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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hen Hunter

Air Date: Week of

When commentator Sy Montgomery found two of her chickens dead, their throats slit, she went after the murderer with a vengeance. But finding the culprit didn't give her the satisfaction she thought it would.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery loves her chickens so much that on cold mornings she will sometimes bring them a bowl of hot popcorn for breakfast. But when she went to the hen house bearing that treat on one recent day – she was in for a shock.

MONTGOMERY: I found one of my hens dead on the chicken coop floor. I had hand-raised all of them from day-old chicks. They’d lived in my office for six weeks, a baby bird or two sitting in my lap or napping in my sweater as I wrote. I loved them all. This death was not just upsetting – this was a crisis. Because somebody had killed her – a killer who might come back. How had it gotten in?

My husband and I spent most of that day cementing even the tiniest holes in the barn’s foundation. But the next morning, I found another beloved hen slain. I bent over to pick her up by her feet—and found that someone had a hold of the other end of the chicken! Her head had been wedged down a hole in the dirt floor. Whoever had killed her had dug its way in. I pulled the hen free, and then out of the hole popped a tiny, pure white head. It stared at me with fearless black eyes. It was an ermine.

Ermine is the name by which we call all three of our tiny New England weasel species when they’re dressed in their white winter coats. Few of us ever get to see an ermine. They are tiny, solitary animals, only a few inches long and exactly the color of snow. Without backing down, the ermine looked at me, square in the eye, for perhaps 30 seconds. I have never seen a gaze so fierce, so intense, so filled with the moment. The ermine had just killed someone I loved. Yet I could not have felt more amazed – or more blessed – if an angel had materialized in front of me. My sorrow vanished instantly. This thing was as fearless as God.

Ermines stop at nothing to kill their prey. They snake down tunnels after rats, hunt beneath the snow for voles. Ermines will even leap into the air to catch birds as they take flight. A biologist once found an eagle with a weasel skull clamped to its skin – even after death, the predator didn’t let go. With their little hearts pounding 360 times a minute, ermines must eat five to ten meals a day. They’re fierce because they have to be. And their ferocity is a thing as pure, and as beautiful, as their snow-white coats.

Holding the still-warm body of my hen in my arms, I glimpsed for the first time the nature of pure forgiveness. When you can see the beauty and perfection of the enemy so starkly and clearly that its glory just floods your heart – then there is no room for blame. Later that day, I set Have-A-Heart traps all over the barn, baited with liver. Ten days later, I caught the ermine. I found her body limp in the no-kill trap. She had died overnight, exhausting her life trying to escape. My hens were safe, but my heart was heavy. I picked up the tiny, perfect, pure white body, kissed her fur, and wept.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of nine books, including: “The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near at Hand.”

[MUSIC: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason “Cows on the Hill” WALTZING WITH YOU (Angel Records – 1998)]



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