The First Step to Deterrence
By Gail Damerow
“What are you building there, a bunker?” My visiting uncle was referring to the concrete foundation of an under-construction chicken house on our new farm. Looking at it through his eyes, maybe it was overkill. On the other hand, a neighbor had told us nothing we could do would stop predation. “Chickens just don’t live long out here,” he said.
Well, as long as we kept our flock in that bunker, we never lost a chicken. Oh, except for the two that disappeared one day when we let the flock out to forage while we worked in the garden. The chickens took advantage of their new-found freedom by wandering into the woods to scratch in the dry leaves. We heard a quick, loud squawk from the right and then, almost immediately, a quick, loud squawk from the left. The flock came back two short. A pair of foxes with hungry kits apparently happened along that first (and last) time we allowed the chickens to roam from their bunkered yard.
When you find a bird dead inside an enclosure with its head and crop missing, your visitor was a raccoon. Photo by Michael Dougherty.
Cats – both feral and domestic – will eat entire chicks and ducklings, but leave the wings and feathers of growing birds. If a cat kills a mature duck or chicken, it will eat the meatier parts and leave the skin and feathers scattered around. Photo by Michael Dougherty.
We had built that coop next to the garden near our house. We figured the chickens would be easy to care for there, and we could feed them weeds and other garden refuse. But we soon tired of the early morning crowing outside the bedroom window, so when we put up a barn some distance from the house we added a hen house to one end. We soon learned that our chicken bunker had lulled us into complacency about the local predator population. Plenty of critters are out there, seeking an opportunity to dine on home grown poultry.
The first step to deterring predators is to identify them. Each critter has a modus operandi that serves as something of a calling card to let you know which animal you’re dealing with. Having raised chickens for nearly 40 years, I’ve seen quite a few of these signs, but every now and then I still get stumped, largely because the predators haven’t read the books and don’t always conform to their own standard procedure. One sure sign, of course, is tracks, but in an active poultry yard tracks quickly get obliterated, so you can’t count on tracks alone. Your best guide is to examine where, how, and when birds turn up dead or missing.
Missing chickens or ducks were likely carried off by a fox, coyote, dog, bobcat, owl, or hawk. One time I was working in my yard and could only watch helplessly when a hawk swooped down and carried off a full-grown banty hen that had been happily scratching in the orchard. Although we rarely lose a full-grown bird to hawks, we take great care to enclose chicks, ducklings, and goslings, as these small birds are particularly attractive to hawks and other predators.
Tracks are not easy to find in a busy poultry yard, unless you go looking early after a rain. This track is the rear foot of a raccoon. Photos by Gail Damerow.
This track was left by a large dog; it is distinctive from a bobcat track because it is narrower than long and shows claw marks.
Hawks work in the daytime; owls work at night. A band of guinea fowl that liked to roost on the utility line running to the roof of our house disappeared one by one. We began to notice that whenever we heard a sharp thump on the roof during the night, in the morning another guinea was gone. One night when we were awakened by the thump, we ran out and saw a great horned owl land near our back door. The night-time rooftop thumps continued until we convinced the remaining guineas to roost in the woodshed.
If your missing birds are ducks, and you live near water, a mink may be doing the dirty deed. Raccoons, too, will carry off a duck or chicken, and may raid the poultry yard as a cooperative venture and then squabble over their kill. You may find the carcass some distance from the coop, the insides eaten and feathers scattered around.
A snake will eat chicks and ducklings without leaving a trace. I once found a black snake in our brooder after he had gulped down a couple of chicks, then (being too fat to slip back out through the wire) curled up under the heat lamp to sleep off his fine meal.
Domestic and feral house cats will make chicks and ducklings disappear, but leave the wings and feathers of growing birds. On rare occasions a cat will kill a mature duck or chicken, eating the meatier parts and leaving the skin and feathers, and sometimes other parts, scattered around. I learned accidentally the best way to train a cat to leave chickens alone when my new kitten followed me to the chicken yard. She took an interest in some baby chicks, whereupon the mother hen puffed up to twice her normal size and chased the kitten away. For the rest of her life, that cat laid her ears back and skulked away from any chicken that happened by.
Rats will carry off chicks or ducklings and leave older ones chewed up. I once sold a dozen ducklings to a fellow who had previously raised chickens and was fully aware of their cannibalistic tendencies. He called me to report that his ducklings were eating each other. I assured him ducklings don’t do that, and suggested he had rats, but he insisted and persisted in calling with his cannibalistic duck reports. Then one day the calls stopped. Next time I saw him I asked (with a smirk) if the last remaining duckling had eaten itself. He sheepishly admitted he had a rat problem.
Chickens or ducks found dead in the yard, but without any missing parts, were likely attacked by a dog. Dogs kill for sport. When the bird stops moving, the dog loses interest, which is why you often find the victim of a canine attack near where it was killed. I once found a dozen of my fryers dead and lined up neatly on the walkway. I was trying to guess what kind of predator could have done such a thing, when my new puppy came bounding up with yet another fryer to add to his collection.
Like dogs, weasels and their relations (ferrets, fishers, martens, mink, and so forth) also kill for sport. If you find bloodied bodies surrounded by scattered feathers, you were likely visited by one of them.
If you find dead birds that have been flattened, the only thing you know is that some kind of predator frightened them; in trying to get away, they piled in a corner or against a wall and the ones on the bottom suffocated. This sort of thing happens most commonly with turkeys. Similarly, panicked ducks may stampede and trample one another.
Sensing the presence of a freshly laid warm egg, Mr. T Kingsnake hoists his four feet up the wall and into the manger at the upper left. Photos by Gail Damerow.
Mr. T wraps his mouth around his prize and, working his mouth back and forth over the egg, takes nearly an hour to get it down his throat.
Unable to climb back out of the manger with his muscles stretched by his fine breakfast, Mr. T curls up for a nap.
A dead bird found inside a fenced enclosure or pen with its head missing is likely the victim of a raccoon that reached in, grabbed the bird, and pulled its head through the wire. Or a bird of prey could have frightened your birds into fluttering against the wire, and those that poked their heads through the wire lost their heads.
When you find a bird dead inside an enclosure with its head and crop missing, your visitor was a raccoon. If the head and back of the neck are missing, suspect a weasel or mink. If the head and neck are missing, and feathers are scattered near a fence post, the likely perp is a great horned owl.
Just as a raccoon will reach into a pen and pull off a chicken’s head, so will it also pull off a leg, if that’s what it gets hold of first. Dogs, too, may prowl underneath a raised pen, bite at protruding feet, and pull off legs.
If you find dead or wounded birds that have been bitten, they may have been attacked by a dog. If they are young birds and the bites are around the hock, suspect a rat. If the bites are on the leg or breast, the biter is likely an opposum. ‘Possums like tender growing birds and will sneak up to the roost while fryers are sleeping and bite a chunk out of a breast or thigh. On the rare occasion a ‘possum kills a chicken, it usually eats it on the spot.
Birds bitten around the rear end, and have their intestines pulled out, have been attacked by a weasel or one of its relatives. A hen that prolapsed may look similar, as the protruding red tissue attracts other chickens to peck, and if they peck long enough and hard enough before you intervene, they will eventually pull out her intestines. Other signs of cannibalism are missing toes and wounds around the top of the tail of growing chickens. Hens with slice wounds along their backs get them after being repeatedly mated by a sharp-clawed rooster.
Lots of predators like eggs, including rats, skunks, snakes, opossums, raccoons, crows, and jays. Rats, skunks, and snakes make off with the entire egg. Rats and skunks roll them away. One time I heard a ruckus in my goose yard and ran out to see a small skunk struggling to roll away a big goose egg with its front paws. A skunk that has been pilfering eggs will leave its odor behind. If you faintly smell skunk, but find shell shards in or around the nest, the raider is more likely an old boar raccoon.
A snake eats the egg right out of the nest. One time when I was collecting eggs from our Khaki Campbells I found a lumpy black snake curled up in one of the nests. Currently we have a four-foot Kingsnake living in the hay storage area of our barn. We’re happy to have him clear out the rodents. We call him The Terminator (Mr. T for short) and don’t mind that he pilfers the occasional egg laid inside the barn; he won’t go into the hen house for fear of the guinea fowl that share our chickens’ quarters.
Jays, crows, ‘possums, raccoons, and occasionally skunks leave tell-tale shells. Jays and crows may carry empty shells quite a distance from where they found the eggs, while a ‘possum or ‘coon leaves empty shells in or near the nest. Sometimes after cleaning out a nest, a bold ‘possum will curl up in the nest and take a nap.
The easiest and best way to protect poultry is to confine them indoors, if not all the time, at least at night. A deep concrete foundation, as our poultry bunker had, discourages digging predators. Cover all openings with fine wire mesh, and if your yard is small enough cover the top of the run as well, to keep out birds of prey. To improve ventilation during hot summer nights, we covered a stock panel with poultry netting and use it as a screen door. Year around we have a bright security light that deters some predators and lets us see better at night.
Keep grass, weeds, and brush mowed around the hen house and yard. Many four-legged creatures don’t like to expose themselves to cross an open field. A good close-mesh fence, especially electrified, will keep out most four-legged marauders. Burying the bottom of the fence with the lowest 6 to 12 inches bent outward (away from the poultry yard) helps deter diggers.
Lots of predators like eggs, including skunks and opossums. Photos by Michael Dougherty.
For pastured poultry, moving the housing every couple of days confuses predators, or at least makes them suspicious. Anchor portable housing with skirting that’s tight and close to the ground; each time you move the shelter, double check for dips where weasels can weasel in.
If you have a problem with a predator that comes back repeatedly, you might call your local wildlife or animal control agency and see if they’ll send out a trapper. Another option is to set a trap yourself. If you use a live trap with the intent of releasing the predator in some far off location, be aware that many animals are territorial and eventually find their way back home. Others come in families, so catching one marauder won’t necessarily solve your problem. And if your marauders are a family of ‘possums, think twice about exterminating them, or you’ll likely end up with a rat problem instead.
A predator-control option favored by many rural folks is to stand guard and shoot. If the marauder is your neighbor’s dog, be sure to check local laws regarding your obligation to notify the neighbor about your intentions. If the predator is a wild animal that’s protected by law, you’re back to begging the wildlife agency for help. In our area, poultry owners persistently complain about reintroduced bald eagles carrying off their chickens; the wildlife people remind us that our best defense is to protect our flocks and let the wildlife be.
I started raising poultry on a ranchette I bought because I was looking for a place where I could raise chickens, and that suburban acre came with chickens and ducks already installed. Our chief poultry predators then were dogs, rats, and ever-tightening zoning laws. Because of the latter, I now raise poultry on a farm at the end of a rural dirt road. We still contend with the occasional dog and, only rarely, rats. Instead we see a steady and varied parade of wildlife attempting to share our birds. Because these wild animals delight us as much as attempt to frustrate our poultry-keeping efforts, and because it is we who are encroaching on their territory, we do our best to identify the source of any predation and take appropriate defensive measures to protect our flocks while letting the wildlife be.
Night or Day
Most predators work at night — some in the dead of night, others at dark or dawn. Exceptions are dogs (which kill any time they get the whim), coyotes (which occasionally hunt during the day), and foxes (which prefer to hunt around dawn or dusk, but will hunt during the day if game is scarce or they are feeding kits). Among flying predators, owls strike at night, hawks swoop down in daylight.
Rats and mice are a particularly insidious type of predator. They’re everywhere, breed like rats, and can’t take a hint. They invade any time of year, but get worse during fall and winter when they move indoors seeking food and shelter. Rats eat eggs and chicks, and both rats and mice eat copious quantities of feed and spread disease. To add insult to injury, rodents gnaw holes in housing, and burrow underneath, providing entry for other predators.
Whether or not you find evidence, you can safely assume you have a rodent problem. Discourage rodents by eliminating their hide-outs, including piles of unused equipment and other scrap. Store feed in containers with tight lids and avoid or sweep up spills. Aggressive measures include getting a cat or a Jack Russell Terrier, and—if you’ve got rats and you’re experienced with a gun—shoot ’em. Don’t bother with techie solutions like ultrasound black boxes and electromagnetic radiation—they’re as ineffective as they are expensive.
Poisoning is a last resort, as you never know if you might poison pets, children, or harmless wildlife. Besides, bait stations work only if the rodents can find no other source of feed, which is pretty unlikely in your average backyard poultry situation. Traps of various sorts are invariably messy, no matter whether they kill or trap live rodents, but are an option when all else fails.
Gail Damerow is a well-known poultry expert and the author of many books including these on poultry: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Health Handbook, Your Chickens: A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, Barnyard in Your Backyard and Fences for Pasture & Garden. These books are available from our bookstore.
© Gail Damerow