After confirming Rita wasn't inside the coop, I searched the whole yard, checking under every structure and bush and in the overgrown ivy where the chickens sometimes hide. Dakota and our son came down to look too, but there was no sign of her--and no sign of a struggle. No pile of feathers or blood trail. Nothing.
I looked over the neighbor's fences and into the no man's land below our back yard, and Rita wasn't there, either. To be honest, I highly doubt she jumped a fence or squeezed through a hole in the gate. The chickens have never shown any interest in leaving the yard or getting too far away from their coop, even when I've (stupidly) chased them.
The last time I saw Rita was last night just before sundown. She was with the other hens, scratching around in the dirt near my garden. My son and I even spent some quiet time watching the hens free range and shooing them away from the artichoke patch.
After dark, I went down to the coop and closed the door to the run. I didn't check to make sure everyone was inside, because the idea that one of the chickens would have stayed out after dark never occurred to me. Even now, I doubt that's what happened. There would be no reason for Rita to stay out when all her chicken sisters were already settling in for the night. Chickens do not have a taste for the nightlife.
My current theory is that Rita was carried off by a hawk sometime yesterday evening. This is hard to believe--Rita is a full-sized chicken--but I have seen hawks eyeing the girls before. Once, a hawk tried to swoop down and grab one while I was in the yard with them. That attempt was unsuccessful, but maybe this time the hawk got lucky. I hope not.
Has anyone lost a chicken to a hawk before? Would there really be no sign of a struggle? And wouldn't I have heard something? I was up in my son's room, which overlooks the back yard, at the time I suspect she disappeared. I feel like there would have been a screech or a loud cluck or something if a hawk suddenly grabbed Rita. Wouldn't the other girls have made a fuss--or been skittish this morning when I let them out? Still, a hawk attack seems like the most likely scenario.
The only other explanations I can think of are (1) escape and (2) theft. These both seem pretty unlikely. I keep hoping Rita will just suddenly show up, and I haven't ruled out posting a "Missing Chicken" sign or two. I guess she might have wandered off. Maybe? Poor Rita. She is/was so young.