgo eating fowl, did my appreciation for chickenhood finally blossom. On the other hand, foxes and all predators---including my own species---have always held my interest.

One such predator was my childhood dog, a three-legged Border Collie named Bonnie. Bonnie was a gentle, intelligent soul at her core, but an inveterate, obsessive-compulsive chicken rustler as far as the greater community was concerned.  Bonnie and I were inseparable except when she was on one of her chicken round-ups. She would travel endless miles throughout Weybridge and Addison, seeking the perfect chicken; and when she found one, she would pick it up in her gentle mouth and bring it home. No chicken was ever harmed by this experience, although some may have suffered chronic homesickness. Bonnie would drop the chicken in the yard and for hours, or until we discovered the kidnapped victim, herd it around the yard, engaging her Border Collie instincts to their fullest. It was her way of telling us, I believe, that she wanted something to herd; she was afraid of cows and wouldn’t go near them. Unfortunately she didn’t have the same respect for milk trucks and eventually came to an unfortunate and sticky end.

Bonnie would bring home the chickens, one at a time, and, for a while, we would attempt to find their original homes. However, this got to be a time consuming enterprise, and that is how we got into the chicken farming business in a big way.

They were a motley looking flock, indeed: some White Leggings, a few Bard Rocks, a smattering of Bantams and a Rhode Island Red or two. For the most part, they were great layers, but whenever egg production started to decline, I would let Bonnie herd them around the yard for a while and they would get the message: get busy or get packed and ready to travel.

Now there are some people who have never gotten acquainted with sheep who believe that chickens are the dumbest animal on the planet. I have statistical proof that sheep win that prize hands down. Chickens are infinitely smarter and I have proved this to my own satisfaction many times. My friend Alex raises both sheep and chickens and she has always allowed me to take care of them as often as she can persuade me to do it. The kind of work I generally get to do for her usually requires a barn shovel. Nevertheless, this has given me a golden opportunity to design and implement a variety of I.Q. tests for both species. In comparing the results of these tests, the chickens always come out looking like clucking Einsteins and the sheep, well, intellectually challenged would be an optimistic assessment.

The I.Q. tests are intended to measure what every successful species should possess: the ability to take advantage of opportunistic situations within that species immediate environment. Both Alex’s chickens and sheep were used to going through certain moveable gates and doorways in order to reach the outside, where they could peck and graze to their hearts’content. The release systems for both species were nearly identical; so all I did was change each system in some minor way, and time how long it took the chickens or the sheep to find the new opening. I was amazed how observant and quick to take advantage the chickens were. One chicken would spot the opening and make for it. The others would be right on her tail feathers. The sheep, on the other hand, were almost always clueless and never made the adjustment. They would just mill around and bleat until I changed the gate back to its original design. I repeated these tests many times and the results were always the same. The chickens continued to get smarter and the sheep, well….

Now competing against sheep is one thing, but against foxes, that’s a different ball of wax. Believe it or not, a mother-to-be Red Fox moved under the barn right next to the chicken coop and everyone, except me, predicted disaster for Alex’s free-ranging chickens. I thought the mother would be too smart to molest the chickens in her own back yard. I was right about the mother, but I totally miscalculated what the baby foxes would do once they turned into canine teenagers. Mother fox left the chickens completely alone and, more than once, we would see her trotting through the flock of barred rocks on her nighttime hunting excursions.

But spring turned into summer and baby foxes turned into teenage terrorists. It wasn’t long before they were out chasing the chickens, still too inexperienced to do much damage. That soon changed, however, and the chickens began to disappear. The flock was eventually reduced from eight to two and Alex began letting them out only when she was around to watch them. One day, when the two sisters  were happily clucking and pecking, Alex saw a teenage fox run out and grab a chicken. Alex sprinted out the door, but she feared it was too late. The poor chicken was on her back and the fox, no longer interested in a dead chicken, had retreated to his hideout under the barn. Alex retrieved her dead chicken and while she was carrying it back to the barn in search of a round- pointed shovel, the chicken opened her eyes and began clucking. “That hen had played dead just to fool that fox,” Alex told me. “Unbelievable!”

Well, to me it’s not unbelievable at all. That hen had watched her sisters get murdered by the teenage terrorists and she had learned something from that traumatizing experience. Play dead and the stupid teenager would lose interest. Now there is one smart hen. Unlike sheep, chickens learn from experience and observation. Alex wanted to know if I thought it would be a good idea to cross that hen with a half- bright rooster. “I don’t know about that,” I replied. “Do we really want to have chickens around that are smarter than foxes?”

 


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