Victim Number One was a six-month-old hen, one of four Marans (a French breed) that I’d taken to calling “The Nouveau Four.” The Nouveaus—two hens and two capons (neutered roosters)—ate, drank, and ventured everywhere more or less as a unit, their solidarity forged in the merciless pecking they’d endured from the rest of the flock (if you think fraternity hazings are rough, try joining a chicken coop). Being low birds on the totem pole, about the only member of the flock who didn’t peck them was Mrs. Van Allen, and that was only because she was a bantam and too small to throw her beak around.
Despite her endearing compactness Mrs. Van Allen was never a very likable bird. She had this way of clucking—really more squawk than cluck—that, well, I don’t speak chicken, but a rough translation might be, “Well, I can see I’m not wanted here! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of respect, after all, it has been my cross to bear from the beginning...” And on and on and on like that, constantly. And that was Mrs. Van Allen on a good day. If she felt the least bit threatened, which was pretty much whenever anyone got within two feet of her, the tsk-tsking quickly turned to loud squawking which I’m guessing meant something like, “Oh my GOD! You’re going to KILL ME! I knew this day would come and HERE IT IS!!!”
I hate to blame the victim but all that yacking only made everyone want to give Mrs. Van Allen a good peck.
None of which justified eating Mrs. Van Allen. That’s right, this tale takes a cannibalistic turn at Victim Number Two. But before you vow to read no further, I can tell you that, while there’s never a silver lining to a cannibalism story, this one isn’t quite as horrifying as the circumstantial evidence might initially lead you to believe.
In short, there is a twist.
But let’s go back to the beginning, when I first decided to open the gate and let the flock roam. I had been through this two years earlier and should perhaps have learned my lesson that afternoon three of my six hens were killed by a wandering dog. I kept them in for months after that but soon saw how bored they were with their little yard, particularly as the flock grew to over a dozen. To me, the argument for or against free-ranging is much like the house cat vs. outdoor cat debate: Yes, a cat that never goes outside will almost surely outlive one that’s chasing mice and climbing trees. But what kind of life is that? So I threw open the gate and everyone was happier for it.
Until that day the Nouveau bought it.
I never found the actual scene of the crime but a crow apparently did. I saw him flying overhead carrying something large in his beak, so large he had to drop it. Before it hit the ground I knew exactly what it was.A wing. The familiar black and gray pattern told me it probably belonged to one of the Nouveaus. A head count confirmed it.
Over the next two weeks there were several close calls. Again, I never saw the attack, only the aftermath: chickens cowering in the coop or dispersed into the woods. I began to suspect a hawk. I’d seen one watching from a nearby tree and once had actually had to chase him off when he landed right there in the chicken run. There’s no way to protect against attacks like this short of turning your coop into a maximum security prison. But the next few days were particularly tense as I watched the skies for the first sign of an aerial assault.
Then one afternoon I made the most horrifying discovery of my chicken-raising career: Mrs. Van Allen’s body, partially eaten, inside the coop.
Chicken-on-chicken crime, every poultry farmer’s worst nightmare.
Cannibalism is one of the dirty little secrets of the chicken world, but it’s only supposed to happen in overcrowded coops and chicken factories, not in the roomy accommodations my flock was accustomed to. “For crying out loud,” I said to my wife. “It’s not like they grew up on the streets of the South Bronx.”
I thought I knew these creatures and suddenly they’d become characters out of “Lord of the Flies.” The whole thing made me question the affection I’d felt for them. As I walked out of the coop, still queasy from the discovery I’d made inside, another question began to emerge. Who did it? Who actually killed her, I wondered. Was it you, I asked, paying particular attention to the two capons, not only because they’d had run-ins with Mrs. Van Allen in the past, but because they were big and powerful enough to have delivered the fatal blow.
I shut the flock in early that evening and was burying what remained of Mrs. Van Allen when a solution to the problem came to me. Kill them all. Send the lot of them to the stewpot.
I might have done it too were it simply a matter of throwing a switch. It wasn’t, of course, which is at least part of the reason I came up with a third option: The Seven Nights Curse. This I intoned, Moseslike, over the flock as they settled in for the night on the rafters: “You have committed a grievous sin and for this you must be punished. For the next seven nights the door to the coop shall remain open. If some creature decides to wander in and eat one or all of you, SO BE IT.”
I pictured them in there that night, nervously eyeing the open door, murmuring, “What do you suppose the big scary human meant by all that?” But, despite what that recent Science Times article said about birds being as intelligent as chimpanzees, I’m sure all they heard was the usual blah, blah, blah.
The flock survived The Seven Nights Curse, it was the days that proved fatal.
If my hunch was right and Mrs. Van Allen had indeed been attacked by the capons, it seemed appropriate—if not divine retribution—that one of them now became Victim Number Three. We were just four days into the Seven Nights curse when it happened. As in the previous attacks, I saw and heard nothing. In fact it was the unusual quiet that aroused my suspicion. No squawking, no birds scratching around the garden, no response to my calls.
Then I saw Lisa in the gap between the garden fence and the composter. She was so still and statue-like that I thought she might be dead. Only when I saw an eye blink was it clear she was alive but frozen in fear.
Lisa and I have never been especially close. She’s the jumpiest of my birds (typical Rhode Island Red) and I often find myself resenting her panicky reactions, assuming I mean to harm her when I’m actually offering a treat. But I’d never seen her or any of the birds act like this before—beyond panicked, bordering on catatonic—and thought it best to leave her alone (chickens often succumb to shock) while I checked on the rest of the flock.
They were all huddled deep within the coop, all save one of the capons, that is. It was while searching for him that I came upon the crime scene. Not of the capon’s murder, but of Mrs. Van Allen’s. I had always assumed she was attacked and killed inside the coop. But behind the coop, near a spot I’d sometimes seen her hide, I found a large pile of her feathers. Reconstructing events, I saw that the fatal encounter must have taken place here and that she, though mortally wounded, had managed to escape her attacker and retreat into the coop, where she died. This scenario made particular sense because it was exactly what had happened in the attack two years earlier (two birds disappeared but one managed to escape into the coop, where it died). The only difference was a lot more time had passed between the attack and when I found the body. Enough time for the flock to say, “Poor Mrs. Van Allen! Oh well, waste not want not!”
It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t murder.
What a relief. I’d lost another bird but I’d regained my flock. Not murderers, just cannibals! I could live with that! The Seven Nights Curse was lifted immediately (I was sorry to lose that capon but very relieved that it wasn’t because I’d left the coop open at night). The killer wasn’t a chicken and it wasn’t nocturnal, which meant we were back to either a hawk or a dog.
My answer came two days later. Again, I missed the actual attack, but this time there was a witness. An alert member of the crew putting up fencing across the road noticed the flock suddenly scatter in alarm and one of them—the surviving capon—being pursued into the field by a dog. Reacting quickly, he chased the dog off into the woods. But not before getting a good description: a medium-sized black lab mix with a white beard. Only one animal I knew matched that description: Lukas, the next door neighbor’s dog.
People whose dogs are accused of killing chickens almost invariably sound like the murder suspect’s mother you see quoted in the paper: “He’s so sweet, he’d never do anything like that!” (Lukas is sweet, I certainly never suspected him.) Fortunately Lukas’s owners have lived in the country long enough to know even sweet dogs eat chickens. They immediately put him under house arrest.
My chicken murder mystery was solved, the killer safely behind bars (well, on a leash anyway).
Unfortunately, while the capon had been saved, it looked like two other birds weren’t so lucky. Louise and Lisa were missing. My hope was they were hiding in the woods and would reemerge at sundown.
Sure enough, as the light faded Louise turned up buck-bucking and pacing nervously at the gate. The flock was back up to ten.
Could have been worse, I thought over dinner. Could have lost a lot more than just Lisa. In fact, as I reflected back on the last few weeks, I thought losing four birds wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. I know people who’ve had their entire flock wiped out in an evening. Most importantly, I knew who the killer was and had taken steps to ensure he’d never kill again.
But I felt bad about Lisa. True, she was my most annoying hen, but now that she was gone I kinda missed that nervous cluck of hers.
Which is why, as I sat on the couch that night reading the paper, I thought I must be hearing a ghost. And when I went to the window and peered outside the scene was indeed surreal and ghostly. There, in a small pool of light cast by the spotlight behind the house, stood Lisa clucking nervously at the darkness all around her.
Since that night we’ve been closer, Lisa and I. She’s still a nervous idiot but, well, maybe it’s my imagination but I sense something’s shifted in that bird brain of hers. She seems to have decided that the big scary human who fills her feeder and replaces her bedding might actually not be plotting to kill her.
A Chicken Murder Mystery