Photo by Fotolia/geoffkuchera
Last summer I wrote about losing my entire chicken flock to a predator — apparently a raccoon that got into the coop, eventually with her young to carry out the final mass killing. After each loss I would discover another way the marauders could get in, and would make adjustments, finally reinforcing the rat wire over one window that had been pushed in. After I raised another small flock I had no further problems, until this year.
I’ve discovered two major disadvantages to having free-ranging chickens and not having a secure run to keep them in at times. One: I can’t go anywhere in the evenings from about April through October, because I have to be home before dusk to shut the birds up. Two: I can’t leave at the crack of dawn (or earlier) to go on a trip, as I’ve often done in the past. That is, unless I want to keep the birds cooped up all day, which I think would be inhumane and unsanitary.
Now the Icelandic chickens have always been good about getting up on the roost well before dark. The Buckeyes and the guinea fowl, on the other hand, will keep me waiting till the last minute, maddeningly poking around outside the coop, creeping up to the door only to be distracted and wander off again. Feeding them in the coop in the evening doesn’t work, since some will come in and eat, then run out again while I’m still waiting for the others.
I had gotten tired standing around fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for the birds to come in. So some evenings I would wait almost until dusk to go to the coop, knowing that most of the birds would be up already, and the others would shortly come in. One evening when I did this I noticed that one of the hens was missing. This surprised me, since I haven’t had any trouble with daytime predators, and I wondered if a hawk had gotten her.
Then one morning I thought I could push the envelope a bit when it came to opening up. I very much wanted to go on a birding trip that would require my leaving before sunrise. On entering the coop it was only about half-daylight. Still, the birds were awake and semi-alert, and I thought they’d be able to escape even if a raccoon should come around during the short interval before dawn.
Coming home in the afternoon I again found one missing, and suspected another hawk attack. Then one evening just before closing up I peeked into the pen where I had isolated a broody hen and found nothing but feathers. Something clearly was getting into the coop. Finally one sunny day I came home at 5 PM to raucous squawking from my guinea patrol. As I rounded the bend into my driveway, what should I see but a raccoon emerging from the coop and hurrying off looking very guilty!
At the time I had another hen in a cage with two recently-hatched chicks. The scene that awaited me was gruesome — the mother hen killed and pulled partway out of the cage, head and other parts eaten. Fortunately the chicks were unharmed — one had escaped and was hiding behind the feed can, but I was able to gather both up and resettle them in the house. Still, I had lost two good broodies!
Finally I realized I’d have to keep the coop shut up even in the daytime — at least when there were caged birds inside. However, the enemy wasn’t done with me yet. For some time the small skylight in the coop had been broken, and I had studied it briefly, wondering if anything could get in that way. It would have to be something rather small, I thought, and I couldn’t see any way an animal could get back out once having jumped in. I figured anything smart enough to get in would have to think about an exit plan. Or that’s how I justified not doing anything about it, due to my distaste for projects involving rat wire, screws or a drill.
After several days of no casualties, I entered the coop one morning to find another hen killed, and — you guessed it — the skylight wide open, with one half of the screen hanging down, and no predator in sight!
I studied the scene incredulously, realizing that whoever-it-was had to jump from the top of the feed can to where it could hang on the edge of a door, then grasp the edge of the skylight and pull itself out. Of course the skylight is now securely covered with rat wire.
Meanwhile I had wanted to relocate my guineas to the old chain-link enclosure I had been using last year until something got one of my birds out of there. I had learned from the animal warden that chain-link structures aren’t secure, since a raccoon can send in its young through the chain link to scare the chicken off its perch, then corral it to where the mother is waiting outside the fence so she can drag it out piece by piece. (Someone actually caught this on camera.)
However, this structure had some old, dilapidated rat wire around the bottom which had come loose and I gathered that the predator had taken advantage of a gap in the rat wire. So I hurriedly repaired any gaps I could find, hoping for the best. Unfortunately I overlooked the gap created by the door opening even though I had padlocked it tightly after the raccoon managed to unlatch the door. So of course I lost a couple of guineas before I abandoned that plan.
After the last attack on the coop, I set a box trap for the raccoon, baiting it with the remains of the previous night’s kill. This critter had become so bold that it was trying to come and get the chicken even as I was trying to set the trap! I had to keep throwing stones at it to fend it off. Obviously this raccoon already knows the trap, because she wouldn’t go in, but later I found her sniffing at the chicken from the outside.
My plan was to have a neighbor come over and shoot the raccoon while she worked on getting the bait out of the trap. She’s very good at this, having cleaned out an entire chicken carcass by reaching in through the bars. But my neighbor was busy and couldn’t come over. Meanwhile I was sitting on my front porch watching the raccoon sniffing at the trap and thinking, if I had a gun and had reasonably good aim I could have shot her myself! So I planned to get a gun as soon as possible.
I had one more evening encounter with the raccoon, and when throwing stones didn’t have much effect I finally pitched a 4X4 at her. That really got her moving, and I haven’t seen her since. I now have a 22 rifle, which I’m learning to shoot pretty decently, but it’s useless, because my nemesis no longer shows up until after dark! For now I’m still leaving the coop shut up — and padlocked, since I got to thinking she might figure out how to open the door. And I’m still doing a little target practice, because one never knows …