From my front yard, I can watch red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circling over our home daily. A rafter of wild turkeys lives in the woods behind our house, and many crows share our neighborhood. Occasionally, I’ll even spot a bald eagle perched in a tree along the Missouri River. It’s a great place to be a birder. Unless, of course, you keep chickens.
When I was a youngster, my mother warned me to watch out for chicken hawks. Although, to my knowledge, the hawks that soared over our farm never once attacked any of the cranky old biddies or the crusty rooster that inhabited the farmyard. They’d probably seen the rooster take after my little brother, and decided the fight wouldn’t be worth the meal.
In later years, I learned that “chicken hawk” is a colloquialism that describes several species of hawks, including the red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and the sharp-shinned hawk.
Know your chicken predators
With a wingspan of about 3 1/2 feet, and weighing 2 to 4 1/2 pounds, red-tails are big enough to kill and dine on full-grown chickens, along with mice, squirrels, small birds and rabbits, and even cats and small dogs. And with eyesight eight times more acute than a human’s, hawks have no trouble spotting their next meal.
Weighing just 11 to 24 ounces, the Cooper’s hawk typically feeds on songbirds, along with chipmunks, hares, mice, and squirrels.
And the sharp-shinned hawk is too small to bother chickens. Weighing just 3 to 7.7 ounces, with a wingspan of only 20 to 27 inches, it feeds on lizards, frogs, insects, sparrows, and songbirds.
Do vultures pose a threat to your chickens? Yes and no. Depicted in cartoons as waiting patiently until something dies, turkey vultures generally prefer their meals already sun-baked and rarely kill prey. They’ll spend hours soaring, relying on their acute sense of smell to detect the decomposing carcasses of opossums, raccoons and other roadkill. Although they lack talons, vultures have a powerful beak that will tear apart even the toughest cowhide. With a wingspan of up to 6 feet, and weighing between 3 and 5 pounds, vultures can send any flock of chickens into a panic attack.
Found in the southern United States, the black vulture is more aggressive than its cousin, the turkey vulture. Weighing up to 5 pounds, black vultures prefer to feed on carrion and will even chase turkey vultures away from a decomposing carcass. Black vultures also have been known to kill and feed on newborn calves and fawns, as well as small mammals and birds — including chickens.
Bird lovers may disagree, but to me, naked-headed vultures are unlovely birds with disgusting habits. They will urinate on their legs to cool themselves, and they will vomit partially digested food when threatened, counting on the foul smell to chase away other predators.
The bald eagle only rarely attacks chickens. They are primarily fish eaters, although experts say they also will take ducks, birds, chickens or other prey. An eagle approaches its victim in a shallow glide, and its powerful wings enable it to pick up prey weighing up to 4 pounds.
It’s true that some owls will kill and feed on chickens. A nocturnal hunter with exceptional hearing and eyesight, the great horned owl is one of the largest owls, with a wingspan of up to 5 feet and weighing up to 4 pounds. This chicken predator has talons up to 1 1/2 inches long that can produce 200 to 300 pounds of crushing power per square inch. A great horned owl will prey on birds and animals two to three times its size, including rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, quail, ducks, pheasants — and chickens.
Unlike the hawks that circle overhead, owls will roost in a tree or barn overlooking your chicken flock, just waiting for an unsuspecting hen to linger too long in an open area. While chickens instinctively flee at the sight of a predator flying overhead, an owl sitting motionless may not arouse their instinct to panic.
In the children’s story Chicken Little, it may have been Henny Penny that alerted the flock that the sky was falling, but in the real world, the rooster in your flock is responsible for warning the hens if a predator comes near. When he gives an alert, the hens flee for shelter, hiding in the coop or under shrubs and trees. And remember that since all raptors and avian predators are protected by federal laws, it’s illegal to shoot or trap them. If your flock is threatened by a hawk or an owl, your best recourse is to cover the run with netting or multiple strands of visible string.
Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri, where he keeps a constant watch for overhead predators.