Chicken keepers understand, without a doubt, that a farm is a tenuous balance of predators and prey – nature’s checks and balances. Chickens, after all, look for ways to die. So unless you build the poultry version of Fort Knox, or imprison your birds in a bunker with a concrete foundation, you will, on occasion, lose some souls to any of the predators of chickens. The best strategy for stopping thieves is vigilance.
At our farm, the 30-plus laying hens roam free in a large fenced-off pen with the goats, adjacent to the pigs. They have a homemade coop in which they dutifully put themselves away each night at dusk, as well as an old Butler grain bin in which to take shelter. An enormous, hollowed out silver maple tree is their chosen spot to roost and enjoy the shade in the heat of the day. Admittedly, much of the ground is scratched bare (all the better for dust bathing), but a large area of the chicken yard also consists of tall weeds, saplings and grass, where they go exploring and scratching for insects.
Despite all their free ranging and the “entertainment” available to them, chickens (and turkeys especially) do not like to stay put – enabled, of course, by their wings, which we don’t clip. In fact, a group of our Midget White turkeys and Dorking chickens take an evening stroll every night around the barns, investigating the new grass growth and the birds in an opposing yard. By their wandering nature, poultry are vulnerable to predation. Nevertheless, there are measures you can take to reduce your losses.
You either can eliminate predators by lethal methods or you can employ tactics that prevent their access to coops and pens. Since the former is nearly impossible and sometimes illegal, we’ll focus on strategies that deter predators, or keep them out entirely.
The usual suspects
Before you can control predators of chickens, you must first identify them. Determine where, how and when birds are lost. What does the damage look like? Are the birds maimed, or is there just a pile of feathers left behind?
A simple, but not fail-safe, first method of deduction is to lay sand around the crime scene area. Smooth it out just before confining your birds for the night. Examine it in the morning for tracks. This requires perseverance because tracks can quickly be destroyed by your chickens, or predators may visit intermittently.
The list of poultry predators is long, but they all leave a calling card. Channel your inner CSI when examining the evidence.
Many domestic dogs (including your dogs) may kill for sport, simply maiming the bird and leaving it to die (they lose interest once the bird stops moving). Dogs who kill for sport often kill large numbers of birds at once. However, some dogs kill and devour the entire bird, leaving just the feet and head, and a sea of feathers.
Domestic and feral cats will eat small chicks entirely, but leave the wings and feathers of young birds. Cats have been known to kill full-grown chickens; they’ll consume the meaty parts, leaving the rest scattered around.
Raccoons hunt alone or in tandem with their family group. They’re nocturnal, so they’ll attack at night, kill more than one chicken, and eat mainly the guts. You may find the carcass(es) far away from the coop. They also steal and eat eggs from nest boxes.
Raccoons also have the tendency to reach into a pen and pull off a chicken’s head or leg – whatever it can grab – so if you find a bird with its head and crop missing, a raccoon should be at the top of your suspect list.
Opossums hunt alone, and they attack and devour small birds on the spot. In addition to robbing nests of eggs at night, opossums will sneak up to sleeping birds on roosts and take a bite out of a breast or thigh.
Skunks hunt alone at night. They are notorious egg snatchers, often leaving shells behind, and you may or may not smell their telltale odor afterward. Once they’ve killed a chicken, they’ll eat the entrails and leave the rest.
Rats carry off baby chicks and roll away eggs. They’ll also chew off beaks, gnaw on legs and pull out feathers from roosting birds. Look for rat droppings (supersized mouse droppings) around feeders and/or feed storage bins to confirm your suspicion. Install hanging feeders for your chickens to deter rodent-snacking.
Most birds of prey (hawks, eagles, owls) have the ability to carry off a small bird (young or bantam), and you’ll find only feathers. Owls and hawks will enter barns or coops through small openings or fly through windows; they’ve been known to sidle up next to sleeping chickens on the roost.
If you find a bird with its head and neck missing, the killer may be an owl. If you find just feathers scattered near a fence post, the thief could have been any flying predator that perched on the post just prior to its attack.
Coyotes usually hunt just before dawn and just after dusk, and they often can be seen trying to break into the chicken pen. They will take whole, mature birds on pasture.
Foxes will typically drag off a whole, free-ranging bird, but rarely enter the chicken coop.
Weasels (includes ferrets, fishers, mink, martens) like to kill for fun, sometimes hunting as a family and doing tremendous damage in a short time. They can squeeze into housing through holes as small as an inch and will sometimes reach inside a pen and rip off the head and neck of a chicken. If you find carcasses piled up neatly or birds with their intestines pulled out, you were probably visited by a weasel. Acrid smell in the air? Yes, it was definitely a weasel.
Bobcats will bite off the head and leave puncture marks on the neck, back and sides.
Wolves, similarly to coyotes, will take whole birds on pasture.
Snakes will devour chicks and eggs without leaving a trace.
Common sense tactics
Keep your farmyard, and especially the areas around your chicken pen, clean and free of debris where predators hide and rats build nests. Eliminate woodpiles, construction materials, hay mounds and the like.
Feed: Store all animal feed and birdseed in rodent-proof metal containers. Rats and mice will chew through the toughest plastic, and they’ll multiply and nest quickly once they have a regular food source. Don’t leave dog or cat food out at night for your pets – it will draw nocturnal predators like skunks, raccoons and opossums. Look around … pick up fallen fruit from trees and move bird feeders away from the chicken area – there will always be spilled seed under them that will draw unwanted visitors.
Fencing: The right fence will keep predators out and chickens in. The best chicken fencing is always mesh – welded wire or electric netting, preferably 5 feet high. Bury the fencing 6 to 12 inches below the ground, bent outward to deter digging predators. The worst fencing choice, ironically, is chicken wire. It’s soft and easily manipulated so predators can break through, and it rusts at the chance of rain.
If your poultry yard is small, install a “roof” of wire mesh to foil flying predators. If the yard is too big for that, crisscross wires over the top, strung high enough as not to interfere with people walking or machinery that needs to get into the area. From the wires, hang old CDs, which will twirl and twinkle, and thus scare off any flying predators.
Keep in mind that it is illegal “to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” birds of prey, or any of the 868 protected bird species that migrate between the United States and Canada or Mexico, “except as permitted by specific hunting regulations.”
Housing: Keep coops out in the open; not under trees, near heavy brush or fence posts (where raptors may land before swooping in to nab a
chicken), or adjacent to woodlands – all predator habitats. Place coops fairly close to your house so you can keep an eye on what’s going on, but downwind from prevailing summer winds.
Seal any unintended openings with ½-inch or ¼-inch galvanized mesh hardware cloth that will keep out the smallest mice, yet still allow ventilation inside the coop.
If your coop sits on the ground, bury hardware cloth 6 inches below its floor and again just above the ground. This will discourage and prevent digging predators, like weasels and rats, from burrowing into the coop.
An even better approach is to build the coop off the ground by at least 1 foot. This way, rodents don’t feel safe nesting in the airspace below.
If you use mobile housing like a chicken tractor or ark, be sure to move it diligently, at least every few days, which confuses predators.
A bright security light or motion-activated light aimed at the coop can deter predators for awhile, but they can become accustomed to such devices, making them ineffective over time. Dedicated nighttime LED light emitters that mimic light-reflecting eyes have been shown to be effective at keeping many predators at bay.
Trapping: Many predators are fairly easy to catch by baiting a live trap with fresh meat or cat food. However, relocating skunks, raccoons, weasels and opossums to some far-off location is wasted effort. Besides simply making the pest someone else’s problem, most of these predators are family units, so you’ll need to catch them all to make a dent. They’re also territorial, so they’ll travel with purpose to find their way back home.
Chicken keeping is a popular and rewarding pastime – eggs, meat, fertilizer – but you’ll need to continually observe and strategize in order to keep one step ahead of myriad predators.
The best general form of protection for your flock, and your farm in general, is a pair of good farm dogs. The definition of a good farm dog is any dog who challenges varmints on his turf – raccoons, opossums, rats, moles, squirrels, and even UPS and FedEx trucks! A good farm dog rules the farm with an iron paw, dispatching varmints in a timely fashion with his bark, or his bite.
Our farm is protected by a pair of red tri Border Collies, Gus and Clover, who live outside (and in the barn), patrolling round the clock. We often hear them far off in the night, barking or howling at coyotes, putting all nocturnal predators on notice.
The downside to dogs who like to hunt and kill is that they will sometimes confuse your chickens with legitimate prey. A feathered escapee might be met by the jaws of your loyal friend, and this is where swift and consistent training comes into play. A farm dog who kills chickens cannot be tolerated – his job is to be the solution to the problem, not the problem itself.
If you can catch him in the act, apply appropriate discipline followed with positive reinforcement for proper behavior (consult any of the hundreds of dog training books available). We don’t allow our dogs to even “have eyes for chickens,” and we will get out our harsh voices when the dogs simply eyeball the flock for too long.
Probably the most pondered question with regards to keeping chickens is “Do I need a rooster even if I just want eggs?” My answer is yes, most definitely – but not because a rooster is required for egg production.
Roosters are like good husbands, they protect their women (the hens) and are first on the scene of any disturbance. A rooster will confront, fight and most often lose his life when a predator attacks, preserving the lives of your laying hens. Roosters vocalize perceived threats, alerting the flock to imminent danger, such as a hawk flying overhead.
Besides serving as a flock protector, a rooster does a good job of marshaling his hens – keeping them together and attentive, and calling them over to a new and exciting food source – thereby reducing harm that may come to them.