How the Hen House Turns: Hunting Dogs as Bird Sitters

How the Hen House Turns: Hunting Dogs as Bird Sitters
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Of course our dogs do not reside in the Hen House. They have a huge pillow bed and a life-sized artificial bear rug to sleep on under my desk-door-resting-on-file-cabinets and a closet devoted to the double-dog-door system husband Don invented to prevent heat loss (into the closet, then outside.)

The dogs’ job is to watch and protect the birds while they’re out in the yard, even now at age 13 ¾, but only when it’s sunny and warm. They do their job effectively, except when the hungry hawks that nest next door are on the hunt.

A hawk got my old hen Jupiter when the dogs were off terrorizing chipmunks in the woodpile. The hawk must have startled the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz. I hunted all over the yard for them. Finally I heard their quizzical quack and found them outside the back fence, waiting for me to let them back in.

Some years later the hawk, probably a chicken hawk, got Butterscotch in a heavy rain, when the birds were hunched under an apricot tree. I thought they were safe there, hidden. All we found was a small pile of feathers.

The dogs managed to kill a skunk one week, without getting more than a token perfuming. Poor thing. We hadn’t seen a skunk in the yard for several years. In the 80s they lived under the Hen House,  and in the 70,s our current dog Poncho was best friends with daughter Indra’s pet skunk Streak. Her story has been told earlier in this column.

The gophers are also long gone from the yard, after a summer-long pursuit that left a six-inch deep trench in front of the Ponderosas that frame and shelter the Hen House.  I haven’t had to clip the dogs’ nails since they were pups. The gopher the dogs caught was huge.

All this hunting instinct, but DeeDee and Scooter, probably a heeler/pointer mix, have never harmed a Hen House bird—not even when Turkey tries to take a peck at their dog biscuit. All she gets is a warning snap, but she gets the message. The birds like to hang out in the sun with the dogs near the back porch.

Now the dogs are aging. They don’t dig for gophers any more, and last year their holes invaded the yard again. Even in the dogs’ territory. This year, maybe due to the drought, they have disappeared.

A few months ago I decided to get out the clippers. The dogs’ nails had grown long enough to make them skid on the back stairs—not a good thing, for DeeDee’s arthritis is slowing her down.

They would have none of it. They acted as if their feet were covered with raw nerves. The struggle was not worth the angst and near misses. The solution? I found old rugs to cover the back stairs and give the dogs’ nails something to hold on to.