I used to count the feet.
At sundown all the chickens march into the chicken coop and hop onto the roost to put themselves to bed. I go out a little bit later with a flashlight to close the door of the chicken coop so that nothing would get at them at night. Every night I open the door and look in and count the feet to make sure that all the chickens were in there. Twenty feet; ten chickens.
And then one night I counted eighteen feet. I turned from the coop into the chicken yard with my flashlight: no chicken sleeping on top of the coop. No chicken hiding in the bushes next to the coop. No chicken wandering about in the dark looking confused, having forgotten to actually go to bed.
The light caught a bit of movement toward the back of my chicken yard. I turned the flashlight on the back fence and two glowing neon eyes stared back at me out of the darkness. Chickens do not have eyes facing forward. I took a step back, and then a step forward.
And the bobcat stopped chewing on my chicken, climbed right up the fence, jumped into the bushes and ran away.
This was only the start.
I live just outside a town called Los Gatos (the cats), originally named for the large number of bobcats in the area. We have an especially large population of bobcats that make our property home because most of our land is uncleared and we don’t own dogs. We see bobcats on the lawn, on the driveway, in the fields, and in the bushes. Bobcats are fun to watch because they behave just like very large house cats; they sleep in the sun, they wrestle like kittens, they bat pine cones around for fun. They have big tufty ears and spotty bellies. Given how cute they are it’s hard to remember that bobcats are not house cats; they are wild, and they hunt to eat.
By keeping chickens, I was putting bobcat food on a buffet and ringing the “free food” bell.
I thought that the chickens were safe. Although I had lost the occasional chicken to predators in the past, I had beefed up my chicken yard security, and it had been two years since I had lost a chicken. When the bobcat took the first bird I was momentarily struck stupid. But…I have a seven foot fence. I have a secure coop. How could this have happened? The rule I neglected to fully grasp is that a chicken yard is safe right up until the moment it isn’t, the predators have all the time in the world to look for a way in, and they will wait until the one night you forget to shut the door or the one time you have your back turned. And a fence now matter how tall is ineffective against a smart cat who can climb.
While I was wasting time dumbly trying to understand what had gone wrong two more chickens vanished, one after the other, and there was just a pile of feathers on the ground where they had been. One pile of black feathers. One pile of grey feathers. Like ashes left behind after a fire.
I put up a hot wire, a strand of electrical fencing, just short of the top of the fence. I covered the back corner of the fence with netting, where I thought the bobcat was coming in. I put the chickens to bed well before dark and let them out when the sun was well up. But all of this seemed ineffective; every few days I lost more chickens.
One afternoon in the middle of the day three chickens vanished, including my favourite, an enormous white orpington I had hatched from an egg. The white orpington had been my guard chicken, the mean one who would confront bobcats and coyotes standing just outside the fence and raise a ruckus that had all the other chickens running for the safety of the coop. My guard chicken was not mean enough. I found a big pile of white feathers and nothing else.
I seemed like I was fighting a losing battle; my yard was just not safe, and it was only a matter of time before the bobcats got all the chickens. I needed to do something and fast if I wanted to keep any chickens at all.
But I was too slow. Only a few days later I went out to the coop at dusk and there were no feet to count. I found more piles of feathers and two dead chickens. So that’s it, I thought, as I trudged back into the house, depressed. I’ve lost. It’s over. The bobcats had taken all of my chickens, wiped me out, in less than a week.
The next morning as I was looking out the kitchen window I saw movement in the chicken yard. Curiously, I went out into the garden, and froze in the middle of the path. There were three bobcats in the chicken yard — one large parent and two smaller half-grown bobcat kittens. They had come back for the last of the dead chickens.
“Eric!” I rushed back into the house. “Bobcats! In the yard!” Eric came out of the house with a pellet gun; I turned on the garden hose. We had talked on and off about what to do if we ever actually caught the bobcats in the act. We didn’t want to shoot the bobcats and had joked that maybe turning the hose on them would scare them away. This was our last chance.
Eric cornered the larger parent bobcat in the back of the yard, but it went up and over the fence before he could get it. The two smaller cats were not as smart, and both of them got stuck in the narrow space behind the new coop and the fence. I turned the hose on “jet” and unleashed a stream of water. Wet, and frightened, one cat managed to climb the fence and escape, but I cornered the remaining one with the hose. It climbed the fence but then stayed perched on the top, growling at me as I dosed it in the face over and over again, hoping it wouldn’t decide to lunge at me over the fence in a panic.
The cat seemed to be stuck there on top of the fence, miserable, angry, soaked. I turned off the hose. Why hadn’t it hopped over? Why was it just sitting there?
“Turn off the hot wire,” I called to Eric, who had been chasing bobcats on the outside of the fence. Once the power was cut the cat finally dropped off the top of the fence into the bushes. The fence had been zapping the terrified animal at the same time I was hosing it down.
I haven’t seen any bobcats by the chicken yard for a long time now, but I suspect that is more because there are no chickens left to eat rather than because of our ninja bobcat-frightening skills.
The plan now is to rebuild the chicken yard with a stronger fence and with a roof on it. The yard will become an impenetrable chicken fortress against any known predator in the area. Given my current rate of progress on the new chicken coop this should only take four or five years, tops!