Chickens in Bethel, beware. A string of attacks have left dozens of the birds dead in the hub community. Chicken coop keepers are calling it a massacre.
It’s not clear when the first chicken’s blood was shed in Bethel. The Miller household believes that their coop was an early target. Eight-year-old Cordelia Miller remembers the day, which was in early September. Her sister Scarlett had just gone out to collect eggs from the chickens.
“And she came back crying,” Cordelia said.
“I did not cry,” protested her 12-year-old sister, Scarlett Miller.
“You were. You were crying. And then I asked why she’s crying, and she said the chickens are all dead.”
Ruth Miller, the mother, confirmed that they found all 17 of their birds dead.
“It was a massacre,” Miller said.
She said that she reached out to the community of chicken owners in Bethel and learned that there had been casualties at several other coops as well.
“Everyone at first was perplexed, like, ‘What is it? Is it a fox? Is it a weasel? Is it a mink? Like, what could this be?’” Miller said.
And there was another mystery. Miller said that all her birds, while dead, were perfectly intact.
“None of them were actually eaten. They're just, like, killed. It's super weird,” Miller said.
Fast forward about a month, and the chicken community in Bethel learned a little more about who was hunting their birds.
“Alright, so let's see, Sept. 30. That was my first mink encounter,” said Adam London.
London spent all summer building a new chicken coop, which he had just finished earlier that night.
“That very night, I woke up sometime in the middle of the night because I heard a bunch of banging,” London said. “And we had just put a security camera up, actually that week right before that. And so I checked my security feed, and I actually caught the mink on camera.”
The security camera footage shows a mink knocking over some shovels and trying to slither its way through the entrance to London’s chicken coop, but ultimately failing.
“We were a fortunate one,” London said.
Others were less fortunate as the minks continued their rampage across town. At the end of October, some eventually found Pam Conrad’s chicken coop. Conrad said that she should have known something was wrong. Her birds had been acting up the day before.
“When I got up the following morning, my husband was very sad and said, ‘I've got some bad news. Something got all the chickens.’” Conrad said. “Over the process of the day, we found more and more carcasses in various places. We were petrified.”
Conrad and her husband, David McCormick, set up traps, but it wasn’t until a few days later that they found the perpetrators. Out on a walk, Conrad said that her dogs started barking at something underneath the coop.
“They went berserk,” Conrad said.
Her husband got down on his stomach to look under the coop, and that’s when he saw two pairs of mink eyes staring back at him. The neighbors came over with a shotgun. Bang. Bang. The minks were dead.
For Conrad, one of the worst parts of all the deaths was how meaningless it all seemed. Like the Millers’, her chickens had been killed but not eaten.
“That was so just gut wrenching, just the wanton destruction for no reason,” Conrad said.
The excessive killings, while strange, are not that uncommon, according to Phillip Perry, a Bethel-based biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“So that's a curious behavior that seems to happen with many different predators,” Perry said.
He provided what he called the classic example in wildlife biology. It’s when there’s a crust on the snow that will hold a wolf, but moose or caribou fall through and become stuck in the snow, becoming easy prey.
“So it gives the wolf a huge advantage that they normally don't have. Instead of killing a moose, because it's hard to kill a moose, and eating that completely, they end up killing five or six,” Perry said.
He said that the phenomenon of predators going on a rampage occurs specifically in conditions when the prey is unusually easy to kill. He said that’s what happened when some mink found a bevy of chickens waiting for them, already trapped in the coop.
“They're able to, you know, kill chickens pretty easily, and they kind of overdo it,” Perry said.
Perry said that he has heard of mink killing chickens in Bethel before, but not at the scale that has occurred in the past few months. He doesn’t know if there are more mink this year than usual, since the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not closely track mink populations. But he said that raising chickens has definitely become more popular in Bethel, which increases the prey supply.
It’s easy to see the appeal of having a coop. Many owners talk about how much money they save not buying eggs, but for Conrad, the birds are more like companions.
“They get different personalities. And you get your favorites, and then you get your mean ones,” Conrad said. “They pick on each other, and yet, then at the end of the day they all roost together. It's like family.”
She said that she and her husband are rebuilding their feathered family. They’ve reinforced the coop and have already ordered 12 more birds. Conrad said that once you raise chickens, you can't be without them.