Job number one on our farms is to ensure the well-being of all our girls. Sometimes there’s more to that than you’d think. Take it directly from Robert, who recently had to deal with an unexpected guest on our farm:
One of the trade-offs we make when we raise poultry on pasture is that by virtue of the fact that the hens live outside and enjoy a more natural, healthy way of life, they are sometimes exposed to predators. Although few things are more infuriating than finding the remains of one of your birds strewn about the pen, it helps to remember that the predators are not malicious or evil; they have a job to do, and they are going to do it until we can figure out how to stop them. Despite the fact almost every critter from a skunk to a coyote enjoys a delicious chicken dinner, it is possible to protect your flocks from predators. Electric fences, motion-activated lights, flashing predators-lights, and good, solid chicken trailers are all excellent passive counter-predator measures. But sometimes, a wily critter figures out all your tricks, and it is time to get active.
This winter, I started noticing little scatterings of feathers in various secluded spots around the farm near the pens. No other remains; no bones or blood or anything. Just feathers. The only animals around here that can eat a whole bird and leave nothing behind but feathers are the neighborhood dogs, or coyotes, and the electric fences usually do an excellent job of keeping those guys out. As I examined the signs and clues, I began to suspect another culprit. These kills did not have the characteristic messiness of canine activity. There was a precision and economy to this predation that led me to a depressing conclusion; that we were dealing with a Bobcat! An afternoon of snooping around finally yielded one large print – more round than a coyote or dog print, and without the tell-tale toenail-marks. A great big Kitty track.
My options were to try to sneak around in the woods at night, hoping to surprise and shoot an animal that was much better-equipped for sneaking around than I will ever be, or to try to live-trap it. I hate the idea of killing an animal that is just doing its job, trying to survive and perhaps feed its young. There is no glory or fun in that for me. After all, we put a delicious chicken-buffet right in this cat’s hunting-ground. It is our job to keep the hens safe, and to not lead the predators into temptation.
I bought a large live-trap, four feet long, three feet high, and two-and-a-half feet wide. I set the trap in the woods near the spot where I had seen the print, covered it with a tarp and laid some old brush and branches up against the side. The next step was to slide the gate of the trap open, and tie it with wire so that it would not close if an animal entered it. A buddy of mine who had trapped bear in Alaska had told about this method, called “step-trapping”. The idea is to get the animal accustomed to the trap by degrees over a period of time. Even the hungriest of hunters isn’t going to go head-first into a small enclosed space without a lot of investigation, no matter how delicious the bait might smell.
I bought one of those ten pound tubes of hamburger meat at the grocery store, and threw some on the ground around the trap and in front of the opening. Over the course of the next week I moved the bait a little closer to the opening of the trap. Each morning the bait was gone. On the fourth day I placed the bait just inside the doorway. The next morning it was gone. I placed the bait deeper in the trap. The next morning it was gone! I was still finding signs of predation, so it was very difficult to be patient and allow this process to work itself out. I finally tossed some bait deep into the trap, all the way to the back so that it rested on trigger mechanism.
The next day, not only was the bait gone, but there were feathers inside the trap. The Bobcat had grabbed a hen and taken it into the trap to eat it. I’d say it had gotten pretty comfortable with the trap, at this point. I tossed more hamburger meat into the trap, untied the gate, and set the trigger. The next morning, a big, fat male bobcat was glaring at me through the bars of the trap.
I must admit that I gloated for a little while, and I may have shaken my backside in the direction of the Bobcat and verbally taunted him, before we called animal rescue. I’m not proud of this behavior, but it felt good.
Austin Wildlife Rescue did a great job removing the trap from my truck, tucking it away in a quiet place for a while, and then transporting and releasing the big guy into an area where he can hunt safely and not be a nuisance to anyone but the poor critters he likes to eat.
So the hens are sleeping better at night, and so am I. And next time a large predator finds its way onto the farm, we will be more than ready for it!