They came during the day. The night. Repeatedly. Each time they took a bigger chunk out of my chicken coop. Huge claw marks. Decorative boards pulled off the doors transforming the Xs to Vs. Smaller chicken-only doors ripped from their hinges. A bear even squeezed itself through the bigger of the two, originally used as a winter door for the goats and, sparing the roosting hens at first, tore off the in-coop feeders screwed flush to the walls. A metal outer door handle bent like it was made of butter. They violated my tractor shed too, searching for morsels, ransacking empty trash cans, playing with a discarded stand up pool cue rack and leaving it and other detritus in the yard. The edge of the shed’s sliding door was bent, toothmarked and scratched. One night, my pick up truck lost a windshield wiper and a plastic part of the hood to a bear with an intensely keen sense of smell honed in on a sealed 50-pound sack of cracked corn that sat in the back seat for less than 6 hours, windows rolled up tightly against the pouring rain.
Then one night as I slept, not being able to penetrate the two coop doors screwed shut with overlapping boards, the bear stood on its hind legs and pulled out a window, jam and all, entered the coop and absconded with an 8-year-old arancana hen, who had survived many predators over the years. Bye, Mama.
One hen remaining, the security increased. Two motion-sensored floodlights, a Critter Gitter that flashes strobe lights and emits screeching randomized alarms loud enough to wake us at the house 100 yards away, a radio set to the most annoying pop station, a series of red solar powered electronic eyes focused outward to warn the bears of I-don’t-know-what... eyes, a strand of electric wire laced with bacon at nose height attached to an old solar fencer emitting enough volts to deter someone eating raw bacon, and bells — bear bells — on every point of entry. The truth is I was waiting for the fence man to come and surround the coop with a security system like the one around my bees: 7 strands of high-tensile wire with more than a joule of power coursing through. But he was delayed.
I waited. Every morning I would tiptoe to the coop, survey the perimeter to see if anything was disturbed or different. Then “bock, bock, bock,” I would talk to Lucky (her name aptly earned) through the door, awaiting a response. Brrrrrg?, she’d purr.
Lucky followed me everywhere. If I went inside the house, she would try to follow but then scurry to find the closest window, peer in and greet me. Peck, peck. Bock. She became an amusement, to me, to everyone. One day, I was puttering around on the patio, Lucky nearby, when she started to cluck like she was laying an egg. Bock, bock, bock, buh-COCK. Bock, bock, bock, buh-COCK. I looked at her and threatened, “You had better not lay an egg up here.” I knew she couldn’t feel too secure about her nesting box with its location squarely in the middle of the bear’s target zone. Sometimes hens will lay in a secret spot when they are worried. “Just don’t.”, I warned again, glancing in the direction of her coop. And there, right in front of the garden, was a bear. Lucky knew. She could smell it, I guess. And she sounded her chicken alarm. It happened again a week later too, when I was clearing out one side of my shed and she was picking around in the other. Bock, bock, bock, buh-COCK. I joked out loud. “You smell a bear?” Ha ha. I looked in the shed at her. She stood stock still like a chicken statue. Barely breathing, eyes wide. I turned and peered out of the shed. No way, I thought. And there, just 75 feet from me: a bear. I yelled and waved my arms like a maniac. I used my most scary mommy voice reserved for when the kids were naughtiest. It boomed toward the bear. Black fur shining, brown muzzle pointed toward me, cute rounded ears, the bear looked nonplussed. It ambled into the woods, but not far before it started to dig for grubs, obviously not its first choice for lunch.
While all this was going on, my farmer friends two zip codes over were experiencing bear issues of their own. “Brooke,” a well-known 500-pound sow was making frequent stops at their coop. She took one look at their Critter Gitter and with a glance toward their wildlife camera said “Oh, goody! Looks like I hit the jackpot!” just before walking past it into the full coop. Other bears, smaller but similarly persistent, were making the rounds too. And my neighbor down the road had a variety of bear sizes show up at intervals, his 30 hens on the line.
On good advice, I called the Department of Environmental Conservation (the DEC) and dialed the prompt for the Bear Unit for help. Mistakenly calling the wrong zone, I first spoke with a very helpful Eli who reviewed the all-important checklist with me:
1) Remove all food
2) Install electric fence
3) Add radio for disturbance
4) Add Critter Gitter for surprise
5) Add electronic eyes
Check, check, check, check, check. He was impressed. He informed me that because the bear had interfered with (aka killed) my livestock, I was authorized to shoot it. Really? My Pro Marksman training from summer camp when I was 10 flashed into my mind. No. I don’t even have a gun. But the idea of shooting the bear swung in my consciousness, back and forth. We do have a bow, some pretty lethal-looking arrows and a bullseye target, I thought. My daughter is a pretty good shot. Nah. That’ll never work. In theory, shoot the bear. In reality, not a reality. But I had offers. No less than five serious offers to camp out and shoot the bear. My bear.
“Why don’t you come and get the bear?” I asked. I had seen red and yellow plastic tags in some bears' ears, indicating relocation or tracking. “Well, we only come and get them if they come IN your house.” Good lord. Really? You won’t pick up a bear that has habituated itself to my yard, near my house? A bear that gets closer with each visit? What about a bear that comes during the day and won’t leave even when I yell at it and act really scary? Nope. He reminded me that I live in the middle of bear country. I imagine the bear coming IN my house. At night I close the sliding glass doors and lock them. I clean the kitchen extra well. Sigh.
I shared the wisdom of the DEC with my neighbor. He employed most of them. And then, while he was home in his yard one day, a bear ran right by him, smashed through the screen door of his coop and ran for the woods with a live chicken clenched in its teeth, squawking. That was the beginning of the end. Despite added security, the bear came back. The next morning only three of 30 hens were left, two of them maimed. And two days later, none. Then the day after that the bear entered his screened in porch. Is that IN the house enough?, I asked the DEC‘s Bear Biologist, now in the appropriate zone? Nope. ”He probably left food for the bear... like a bowl of cherries.” he said. What? No.
If I were a bear biologist, I would want to help people better understand bears and how to deter them, like Eli did. I would also want to help the bears find a good place where they can exist without resorting to human food sources. Although, I guess those places are diminishing. If I were a bear biologist, I would certainly not want someone to shoot the bears. But our bear did not rank high enough on the bear threat meter to collect it. “You are authorized to shoot the bear if it eats your livestock.” he repeated from the manual.
My neighbor did not need that permission. All his chickens gone, he put a pile of cracked corn in the driveway and waited. He had shot after the bear previously, but had either missed or the bear did not think the sting deterrent enough. My neighbor traded in his shotgun for his grown son’s more powerful one. He camped out and didn’t move a muscle until the bear showed up. He fired. He hit it in the rear sending it skittering sideways where its sheer mass and panicked force toppled a full manure spreader like it was a tower of children’s blocks. He shot again, this time into the dark. The bear made for the woods. It has not been seen again.
A report from my farmer friends down the road read, “One less bear here.” That's two.
Weeks later and I have seen more bears and heard myriad reports of others. A mama bear with a hurt foot (from a trap perhaps?) limping around with three teeny cubs. Another bigger mama at my friend’s coop, training her cub on their hens, both ignoring the netted electric fence perimeter. No more bears have come to my coop. The new electric fence and gate, lined with chicken wire, intimidates even me.
Prepared now and undeterred, I just added six more hens to the flock so Lucky could be Lucky #7. I hope she will fill them in on the code word for bears. Bock, bock, bock, buh-COCK.
XOXO, farm girl