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Black snakes and other predators.

For the past two years we have been telling our friends and family about the black snakes that invade our chicken coop in the spring. We've told stories of catching these snakes with eggs in their mouths and with eggs strung out in their bodies, five or six lumps at a time. There were tales of how Richard would hold the snake's head while keeping its body in a tall white bucket as I drove the Jeep down the curving and rough road to an open area over a mile away where we would turn it loose. Killing a black snake is against my country upbringing. Although they can be a pest, they do more good than harm by keeping the copperhead and rat populations in check. So, we tell our stories, knowing that most people didn't believe a snake could get a whole intact egg in its mouth. This year is different; this year I kept the camera handy.


But before I continue, let me tell you a little about us and our chickens. First, we are retired and we live on the side of a mountain in Upper Tract, West Virginia. Upper Tract is about 15 miles from Franklin, in the Potomac Highlands of the state. Along with chickens we raise goats, not for food or profit, but as pets. Therefore, the same philosophy goes for our chickens. We have Barred Rocks and Delawares. The Barred Rocks are four years old and are still healthy, although they do lay fewer eggs in the winter. The Delawares are all hens. Our main rooster is "Big Guy," who is a mellow fellow. He doesn't attack, will herd his hens into shelter when there is danger, will referee arguments between the hens and will put the other rooster in his place when the need arises. As the photo shows, he has a fine set of spurs.

Since our flock is free to run during most days (except when we are gone), Big Guy and his partner rooster, Short Toe, keep a watch out for hawks, vultures, foxes or any other wild animal that happens to stop in the neighborhood. No one else lives around us, and the woods are thick, so they have to be on constant alert. More than once I've heard their "alarm" cry and have dashed out, rifle in hand, to scare away a wild animal--a lot more than once. And, we've lost a few hens. Thelma and Louise were two hens that were hell bound to wander down near the river every evening. The weeds were high and the brush was thick and we had seen what looked like a coyote in the area. I would take down a broom and yell at them and hit the ground to chase them back up the hill but to no avail. One evening I heard them screaming and I ran down. When I called out, only one came out from the high weeds. She was trembling as I picked her up and held her in my arms. I never found the other one.

Then there are foxes. During our first year with the chickens we had three different episodes with foxes. I think that since we now have goats, the foxes are less inclined to hang around. Anyway, I had this favorite rooster. Beautiful, smart, and proud, we called him Napoleon and, at that time, he was in charge. We came home one day and found him dead, along with several piles of feathers. We didn't see the foxes but they must have dropped him when they saw us drive up because his body was left in the field. Later that week, it was a Sunday, and we were watching television, when I heard the roosters' alarm. I went to the front door and looked out and saw nothing. I looked out the back and saw only one rooster and a bunch of hens. I double-checked around the front and that's when I saw two dead hens in the yard and two foxes running away. After that I started on a serious predator watch. A couple of days later, this big red fox, who didn't think anyone was home, paraded up the driveway with his lady friend not far behind. I stepped out on the front porch and emptied my rifle. Didn't hit any of them but I kept firing as they raced across the open field. I was told that a fox can remember where they have heard gun shots and will think twice about going through the area again. That's when we started not leaving for any extended time unless we lock the chickens in their pen.

Of course, not every wild animal is a predator. Once, after days of constant rain, so much so that ground water had gathered under the tool shed, all of the chickens were out, milling around, pulling worms out of the soggy ground. Suddenly both roosters started screaming along with a chorus of noisy hens. A mama possum, with a bunch of babies on her back, had headed in their direction. I had seen her all winter late at night stealing the goats' food. After rushing out, I watched as she casually strolled past the roosters and hens with her babies swaying back and forth while holding on for dear life. Before I could return with my camera, she had found a dry hole and was halfway down in it. It was a sight.

Then there was the young opossum that I found curled up in a chicken's nest one night. We were wondering why the chickens hadn't gone into their house and it was past dark. I went inside the coop and turned on the overhead light, and looked around for several minutes before actually seeing him curled up in tight ball. He was hauled away and turned loose. It did make a funny story when I told everyone how Richard held onto his tail as I drove the Jeep, he (the opossum) held onto the dashboard with his little claws as if he was on the scariest ride of his life. I don't know who was more frightened.


Then as I was putting this story together early one morning, the chickens were still in their pen. I usually leave them in for a couple of hours so that they have a chance to fill up with corn and layer mix. Suddenly they all began a sing-song sound, that usually tells me that something is around. It could range from a black bird, a rabbit, a squirrel, or even the cows from next door. I grabbed my camera and got a shot of this opossum hiding in the shed. Then I left him alone. We all live up here together, animals and humans. We've only had to kill one.

It was a couple of springs ago, and the garden had been tilled but not planted. The chickens were in it, digging for worms or dusting themselves in the soft dirt. Then I heard the rooster and looked out. A raccoon was circling them, walking very slowly, in broad daylight, which told me immediately that the raccoon could be rabid or sick. I yelled for Richard and he took the rifle and shot it. It took six shots to put it down, another sign that it was sick. He took it far into the woods and buried it.

Here's a suggestion for those people thinking about raising chickens. Realize up front that it will be a constant battle to protect them. Ours are locked up at night, and so far we haven't had a weasel get in, although one evening I saw a big owl hovering in a tree right over the coop. A few warning shots scared him away. Another suggestion is to always shoot low, since they will fly upward. I wouldn't want to kill one of them. I've had hawks so close that I had to aim not to hit them. Which reminds me of a hawk story.

One Sunday afternoon a small hawk was flying overhead. We had been watching him, but since we were working outside, we figured that our presence was enough to keep him away. Wrong. After going in the house for only a few minutes, I heard the rooster. I ran out in stocking feet and found a hen at the side of the house with the hawk sitting on top of her. Standing over them, I yelled, "Get off my hen!" over and over, but that hawk wouldn't let go of her. I stomped my feet; I waved my arms until finally the hawk turned its head to look at me with his eyes cold and evil. It was as if he was saying, "look lady, leave me alone, I've got a chicken here." But I acted quick and grabbed him by the tail and flung him into the air. He flew away and I had a hen with only a little blood around her eye. The rest of that year I wasn't bashful about firing warning shots. Matter of fact, it got so that the hawks would see me walk out with rifle in hand and would automatically fly away.


One day I heard the chickens raising a fuss, and when I checked they were clustered under the van. I opened the front door and heard what I thought was a dog barking and growling. Our dogs were in the house so I knew it wasn't them. Following the sound, I saw one of the white hens on the hill at the side of the pond, not moving. With feathers puffed out, she was making the noise. When I got close, she quit. Seconds later, I noticed a ground hog scurry into a hole. I had heard that chickens could make different sounds but that was the first time I heard one growl.

Back to the snakes. We have never been able to find out exactly how they are getting into the coop. I'm suspecting that they move in under the building and then enter through the hatch that is left open during the day. The first year that they showed up, it frightened me to no end. For weeks when I checked the nests, I looked all around, high, low, over my shoulder. Now, I'm careful but not as apprehensive. After reading an article about using moth balls to keep snakes away, I tried sprinkling them around the building, being careful to lay them so that they would roll under the house so that the chickens wouldn't try to eat them. But that was after we had carried two or three snakes away, so I don't know if they helped or not. I put some out early this spring, but as you can see from the pictures, it didn't stop this snake. The thing that works the best is to go into the coop every few hours, especially after we have seen one. They can feel your presence, and I understand that they can sense your footsteps. Black snakes do clear out all the rats and mice that usually hang around trying to get into the feed.

The snake in these pictures stretched out over five feet. How he got his mouth around that egg amazes me because his head is normally about one-third the size of an egg. And it looks like he has teeth but it's actually his square markings that are stretched around the egg. The last picture is of the snake moving into high grass after we released it in a field over a mile from the house. Already you can see how the egg has moved further down into his body.

For those who are thinking about raising chickens, ducks or turkeys, don't let this story about black snakes stop you. We love our chickens, they are a joy to raise. We've had hens go broody and raise little ones. We've had hens get injured and had to be doctored. These are the ones who will later jump on your lap when you sit on the porch. Of course, free eggs are nice too. Besides, these eggs not only taste better, they are more healthful than store bought varieties. All of our extra eggs are donated to seniors in the community, many of whom remember living on farms and really appreciate "country" eggs.



If someone would ask for advice on dealing with predators I suggest that they use traps (the humane kind that don't kill) instead of poison, the reason being obvious. They need to build a secure coop and fenced-in run area. Remember the run area should be covered, not only for protection against rain and snow but for hawks and the sort. Secure the fence on the bottom so that animals can't dig underneath and when you see holes, fill them with cement. Every year we have new tunnels that appear under our building. Soon there will be cement totally around it. Then the animals will have to dig further out, then we will have those holes to fill. Like I said, it's constant. By the way, during the days it has taken me to put this story together, we have carried off two more black snakes. Did I mention that Richard wears heavy leather welding gloves when picking up a black snake? Black snakes are slow and can be grabbed right below the head. Don't try this with any other snake, except for those little garden or king snakes that are around in the yard. Absolutely don't try picking up a copperhead. Keeping your chickens safe is an ongoing effort. Keep diligent is my advice and good luck.


It's e-mails like this that keep life interesting ...

COUNTRYSIDE: My wife and I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York in an earth-bermed, passive solar house, built into the mountain. As a result, some of the ground floor is effectively underground. This has lots of advantages: quiet, winter warmth, summer coolness, security--but also some challenges. Our regular and welcome visitors are turkey, deer, porcupine, rabbit, chipmunk and fox; our less-welcome visitors are bear and snake, which unfortunately are becoming more prevalent.

Well, last week my wife awoke me at 3:30 a.m. to tell me there was someone in our house. I assured her that the noise was an animal moving around outside on the deck--but she persisted, fortunately.

We found a three-foot snake trapped in the bi-fold doors to our bedroom. On its way into our bedroom, the snake had squeezed itself between the doors, so as the broader part of the body tried to enter, it closed the bi-fold doors on itself. The noise my wife heard was the snake's back-and-forward movement in an attempt to free itself.

We grabbed anything handy to defend ourselves ... me, a pellet gun and my wife a toilet plunger. However, two dazed, sleepy and shocked people in the altogether with these powerful weapons did not seem to frighten the snake. However, it did cause some amusement to the police officers whom we summoned for assistance. These brave officers swept the snake out onto our deck and to freedom.

If the snake entered our house at grade, which is most likely, he then climbed the stairs before coming into our bedroom. While this visitor was an angry milk snake, the next could possibly be a rattler, which are quite common in our area. Snake repellants, which smell much like moth-balls, do not reassure us. Therefore, can your readers please help us with ideas to ensure no repeat of this event?--Noel Baker, Woodstock, New York


Go jump in the creek

COUNTRYSIDE: I've just read your very interesting article on snakebites in your Jan/Feb issue, kindly sent to me by my sister who lives in Blanchardville, Wisconsin.

The offending snake could well have been a Western Diamond Back, a dangerous snake but with venom not as strong as some rattlers.

As the poor goat was bitten in an area of the body low in flesh content and low blood flow she may well have survived anyway.

However, shock is a potentially dangerous addition to the effects of the bite itself. There are accounts of animals, as well as people, dying from shock as a result of being bitten by a non-venomous snake.

A dog, or hog, jumping into a creek is probably a natural endeavor to alleviate the tremendous pain inflicted by the bite of a venomous snake. Cool water may well dull the pain until the body, somehow, deals with the poisonous effects of the venom.

So, my tip is if any stock, or yourself, receive a bite, keeping calm by whatever method is a good survival strategy until medical help is obtained. If this strategy includes throwing yourself in a creek, well, so be it, but mind you don't drown though.

Best wishes to all of you good folk in Wisconsin.

I am an ex zookeeper, and present day gardener who happens to play the classical guitar (rather badly) Typical Limey!--Martin Branch, Workingham, Berdshire, UK


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Title Annotation:Around the homestead
Author:Simms, Dianna
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Previous Article:Wolfberry update.
Next Article:Just say "no" to the $60 chicken waterer.

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