Cold Nights, Naughty Chickens and An Owl Sighting

Nov 25th

Temperatures have been dropping here in the great Northwest. More than once I’ve gone out into the cold, dark morning to find my car twinkling with a layer of frost. Beautiful to look at – but brrrr!

You would think then that my chickens would be more inclined to overnight in their warm, snug coop. Think again!

Three of the girls, Clover, Thistle and SweetPea have conspired to break tradition and have been sleeping outside on the highest roost in their run (our run is  fairly large for six chickens, 10X11X7). Eventually Blackberry and Buttercup joined the others. But poor Bluebell is too large to fly up to the high roost and has been snuggling into the dirt or, smartly, retreating to the coop all alone.

Last weekend I decided enough is enough and have been going outside around 7-8 PM (well after dusk) and tossing the girls one-by-one into the coop and shutting the door. The actual coop resides outside of the run and has an automatic door that closes around 8, but I’ve had to disable the timer due to the naughty girls outdoor slumber parties.

Last night my husband and I reluctantly bundled up and headed out for the new nightly ritual of chicken tossing. This time though, I had quite a shock. An owl was perched on the chicken coop – literally separated from the girls by only the chain link and mesh that makes up the walls of the chicken run and perhaps 12″ of air space.

We startled the owl and it flew away to a nearby branch on a snag. The girls had been blissfully sleeping, oblivious to the spying predator. Clover, nestled up right against the wall of the coop, woke up when the owl flapped away and immediately started clucking in fear. Thistle soon joined. And now I had panicked chickens on my hands. I ran and grabbed a flashlight and my husband quickly started stuffing chickens through the coop door and double checked everything was locked up tight. It sounded like we were strangling chickens rather than trying to protect them!  Buh-aaaaaAAAAWK.

The owl remained. Watching from a short distance away. I shone my light on the owl. It appeared calm, unaware of the chaos it had sparked. It stared unblinking for a moment, then turned it’s head away from the bright light. After getting a good look my husband retreated back to the warmth of the house.

I grabbed my trusty Golden Field Guide A Guide to Field Identification; Birds of North AmericaI and started flipping pages. Aha! After confirming with my husband, we concluded we have a spotted owl on our hands.

Owla

Spotted owls are actually a declining species here in the Northwest and are being out-competed by barred owls that migrated from the east. They are  quite rare, and so I paused when I first read the description and had to double check with my husband that what we saw was spots and not the more common streaks of the barred owl. But no, he agreed, that was spots we saw on the head, neck and back. And the owl was more of a rich brown. Which begged the next question, what was it doing eyeing my chickens? Spotted owls, reportedly, primarily eat rats, mice, voles and other rodents. Barred owls eat those too – and other birds. But those tell-tale spots don’t lie.

So perhaps the owl wasn’t considering chicken for it’s next meal. Maybe it was after the rats that have been making nightly visits. Our property abuts a small riparian area – a creek and second growth woods of alders, poplars and native rhododendron. Recently I discovered a rat had wiggled its way into the hanging chicken feeder. Since then I’ve been bringing the food indoors overnight. If the owl is after the rats, I welcome the new neighbor. But none-the-less, we are going to be extra cautious with the girls. Starting today, I’m going to remove the roosts from the coop. I hate to do it – I know the girls love to roost during the day too, but enough is enough! Once they get back into the habit of bedding down in the coop for the night, I’ll bring back the roosts.

 

Photo Credit: Spotted Owl. USFWS. Licensed under creative commons license 2.0

Photo Credit: Spotted Owl. Tom Benson. Licensed under creative commons license 2.0

Photo Credit: Barred Owl 6. Ken McMillan. Licensed under creative commons license 2.0