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Herding chickens

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It never happens at a good time, or even as expected. One minute I'm calmly watering the tomatoes, the next I'm Chief Poultry Detective, looking over a cluckless coop crime scene.

Eight hens were missing, a bottom board of the chicken coop was shattered inward. Trails of white feathers led one way, red feathers were piled in a corner.

I knew chickens were amazing survivors, they come back from the dead like unwatered plants. I just had to find them quick--and get them away from whatever dog, fox or possum had just come by for dinner. A most loyal follower of any conflagration, our retriever looked very guilty standing at the edge of the woods 30 yards away. Yup, she had chicken number one cornered, gumming the poor thing like a rag doll. Both chicken and dog had that confused "what happens next?" look on their faces.

Coaxing the dog into the house, calling for back-up from my Animal-Planet daughter, we set about the task of rescuing the flock. That first chicken was easy, she was in a state of shock, just let herself be picked up and cradled back home. I swear five minutes later she had forgotten about the whole incident.

You herd chickens by walking in slowly closing spirals. It's all math really, cut off the angles, "convince" the girls to simply walk back into their coop. With two whooping herders, there's a fair amount of random probability theory, too. We found two chickens in the woods scratching for bugs in an old compost pile. With the dogs and unknown marauders at bay, the pair spooked at our advance and ran for the open coop door. They told their buddies of the land of milk and honey out there, greens and insects as far as the eye can see.

We ranged deeper into the woods, finding one more survivor under a pine tree. It took us 20 minutes to convince her that her same, old four walls were better than being a late night snack. I could not believe that this was our father-daughter moment of the week, each of us running through bushes, hurdling low branches, tick magnets of the century.

It was getting dark. Chickens will always find somewhere to hide or tuck themselves into at dusk. I just hoped whoever broke into the coop was long gone, the chickens missing would be safe til dawn. With a flashlight, we found one more chicken by remaining perfectly still and listening to the crickets and the windÉ and a rustling near the garden.

The next morning, fortified with coffee, my wife and I went wandering around the coop. I was happy for the girls we had found but figured we had to look farther and wider. One overnighter showed up when we roamed past the garden. She was no dummy, she would not leave the safety of branches she was hiding under. I just grabbed her. Back in the coop she had some huge drinks of water.

We found one more chicken 50 yards away from the coop, missing all of her feathers, with an open neck wound. She walked right over to us when she heard our voices. She stayed alive for another 12 hours. We never found the last chicken.

The coop is once again heavily fortified, varmint proof for the summer, I hope. Two days later the chickens were back laying an egg a day, complaining about the heat, asking for more greens and teasing the dogs by strutting along the edge of the chicken wire window on their 2-by-4 roost.

Chickens. You gotta love 'em.

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