Shelby and the Chicks

Our animals amaze me at times. We let the chicks out of their sheltered environment the other day and into the larger cage we use to raise them until they’re large enough to go outside. As part of that process, we introduced Shelby to her charges for the first time. Each year Shelby, our border collie, takes care of our meat chickens for us. The process of introduction is important because she has to understand that the chickens are her job, and not something to play with.

Getting Shelby used to the idea of herding chickens instead of sheep took a little while, but not too long. We got their scent on her so she would associate their scent with something to be protected. Then we introduced a chick under highly controlled circumstances and praised her when she sniffed the chick, but didn’t do anything else to it. We then allowed her to nuzzle and move the chick into a protected area. Again, this all has to do with her herding instincts and getting the idea across that those chickens are her job. Border collies have a strong need to be helpful and to feel they have a task they need to do.

The first year we tried raising meat chickens, we did it without dog support. It was a nightmare. The first night we put the chickens out thinking the chicken tractors would keep them safe. Quite a few were gone by morning because raccoons had damaged the cage, gotten inside, and partially eaten a number of them. With stronger mesh in place, we thought our troubles were over, but the third night a weasel got in by digging under the tractor and bled half the chickens to death. Out of 75 chickens that year, we processed perhaps ten or fifteen—the rest were killed by animals. It was an eye opener for us. If you live near a woods, use chicken tractors to give your chickens a lot of freedom, and don’t want to spend your nights guarding the chickens, you really do need to train a dog.

The second year we trained our first dog, Jif, to take care of the chickens. Now, Shelby has the job. She starts her shift protecting the chickens by viewing each one quite carefully. She paces back and forth, looking each chick over.

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After she is satisfied with the state of the chicks, she lays down but doesn’t take her eyes off of them. During the evening, she’ll get up and check the chicks fairly often. If anything goes wrong, she makes quite a ruckus until we get there to see what is wrong.

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Once we put the chicks (now chickens) outside in the chicken tractors, Shelby will stay with them all during the summer months. Every night she’ll assume her post to watch them intently. She does come into the house during the daylight hours because we can watch the chicks then and we’ve noted the dog won’t sleep on duty. She comes in each morning quite tired and sleeps most of the day.

We do provide her with a house outside, but she seldom (if ever) uses it to gain protection from the elements. What we’ve noted is that she puts anything that she has caught trying to get to the chickens in her house. So, we’ll come out and find a dead weasel or other animal from time-to-time and clean it out. On rainy nights, when we’re sure everyone else will be under cover from the rain, Shelby spends the night inside (mostly because we worry that she won’t use her house—she’ll guard those chickens no matter what).

Animals really are amazing, but only if you let them be amazing. Sometimes, that means working with an animal’s natural instincts to see what is possible. Shelby was bred to herd sheep, but now she herds chickens instead. Not many people would think that possible, but we’ve made it happen with two dogs now and I have no doubt that border collies can work just fine with chickens. Let me know your thoughts on amazing animal behaviors at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Animal Control

Self-sufficiency involves a certain level of animal control no matter where you live. A weasel, raccoon, or opossum (amongst others) can make short work of your meat chickens, laying hens, or rabbits. Unfortunately, literature on animal control is lacking. Even when you review many self-sufficiency books, it’s as if the authors purposely avoid the topic. When you do find information on the topic, it’s often biased or outright incorrect. Our experiences when we first moved here were frustrating in the best of times because we lacked animal control experience. When the deer weren’t eating our trees, the raccoons were feasting on our chickens.

We do have some significant animal control issues at times because we live next to a relatively big wooded area. Even though the woods look empty quite a bit of the time, there are animals galore in it. Of course, we have many of the same animals that appear in city parks, such as squirrels. Except for chewing holes in our bird house and occasionally through the siding on our home, squirrels present few problems. However, there are other animals that are much harder to control and they can cause serious damage at times.

Many sources recommend live trapping animals and moving them somewhere else, which sounds like a fine idea until you consider the repercussions of such a decision. Of course, there are the consequences for the animal, who has now been made homeless and may be in some other animal’s territory. In some cases, moving the animal is a death sentence at the hands of a larger member of the same species who will simply do away with the interloper. The consequences for someone like me are also unpleasant because your problem is now my problem. In short, live trapping and moving an animal seldom solves the problem unless you can be certain that the animal will end up in a friendly environment far enough from humans not to cause trouble.

Generally, we try to shoo animals away when we can. If you make the animal feel unwelcome enough, it’ll go somewhere else. Some animals will simply ignore you. Skunks are an obvious example and personally, I stay as far away from them as possible (not that we’ve ever had a serious problem with skunks, except for the time our dog got sprayed by one). Opossums are generally inclined to ignore humans as well. However, a few nips from a dog generally convinces them to go in some other direction.

Sometimes shooing doesn’t work, so then we try barriers—either physical or scent. A fence around young trees or blueberry bushes will generally keep deer away. However, rabbits, mice, voles, rats, and other animals will simply burrow under the fence to get at the delicious young plants unless you bury the fence about foot or so deep in the soil. Scents also have a powerful effect on animals, but you must reapply them regularly, especially after a rain. Soap does work for deer, while human or other barrier scents work for rabbits much of the time.

Passive barriers might not work in all cases, so then you have to resort to active barriers. To get our grapes to grow, we actually stationed a dog next to the young plants one season. It was an extreme sort of barrier, but the dog seemed to enjoy the change in duty and the grapes have now grown so that none of the local animals have much interest in them. We always station a dog next to our chicken tractors because racoons and weasels aren’t easily dissuaded from enjoying a chicken dinner. Even with a dog stations next to the cages, you need a strong cage to avoid predation by hawks and other larger predators.

Most of our efforts at animal control involve deterrence of some kind. We’ll keep experimenting until we find something that that animal doesn’t like. Unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing else to do but to get rid of the problem by killing the problem animal. It’s always our last option and we do it with a great deal of remorse. The other day I encountered a situation where an opossum had chewed through our rabbit cage, partially eaten the rabbit inside, and was busily working at getting to the rabbit in the next cage. (The same opossum had eaten some of our eggs the day before, so it was a repeat offender.) Shooing the opossum didn’t work and it didn’t seem to want to play dead either (a state in which you can move the opossum out of harm’s way). So, I ended up killing it. We use the fastest, most humane method possible. I offered the opossum to our local fox at her den in the woods (wasting anything is against my personal beliefs).

Animal control requires experimentation and a good deal of thought. The animals aren’t pests; they’re simply trying to earn a living in the only way they know how. Deterrence is always preferable to killing, but sometimes you do need to kill an animal because you have no other choice. Let me know your thoughts on animal control at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Enjoying the Night Sounds

The country has its own set of unique night sounds. Unlike the city, where the sounds of traffic and people talking in whispered tones are pretty much mundane and expected, country sounds vary night-by-night. In fact, the noise of scurrying, shrieking, chirping, and trilling all add to the appeal of a night in the country. Of course, everyone knows about the crickets, but I assure you that the country has much more to offer than that.

The night before last, we hear the songs of coyotes. Some people get this picture of Wile-E-Coyote, super genius, and that’s not even close to what a real coyote is like. Even though they have been known to kill farm animals, we’ve never actually had a problem with coyotes. It’s far more likely that a raccoon, fox, or weasel will kill our chickens. Coyotes yip, howl, and produce a sort of sing-song chaotic sound that’s interesting to hear. We can listen to the coyotes for hours and only become a bit concerned when they get near, which they seldom do.

Sometimes we hear a rabbit’s shriek when a raccoon, fox, or weasel manages to sneak up and get it. The first time you hear the shriek, you wonder what could make such a horrible sound—high-pitched and chilling to the bone. The sound is meant to be piercing and warns other rabbits in the area to get away. A smart predator gets the rabbit without allowing it to make a sound so that it can get other rabbits in the same evening. When we hear the shriek, we know that it’s an unlucky hunter, or perhaps a young one.

Last night, we heard an entirely new sound. Never before have we heard the mating calls of owls. Yes, we’ve heard the terror inducing scream of the screech owl or the harmonious hoot of a barn owl, but never a mating call. It took a while for me to realize what I was hearing. The male started things off with a quick repertoire of hoots that sounded more like Morse code than an owl—dot-dot-dot-dash (the number 4). As the sound got closer, I heard a female reply with a more standard (and less frantic) set of hoots. However, even the female provided hoots in sets, rather than singularly as is usual. The two kept hooting at each other until I could hear that the loudness of the hoots was the same, then the couple flew off to parts unknown.

Our woods are packed with wildlife, much of which comes out to play at dusk. The night sounds tell us that the woods that seem devoid of much life during the day really do have a considerable host occupying them. All these sounds of life keep us entertained and some make us wary. There are times when our dogs warn us of intrusions we must investigate carefully. The night is when our world comes alive with life of all sorts. What kinds of sounds do you hear in the night? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.