Our yard was strangely, and sadly, quiet this morning.
Yesterday, our lusty, loud and bossy rooster — a white knight to his hens — was killed by a fox.
By all appearances, it was an epic battle, its story told in a trail of white feathers.
But in the end, Jack-O lost.
Originally, we hadn't meant to have a rooster. We had bought six chicks, supposedly all females, to add to our flock. Each new batch has a theme for their names, and this one was first ladies. (No offense intended.) We called the white, inquisitive-looking chick Jackie.
But one day a few months later, one of them started crowing. It began as a raspy, throat-clearing sound. But then it grew into a full, exuberant proclamation.
So Jack-O, he became.
He grew into a gorgeous, proud thing. White with rust streaks, a bright red comb, prominent spurs and a fierce eye.
For four years, he'd been a ruthless guardian of our hens. If someone opened the back door, he'd jump to the roost in the chicken yard and crow, establishing his dominance. If someone drove up the driveway, he'd crow.
And he was a lavish, if sometimes comical, provider. If Jack-O found a bug in the grass, instead of eating it himself, he'd stare at it and make a sound that was sort of like "ook-ook-ook," and a hen would come running to get the treat.
He also did the "ook-ook-ook" thing if I strewed a tasty delight, such as strawberry tops, in the chicken yard. Clearly, he wanted the hens to think that he alone was responsible for the largess.
If hens were fussing with each other, he'd stalk in to discipline them.
They also bore the marks of Jack-O's extreme affection. The favored hens often had feathers missing from their backs.
Most of the time, our chickens stay in their coop and enclosed yard. But it is a splendid thing to let them out to roam the lawn, where they delight in scratching in the leaf litter to find bugs. Or taking "dust baths" in the loose dirt of the garden.
When either my husband or I approaches the gate to the chicken yard, they crowd on the other side. And the instant the door opens, it's like a jail break.
If you've never seen a chicken run, you're missing something.
We only let them out late in the afternoon, when we're home, so we can keep watch. Foxes live in our area.
Generally, we lose about a chicken a year to a fox. As we are the "captors," in essence, of the chickens, we are responsible for their safety. But also their mental and physical health, and regular yard runs seem to enhance both.
We probably would have had more losses, if it wasn't for Jack-O. When the hens were out, he was ever-watchful. Their heads would be down as they scratched for bugs. His head would be up as he scanned the perimeter and the sky, alert for danger.
One time, my husband saw him leap into the air, talons first, to challenge a young hawk that had landed on the fence. The bird flew away.
But that's not what happened yesterday.
Most of the flock was in the front yard, and my husband was on the porch.
Suddenly, he heard a loud commotion out back. He ran around the house in time to see a fox disappearing into the tall grass at the edge of the lawn.
An explosion of feathers by the daffodils told the beginning of the tale. Clearly, one of our hens — it turned out to be Petunia — had met a quick and decisive end and had been carried off.
Somehow, Jack-O must have seen it or heard it.
He would have been incensed.
He would have launched himself at the danger.
And I think he did.
Under a nearby tree was a pool of white feathers.
A trail of them led down a hill.
Then another pool of them and another trail, into a swampy area. I pushed my way through the underbrush and saw a mound of white.
It was Jack-O. He wasn't even bloody. But it looked as if his neck had been broken. I think he was too heavy and fighting too hard, and the fox would have shaken him.
We picked Jack-O up and as we carried him into the yard, we thanked him repeatedly for being such a good provider and guardian for his hens.
It was a sad end, but a good life.