Raising chickens is a valuable practice for any homesteader, but protecting chickens from predators can be a tough job. In this video, GRIT editor-in-chief Hank Will provides some tips for keeping your flock safe and happy.
By Hank Will
Your backyard chickens depend on you for health, housing and safety. In return, they will supply you with eggs, entertainment, pest control, fertilizer, meat and more. But as prey animals, chickens are also the subject of great interest to everything from domestic dogs to snakes, rats, owls and hawks. You should expect to lose a bird to predation occasionally, but there are some tips that will go far to help keep your flock safe.
Train your birds to return to the chicken house every evening — and be sure to close it up. If you raise your chicks in that coop, they will naturally return to lay eggs and roost at night after you let them range for the day. Make sure the house is varmint-proof and that you close it up at night once the birds have settled.
Raise the chicken coop off the ground by a foot or so to discourage rats, skunks and snakes from taking up residence beneath it and stealing eggs, chicks or young hens. Be certain to keep the henhouse floor tight and patch any holes that snakes and rats can get through.
Enclose the coop in a secure poultry run to discourage dogs, coyotes, bobcats and other four-legged carnivores from gaining access to your flock. Welded-wire mesh, electric netting or other fencing materials with sufficiently small openings will help keep your birds in and predators out. Bobcats and coyotes are fantastic jumpers and can easily clear 4-foot-high fences, so build your enclosure appropriately tall, or add a cover net to keep the varmints from vaulting the fence.
Cover the chicken run with welded-wire fencing, chicken wire or game-bird netting, or install a random array of crisscrossing wires overhead to discourage hawks and owls from making a buffet out of your birds. If you shut your chickens in the coop at night, owl attacks will not be an issue. But hungry owls are cagey and may grab their meal right at dusk, or slightly beforehand, so if owls are a problem in your area, don't wait until after dark to close up the coop.
Choose small-mesh fencing materials for enclosing coops and runs when raccoons and members of the mink or fisher family are among the predators. Raccoons and other fairly dexterous animals are infamous for reaching through larger meshed fencing or chicken wire and killing the chickens they can snag. This is especially important when you keep your chickens in a fully enclosed wire coop/run, such as various chicken tractor designs. Although 2-by-3-inch welded-wire fencing is less expensive, you will lose fewer birds if you use 1-by-2-inch mesh or smaller welded wire.
Bury galvanized hardware cloth or other welded-wire fencing around the perimeter of the chicken run if you have problems with predators digging beneath your surface fencing.
Provide motion-sensor-activated night light that will flood the chicken run with light after dark. This will keep most nocturnal predators away from the coop.
Give your chicken-friendly dogs the run of the chicken yard — particularly at night. Be sure your dogs aren't tempted to chase running, squawking chickens if you choose not to close up the coop at night or choose to leave the dogs in the chicken yard during the day.
Prepare yourself to take swift action when you discover predation. You can take measures to eliminate the predator or to eliminate its access to your birds. Failure to do so will result in subsequent losses, if the predators think the buffet line is open.
Create a predator-danger zone around the coop and chicken yard. Most terrestrial predators are uncomfortable crossing an area with minimal cover. Leave the perimeter as cover-free as you can. Predators are less likely to try to work their way into a welded-wire enclosure when they have to do it in the open.
Keeping chickens 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.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.