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Murder in the Coop


ON AVERAGE, WE HAVE about 20 chickens living on the farm at any one time. Most are hens, though we always keep one or two roosters to maintain the natural order. The hens are layers, not meat birds—they provide my wife, me and our resident farm crew with eggs for eight months of the year. (As the days shorten, the hens stop laying; we could induce them to lay year-round if we supplied artificial light and heat, but prefer to give them the winters off.) Aside from their male panache, the roosters’ main functions are to announce daybreak, watch over the flock and compete with each other for the hens’ affections. They occasionally engage in violent, even mortal, combat.

The chickens’ diet varies over the course of the growing season. Cracked corn and “layer pellets” are the standard fare, but they consume much else besides: They get their first taste of fresh greens in the form of edible grasses and weeds, or leftover salad makings in spring; they enjoy voluminous amounts of over-ripe tomatoes, jumbo zucchini and squash in mid-summer; they devour wilted kale, collards and broccoli leaves in the fall. They appreciate kitchen scraps, especially rice, spaghetti and stale bread, any time of year.

We’ve noticed the yokes of the eggs are brighter and more orange the more fresh food the hens eat, especially dark leafy greens. In the winter months, when we become dependent on supermarket eggs, a poached or sunny-side-up egg holds little appeal—better to scramble and liven up those pallid, watery ova with fresh herbs or grated cheese.

For several years, I’ve taken responsibility for looking after the chickens—gathering eggs, providing the birds with food and water and attending to their general well being. I’ve observed the more subtle aspects of chicken society and behavior. Each bird, it turns out, is an individual—some are tame, some skittish; some are more dominant and aggressive, some yielding and retiring. The birds establish friendships or compatibilities and each has a preferred place to roost at night. Occasionally, a hen will choose to sit on her eggs and hatch them into chicks. Overall, one senses that this is a community of feathered individuals with its own pecking order and set of mores and rules. It’s not difficult to feel some commonality with them.

It was, therefore, with pained surprise that I visited the coop one crisp, mid-November morning to discover first one, then two, then three, then a total of seven dead hens strewn about inside their fenced enclosure. At first, I could see nothing wrong with them aside from the fact that they were lying prostrate on the ground, obviously something live birds never do. Had they been struck by lightning? Unlikely, since no electrical storms were recorded during the night. Might they have consumed poisonous plants? Unlikely, too, since chickens have an unerring sense of what is palatable and what is not.

Closer inspection revealed a few feathers missing on their necks, along with small, lateral incisions. On a couple of birds a little flesh was removed. It became evident that some blood-thirsty creature had paid them a visit during the night.

I gathered the dead hens and laid them on the ground outside the enclosure so the surviving birds would no longer have to endure the sight of their slaughtered companions (though, to be honest, I’m not sure they were paying much attention to them). While my back was turned, Kobe, the dog, snatched one of them and ran off. (He expertly plucked and ate his booty, leaving behind only the beak, wings, feet and a pile of feathers.) The remaining corpses went into the overgrown cow pasture behind the barn, from which Kobe is excluded by virtue of an invisible dog fence. The carcasses would become food for foxes, coyotes, crows and other resident flesh eaters soon enough.

My co-manager, Joshua, and I agreed that the perpetrator of this criminal act would likely return in a night or two and continue its grisly work. So we waited until after sundown (when chickens are easy to catch—they are practically blind at night), gathered them up and relocated them to their more secure, albeit less roomy, winter quarters in the lower barn.

A couple of weeks passed without incident. Then Joshua sighted a sleek, dark brown, bushy-tailed creature running behind some crates in the barn. A few days later, he discovered a large decapitated bullfrog and suspicious animal droppings among folded row cover stored in one of the barn’s horse stalls. More worrying were the scratches or tooth marks at the bottom of the door to the coop, as well as splinters of wood scattered on the floor. Some animal appeared to be living in the barn and trying to gain access to the chickens.

That night, we set a Havahart® live trap just outside the coop. The murdered chickens from a few weeks earlier were long gone, so we baited the trap with half a rabbit (borrowed from Kobe when he wasn’t looking). Two days later, the doors of the trap were tripped shut. Inside, a slender, dark-coated, ferret-like creature with small yellowish-green eyes anxiously paced back and forth, searching in vain for an exit. Every so often, it poked its whiskered little nose through the lattice of the trap. The animal in the trap was a mink.

Could I allow the murderous spree it had engaged in to go unpunished?

When most people hear the word mink they think of a coat. But, of course, mink are animals in their own right. The long-bodied, short-legged carnivores of the mustelid family, usually weighing less than three pounds, are found in the wild throughout much of the US and Canada. They are solitary and territorial. Members of the opposite sex get together just once a year (in late winter to early spring) to mate. At all other times, they aggressively defend their territories. Though they are land animals, mink are good swimmers and prefer to live in dens along stream banks or near ponds, where they catch fish, muskrats, snakes, frogs, young turtles and marsh-dwelling birds. They are also happy to kill and eat mice, rabbits and chipmunks (and, as we discovered to our chagrin, chickens). They kill by attacking the necks of their prey with their sharp teeth and powerful jaws.

The mink’s lustrous, dense brown coat has been a terrible liability for them and many wild mink suffered a grisly fate in service to the fashion industry. Trapping still occurs, but today, mink populations in North America are relatively stable since most animals destined for the coat rack are raised on farms.

For the best part of the next day, the captured mink stayed with us, periodically feasting on the remnants of the rabbit while I pondered its fate. Could I allow the murderous spree it had engaged in to go unpunished? But killing a trapped animal is not something I care to do, even one so culpable. Moreover, this mink was a strikingly beautiful creature and, in killing the chickens, it was doing what minks do: fulfilling its role in the wild, sometimes joyous, but often frightening and violent dance of life, that we are all a party to. Why should I, who have done some killing in my time, bear it malice?

That afternoon, my wife and I drove several miles from the farm to a relatively uninhabited, wooded area with a small stream running through it. I put on a pair of heavy gloves (a precaution against getting bitten), lifted the trap from the back of my pickup, tilted it almost upright and opened one of the doors. For a few moments the mink held on, perhaps fearful of falling. Then, seeing the opportunity, it rolled out of the trap, paused for a split second on the solid earth, then bounded off in the direction of the stream. It delighted me to watch it.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!