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The last time I’d heard a sound like that, it was three o’clock in the morning. I’d run to the coop stark naked and pulled open the door on a flurry of flapping hens.
“What’s wrong?” I didn’t expect them to tell me in so many words, but I could read the tone of their voices, the way they pressed against the door, desperate to get out. I raked the walls with the flashlight.
“Nothing here,” I assured them as I lifted each one back to the roost, smoothing their ruffled feathers.
I was pulling the covers up to my chin when the squawking erupted again. I pulled on some clothes. Chickens don’t lie. They don’t cry wolf.
This time, I saw it: a big burly raccoon lounging in an empty window frame.
I shooed the hens outside with me, slammed the door shut, and grabbed the animal-proof screen the raccoon had deftly removed before climbing in. I shoved it back so hard the raccoon fell inside the coop, trapped.
I scan the yard now for my lovely hens and I spot them under the cedars, in the hydrangeas, flashes of red and white and iridescent black, standing as still as children in a game of hide-and-seek.
“There’s a fox!” the red-haired girl screams, pointing to the edge of the woods.
A fox? Maybe, but it’s not red, just a bit ruddy on the chest. A coyote, maybe? Not with a tail like that, thick and bushy, held straight as a bottle brush. The tip is black, not white, though the face is textbook: that finely pointed muzzle, perky ears.
I let out the banshee yell I reserve for bears, six-foot rat snakes, and once, a passel of hunters taking aim into the woods where my sons were at play. The fox noses into the underbrush, stops to look back, then disappears.
Surely a fox won’t walk away from such a banquet. I stand guard as the hens emerge from their hiding places, stepping tentatively into the sunlight, their necks stretched high, heads swivelling like plump feathered submarines. I go to help the red-haired girl, turning my back on the hens until I hear it: a sharp, surprised call that ends abruptly, mid-throat.
Staring down at the puddle of white feathers, I feel murderous. Last summer, after catching that raccoon in the coop, I trapped sixteen more, including a mother and two young, with a third curled up outside, his head resting on his mother’s imprisoned flank. I didn’t spare them much pity, not after finding my hens with their heads chewed off, still alive. An eye for an eye.
But this was a grey fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, an ancient mammal that first appeared three million years ago, with the giant sloth and the first small horses. Once plentiful in Canada, they disappeared with settlement. A few are spotted now and then in eastern Ontario, but there is only one known breeding pair in the province.
Rare and threatened, the experts say. My hens are threatened, too, but even I can’t claim they’re rare. I call and they come running, like dowagers with uplifted skirts. I close them inside their yard, then think better of it and lock them inside the coop. The grey fox has big curved claws like a cat; it’s the only canid that climbs trees, and it would have no trouble with the old apple that bends into the yard.
Maybe it’s a pregnant female, I think as I fasten the gate behind me. Maybe she’s denning in a hollow tree up in our woods. Or maybe it’s a male: they stick around until the pups are born.
Pups. Do I want more grey foxes within sniffing distance of my hens? Actually, I do. Am I willing to give up fresh eggs? Probably not. Will the fox lie down with the hens? Not in a million years.
Can I learn to pay attention to what the hens are telling me? Yes, maybe that.
I wait a week, and when the fox doesn’t reappear, I let the hens into the yard.
“Stick close to home,” I warn, “and if you see the fox, just call. I’ll come running.”