Red in tooth and claw

Story by Johnny Sain

Photo by Johnny Carrol Sain

We got our first laying hens for a couple of reasons: free-range chicken eggs taste way better than store bought (it’s not subjective, there is no comparison) and for organic pest control.

The hens came through on the eggs. I eat a couple every day cholesterol levels be damned. And even with use in other recipes, I give away more than a dozen eggs each month. The jury has been and is still out on the pest control. I was hoping the chickens would curb the ticks that hitchhike into our yard on deer and other critters. Maybe they help a little, but I still pick a few bloodsuckers off of the dog and me. Guineas are the best fowl option for ticks, but the screaming little critters are so easily set off and so loud about it. I prefer the gentle clucks and occasional excited cackles of a hen who has just dropped a fresh protein-packed oval of goodness. As sacrifice for this more peaceful yard — and eggs — I deal with a few more ticks.

Since I work from home, I let the chickens out of the pen every day around lunch to roam our semi-rural two acres. Lately, I’ve been letting them out a bit earlier in the hopes that they’ll pick off a few more ticks. Today I let them out at 9:30 in the morning, right after I finish mowing the front yard.

The chickens love a fresh-mown yard. It’s a chicken smorgasbord.

As I make pass after pass with the mower, the little beings that live within the tangles of wildflowers, Bermuda grass and dandelions move ever inward toward the remaining refuge. But eventually, it’s all chopped up. And the ghoulish chickens feast on the tiny homeless, the wounded and the dead. I’m a winner here, too, because all that free-range protein is what makes for tasty eggs.

I watch the chickens stalk through the fresh trimmings like miniature Allosauruses. They choke down nightcrawlers and chomp hapless crickets and hoppers. They snare lizards and frogs. Nothing escapes their vision. No wad of grass is a safe haven. They are a flock of feathered death descending with hunger on the wee creatures.

And I really dig watching it all. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something about the natural order of things, unnatural as chickens in North America may be. Chickens eat bugs and whatever else they can fit in their beaks. Johnny eats chicken eggs… and maybe that one barred hen who hasn’t laid an egg in months.

But with deadlines looming and work on the computer waiting, I can’t watch all day. I walk back into the house. I think again of the barren barred hen and wonder if I can figure out my Granny’s old chicken and dumpling recipe. But right now, I need a shower.

After the shower and a couple of eggs on toast, I just settle in on the computer when terrified cackles erupt from the front yard. I walk to the door, peering out the glass, expecting to see my rooster bobbing and weaving with the neighbor’s rooster who just can’t grasp property lines.

But that’s not what I see.

Instead, I see Becky, our first hen and most dependable layer, the hen my wife named and my granddaughter loves, waddling as fast as she can in fright. And I see a thin brown canine in hot pursuit. It’s a coyote.

The little prairie wolf overtakes Becky and sinks its canines into her back not fifteen yards from our front door, right in the middle of our neatly trimmed front yard. I yank the door open and hear the hysterical cries from our other chickens, but see no coyote and no Becky.

And then the coyote appears at the edge of our yard. Becky is in his jaws, still alive but silent and motionless. No doubt, she’s in shock. I yell at the coyote to stop and put Becky down — like that’s going to work — and it stares back, yellow eyes dancing with fire, lean torso heaving with exertion and, I’m sure, predatory excitement as adrenaline courses through its veins. I see Becky’s amber eyes as well, and I wonder what emotions are going through her avian mind.

The coyote bolts into the trees. A murder of crows erupt in raucous caws from the woodlot where the coyote ran. And then silence.

At the spot where the coyote snatched Becky, a loose pile of orange feathers bounce in the breeze. Tomorrow, Becky will be coyote poop.

I stand in the yard, mouth agape. A mockingbird arrows down from the rim of the basketball goal in our driveway and nabs a cricket at the concrete’s edge.

The silence is finally broken by the coughing start then steady growl of a lawnmower on the next street over.