Missouri Ozarks

Gains and Losses

It’s been a lovely week in our beautiful Ozarks. The autumn colors have peaked early this year. The colors, while rich, are unusually subdued, as though they mourn the absence of cloudy skies against which their colors would have vibrated, and rain, which would have lacquered every leaf and brought out the deep colors of bark and lichen.

Still, the colors are exquisite! Scarlets, crimsons, burgundies. Oranges that run the paint chip gamut from Lip Peeling Persimmon to Overripe Pumpkin to Baked Yams. Yellows and golds are harder to come by this year, they so quickly turned to browns. But what browns! There are more shades of brown than I even thought possible! Gorgeous browns. Glorious browns! And mixing through them all, the late, sweet greens.

I read a bit ago that there is one color in the blue-yellow-red spectrum of colors that the human eyes and brain do not register. It is a blend of brown and green. For whatever reason, our human eyes cannot see it.

So curious were scientists about this, they created a special type of glasses that allowed the wearer to see the green with one eye, the brown with another, thus canceling out whatever it is that prevents us from registering the color. The people who wore the glasses said it was indescribably beautiful, like nothing they’d ever seen before. It made me wonder what our beautiful landscape would look like here, today, wearing those glasses.

But even without the glasses, our Ozarks rival the beauty of New England. This year however, it seems Nature harkened back to an earlier time and rendered everything not in silk tapestries, but in homespun quilts, passing up the startling flash and vigor of iridescence for muted calicoes. It’s as if, this year, Nature decided against putting on airs and simply said, “I’m home. I’m comfortable. Please, won’t you come in?”

And I have loved it. It is the kind of autumn I hungered for when I was a child living in cities, in tropical suburbs, in desert places. It didn’t need to be spectacular. It didn’t need to make the September or October “USA Calendar” pages. It just had to happen. One leaf at a time. One goose at a time. One frosty morning at a time. One star-studded night at a time. And though I have seen eleven Ozark autumns now, every one has thrilled me, fill me with delight, and none more than this one.

And yet, this autumn has not been without its share of sadness. Last week, a critter – a coyote, the bobcat, maybe one of the store cats – something got into my chicken pen and killed half of my chickens.

It was awful!

It happened in the middle of the night. I know because the outside dogs, Saba, Sharif and Layla, woke me with their barking. There were coyotes, too. Not too far away, baying. But nothing else. The birds were quiet…

But that darned barking. It went on and on. About the time I’d start to get up, reach for the rifle, it would stop. The dogs and I would freeze, listen. Nothing. We would relax. I’d lay back down and just as I crossed into sleep again, the barking would begin anew.

I should have gotten up, walked around, turned on some lights. If nothing else, even if I hadn’t gone outside, it probably would have scared the critter away. But, it was cold, the bed was warm, the coyotes were in the woods, the birds were quiet. I was tired. It was the middle of the night…

In the morning, when I went to let the birds out for the day, I found the pen door open, the big birds – three huge turkeys and three full-sized geese, scrunched up by the hutch, the chickens gone. I looked around. There was one in the yard. Another in the horse pasture. A third sitting on a nest on the back porch. That was it. Of eighteen chickens, I could find only three.

And piles of feathers. Red feathers by the geese’s pool. Speckled by the elm. Black in the pasture. Multicolored in the weeds. More black on the far side of the truck.

I tried to imagine what happened. Some critter – a fox, maybe, or raccoon, or cat – some small, low critter pried aside the bottom of the door, sneaked in, grabbed a sleeping chicken off the roost, brought it out of the pen ate it, then went in and got another… Or maybe, I thought, a coyote got in, scared the chickens who ran out and were eaten by the rest of the pack? That would explain the number of places remains were found.

But the birds never made a sound.

I don’t know what happened. Folks I’ve talked with haven’t heard of a similar experience. It’s a mystery. A heartbreaking mystery.

Critters either eat an animal where they catch it or they catch it, take it elsewhere to eat, and don’t return for a while. Rarely if ever do they spend an hour dining at the local chicken coop, selecting the tastiest victuals, taking them outside, eating them, and then returning for more. And what animal small enough to get through a six inch gap in the gate could eat nine chickens? That’s how many were gone after the last of the remaining birds crept out of the bushes. Nine chickens!

Still, as much as I hate it that it happened, that I didn’t get up and at least interrupt the slaughter, I also understand that there is a price to be paid for living at the feet of nature. Livestock losses are one kind of payment. Even when I lived at the homestead, sooner or later, an animal would be taken. An eagle snatched a young turkey. Coyotes got a lamb.

It’s always heart rending.

A friend in Washington State recently lost pet chickens to a coyote. She would have lost her beloved cat and possibly her dog if she hadn’t rushed outside to see why the dog was barking.

But there are predators everywhere. Where folks in cities have to be on guard for those who would steal their wallet or car or purse, or otherwise do them harm because of drugs, derangement, or desperation, folks in the country must always be on the alert for animals. Cats and coyotes and the occasional skunk and marauding raccoon.

Frankly, given a choice, I’d rather be on the alert for animals. Even though they occasionally succeed, even they do get an occasional chicken – or nine – animals are predictable. They strike because they are hungry. Because they are frightened. Because they are trapped. Rarely do they strike out in anger. And when they do succeed, when they do take an animal, it is, unapologetically, part of the natural cycle of life.

Really, the only hard feelings are those that come from not having protected my animals, their prey, well enough.


  1. Beautifully written…. You took me away for a moment, out of my hectic city life….. I’m sorry to hear about your chickens, but then again, it’s nature….

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