People simply could not understand why I could not make sure that no hen was ever taken by a fox or other predator. I replied to one chicken-rescuer (many people sent me links to chicken rescue groups online—there are many) that there is no paradise for chickens in this world.
I also got a lot of email from farms and farmers and almost every single one of them said the same thing: It happens, Fran would recover in a couple of months, and good luck with the fox. Kill him if you can. “He’s just trying to feed his kids like you are,” emailed a farmer from North Dakota who knew foxes quite well. “In the summer, he’ll go somewhere else. He is smarter than you, so be prepared.”
I was not.
A few days after the first attack, I saw the fox brazenly crawling through the pasture heading for the chicken coop in broad daylight. I ran into the house. I could pick up the camera. Or I could pick up the gun. A crossroads for sure. I could get a rare photo of a fox or I could protect my chickens and barn cats.
I grabbed the gun, crept into the pasture, and fired a few shots. The red fox stopped, stared at me with ill-disguised contempt, and coolly walked back up the hill.
Two days later, we awoke to find two of our hens gone. We found a trail of feathers leading from the back side of the barn, under a pasture fence, into a ditch and up the hill. The fox had returned, waited until the donkeys were up in the pasture and we and the dogs were sleeping in the house. When Meg and Toots came out of their hole in the barn and made their way toward the feeder, their favorite bug-pecking place, the fox was waiting by a deep ditch perfect for his escape. Perhaps he was with his wife. The plan was brilliant, worthy of Robert E. Lee or Clausewitz.
The feather trail vanished about 20 yards from the barn.
It was war now: Me and two neighbors against the fox. I don’t get too attached to my chickens, but we give them a good life. They had a secure roost at night, good corn meal, and hand-picked garbage (leftover tortellini was appreciated). They could peck around the farm all day.
They are industrious, pompous and great to photograph. My neighbors and I all talked tough about how we were going to shoot the fox. We weren’t going to let him get our cats and our chickens, it was our responsibility to protect the farm, save the animals in our care. You know—wussy guys in the country with rifles.
Each of us took a shot or two at the fox over the next few days, but none of us succeeded in hitting him. But I noticed that the new Donkey Secret Service detail was holding its own. All night, the donkeys were standing down by the barn. It would take an especially foolish fox to take them on, and foxes are not foolish.
As old stories do, this one took a surprising turn. My neighbor called me one Sunday morning. He was upset, near tears it seemed. He couldn’t shoot the fox, he said, he had to just lock his cats up for awhile.
Why not? I asked, surprised. He loved to hunt. “You ought to come up here in the woods and see the babies,” he said. “I found their den.”
The next morning Maria and I got up at dawn and walked up into the woods above my pasture where my neighbor said the foxes had built their den. We almost walked right into three baby foxes, playing, jumping, chasing each other around, right in front of a big hole in the ground with lots of familiar chicken feathers inside. Lord, I thought, there are five foxes living, eating, and playing 200 yards from our chickens. This could not be good.
There was no longer any question of anybody shooting the fox. This was the line for all of us: We weren’t going to let any fox kits starve in the woods. The fox was, after all, just doing his job. He was a family man.
I brought my camera and a foot-long 300 mm lens. If I can’t shoot them one way, I thought, I’ll shoot them another way. A friend called me to say she hoped our chicken budget was large.
I’ve thought a lot about the fox and the farmer, in the two weeks since we saw the babies. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between loving animals and protecting them. Most mornings, I see the adult foxes emerge from their den and cut across the top of my pasture and into the woods. Often, the babies will come out and chase each other around, grab a mouse or bird and dive back into their den. They do not worry about me anymore. The minute I decided not to harm them, they seemed to know it. Two or three times I’ve gone up looking for the babies, but instead found remnants of rabbits, birds, mice, and turkeys. At the moment, the foxes don’t need us, or our remaining chickens.
History suggests that this isn’t the end of the story. The fox knows where we are, and if he does need us, he will come. I am, in fact, prepared to sacrifice some chickens to this family, if it comes to that, rather than try and kill the foxes, which would be easy enough to do. How ironic that two weeks ago I was loading up my rifle to shoot them, and now I can’t imagine doing that. I hope my chickens don’t pay, but somehow, the fox has become more important to me than the chickens.
This trickster has outfoxed this farmer. We imagined he had built his den far out into the woods, where we could hunt it but never see it or imagine it. Instead, he chose a brilliant spot for his den, made it part of my farm. He did the last thing I would have thought of. He built his den right under my nose, which turned out to be the safest place of all.