Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Owl Massacre

Now that the dust has settled, so to speak, and because visitors here have been surprised at the carnage caused by one owl, I thought I should write a bit further on what may come to be remembered as the Owl Massacre of '10.

This kind of situation is rather rare for a few reasons, one of the biggest reasons being the sheer amount of deaths. Owls don't usually get much opportunity for mass kills in one location at the same time unlike, say, a weasel which might often get to corner several mice. So let's look at the thing from a few steps back, both at what has been observed and from there to what likely happened.

Our farm is out in the open, the nearest tree stands being at least a half mile off, so owls have not usually been a problem. We see them fairly often but when they are around they tend to avoid the building cluster and hunt in the fields or down on the lake. Lately, however, a small flock of pigeons (cursed rats of the sky) has taken up residence in our barnyard, often hanging out in an old barn (that is no longer used other than storing some hay) or in our "chop" bin ( an old central building used for ground or rolled feed storage). A couple months back I found one dead pigeon in the chop bin, laid out in as a fine finished feast just inside the door. At the time I marked it up to a stray cat, but I have since changed my mind.

Yesterday I noticed that I could only see one pigeon nearby. So, I am thinking that all the coyote activity nearby is starting to knock down the local mouse population and this owl has been drawn closer to the buildings, to get at these fat, dumb pigeons. Then, having decimated their population, it took notice of the loud clucking sounds and the yummy chicken smells emanating from that small window glowing bright in the darkness of winter evening.

I had been told that the owl had pulled the screen off of the window in order to get into the building, which I found somewhat amazing even though it was a tad lightly secured. But when I got there yesterday I saw that the screen was torn from its frame up in one corner...the owl had torn its way through and just knocked the frame loose as it scrambled in.

Now when I was first told that 61 hens had been killed my first thought was back to years ago when a mink got into our coop one winter, and proceeded to slaughter most of them. I knew that owls tend to be a snatch and fly off sort of predator, poorly designed for multiple kills, but I still envisioned some kind of slaughter. Then dad mention the owl's wingspan and I got to wondering how many necks might have got snapped just in a couple of blows. Sure enough, when I got to the farm, I didn't see one bird that looked to have been killed with beak or talon...although I must admit that it was a big pile and I didn't see all of the birds. What likely killed most of them was actually being smothered. The sound of the owl tearing through the screen and then suddenly scrambling through will have sent the flock into a panic, which results in crowding into corners. As a matter of fact, when dad got there the first time, the owl was actually just sitting up on one of the roosts. He hit it with something, I can't remember what he said, and went to get a shovel to finish it off. When he came back in, it was back up on the roost. So apparently it was not in any kind of killing just didn't know how to get out or it would have grabbed a bird and been gone.

This was a real shame but it was not as devastating as it could have been or even as it first seemed. I wonder if we shouldn't have processed another 25-30 birds for meat, as the building was filled about to the maximum, if not slightly over. It is now no longer an issue at all, and, thankfully, most of the girls have already started laying again. At this point, Mom feels she should be able to continue to service her existing client base although any real cold spells might knock their production down...since their numbers are down and the room will be slightly colder. So I guess later this year we can learn how to add pullets to a mature flock without them all getting killed. I'll have to get on adding the straw bale addition to the north end, so there is more room inside next winter.

That's about all I guess.


Theresa said...

I'm sorry to hear about this Jerry. I hope some how you and the chickens and the owl can come to some kind of agreement. That sounds strange I suppose, but I just hope that some balance can be struck that works. I'm glad things aren't as bad as they seemed at first.

Jerry said...

Oh there will be no agreement I'm afraid. That might be the worst part. It would have been back again and again and we'd have had to keep a constant eye on them even in the daytime, or have kept them inside all the time.

Thanks for the concern though, Theresa. You know I wish there could have been a more balanced outcome as well.

Theresa said...

Oh right, I did read that the owl was dead but somehow forgot that part when I was writing my comment. Well, this owl's actions might change things so that another owl is spared later, I suppose. And the chickens too. I would be a terrible animal farmer. I would always be upset about something.

Jerry said...

It can eat at you if you let it, that's for sure. Luckily I've had my Dad's example of how worrying about it too much can be harmful. Yet again, its all about balance.

Avian Aqua Miser said...

That makes more sense! I was wondering if it was possible that the owl came in to steal a chicken then got stuck and confused and killed most of those birds accidentally.

On the other hand, I'm starting to learn that there are times that you just have to kill wild animals on a farm. The deer were wreaking havoc on our garden last year, so we finally gave in and started hunting. Now we have good food in the freezer, and a deer-free garden!

linda said...

Okay, this makes more sense. I'm still very sorry for all the loss (even the owls) but I understand that it had to be done.