Just last week, mid day, I noticed my hens clucking far out from the coop, not just one hen, multiple. They would also idle by the chicken coop but not enter the run. A chicken predator during the day is not common in this area but I immediately went to check. Sure enough, a younger opossum was feasting on their eggs.
Spring is coming and peak hunger is settling on predators so they are becoming more bold and courageous.
As a backyard chicken keeper, there may be nothing more horrifying than heading out to do your morning chores and finding the remains of a nighttime predator that succeeded in its mission. You see feathers, carcasses, or injured birds, or you fail to see chickens that should be there and are not. Actually, there is something that may be more horrifying than that scenario, and that is watching helplessly while a predator takes off with your bird right in front of your eyes.
Another short story, while having breakfast one morning, my younger boy shouts wolf! wolf! Yes, he knows the story of the boy that cried wolf. I ran to the window, sure enough, it was not a wolf, but a coyote with one of our hens in it’s mouth. We were able to save all the other hens but sadly lost one of them to the coyote.
Although no area outdoors nor any coop is 100% predator proof, you can certainly reduce your risks of the above situations with some knowledge of what to look for and resulting proactive measures. We can provide some of the former here, the latter measures are all on you, the responsible chicken farmer, homesteader, and hobbyist.
We will go over some of the most common predators and ways to protect chickens from them specifically.
Signs of dog attack: scattered feathers everywhere, potentially blood in vicinity, chicken carcass laid somewhere close to the playing quarters of the dog, footprints
Being a dog lover, my natural inclination would be to take offense at this. My sweet, smart, obedient lab would never be a danger to my flock. Well….first off, using ‘never’ when referring to behavior of ANY animal is looking for trouble. Dogs love the taste of chicken, and are hunters by instinct. Mixing in any dog with chickens before being present during multiple interactions and proper introductions is a mistake. Even once your own pet has passed the test, you still need to guard against stray or wandering neighborhood dogs who see and pounce, then take off with their prize before you can even register what just happened.
In most cases, domestic dogs don’t want to kill the chicken to eat, rather it wants something to play with it. Part of playing involves pinning, biting, nipping. Our neighbors know there little maltese can cause serious harm to our hens, don’t ask how we found out!
The key to keeping dogs from getting into trouble and making trouble for you is, for your own pet, getting the animals acquainted while the dog is controlled on leash. The dog must know these birds are not for chasing, and definitely not for eating! If this desensitizing is not successful, a physical barrier or an electric dog fence might be your only option. Neighbors’ dogs and strays are obviously more difficult to control, so any sign of repeated dog interest in your flock must be discouraged by a physical barrier around the chickens, for example, a chicken run of sorts. Unfortunately, just because you ought to be able to let your flock free range on your property doesn’t mean your neighbor’s dogs will allow it.
It is important to mention though, that I have many friends, and I tend to agree, having an outdoor dog is one of the best predator deterrents. With proper training, a dog can be your one stop solution for predator prevention.
Coyotes and Wolves
Signs of coyote or wolf attack: scattered feathers everywhere, potentially blood in vicinity, chicken carcass missing, footprints
Coyotes are native to North America, wolves mainly in Alaska, but are also seen less widely spread in the continental US. Both of these canines, like the domesticated dog, have a good fear of humans, and so hanging out in your back yard is not typically their first choice, but more and more as they are pushed out of their habitats, coyotes especially are showing up hungry in suburban and urban areas, and so not only will they go after chickens, but domestic pets as well.
Much like dogs, these canines are equipped with strong jaws, sharp teeth, and paws that can dig a fine hole under fencing. For this reason, a tall and sturdy fence with an apron or buried bottom is an important deterrent against attacks. Hungry coyotes have been known to jump as high as 6 feet into a chicken run, so an extra few feet of height goes a long way in fencing in your flock.
Just as, or even more important, make sure your run is covered. Even something as simple as bird netting will help against attack jumpers of any kind, and will also help defend attacks from our next predator on the list, birds of prey.
Birds Of Prey
Signs of bird of prey attack: chicken carcass is close to area of attack, centralized wound, very little scattered feathers
Because most predatory birds such as eagles, hawks, and owls hunt chickens in similar fashions, and the way to defend against their attacks are similar, we’ll lump them together as one general category.
A free range chicken farmer’s nightmare, birds of prey most commonly strike chickens wandering about too far away from the coop for protection. Although they are only physically able to make off with one bird at a time, they will come back to the scene of the crime again and again if this food source is available and undefended. Probably the most common strike is from a red-tailed or Cooper’s hawk, who often steak out unprotected flocks ahead of time. Perched in a nearby tree or on a power line they wait for the optimal time and the optimal bird to pick off. Once one of these predators has its mind set on swooping down for dinner, it may not care who is around to watch…many times hawks and eagles will fly in right in front of a human, grab a hen and fly off despite any attempt to scare it away. I have seen this personally multiple times by a red tailed hawk, though I have not seen her around much this season. Owls are different only in that because they hunt at night, chickens not secured in a coop are the ones primarily at risk to be preyed upon.
One of my dear friends saw free range chickens as the most healthy and happy option available for their small flock. Until, that was, they noticed hawks in the vicinity and a near miss with one of their older and slower hens. After that, an enclosed and COVERED chicken run was going to have to suffice for their flock. A dead chicken is neither healthy nor happy, and an uncovered run or wandering flock is more likely to attract these birds of prey and put a tragic end to unlimited free range freedom. They ended up purchasing bird netting and making a larger chicken run.
As is the case with dogs and wolves, killing birds of prey is illegal in the US. This furthers the theory that, for chicken safety, a good defense is the best offense. Nature always has a balance, please remember to respect the wild life surrounding your chickens.
Signs of fox attack: feathers and footprints, sometimes a faint odor resembling but not as strong as skunk may be noticeable.
Infamous for their love of chicken, and due to lack of natural predators, red foxes are actually more likely to strike in urban and suburban areas rather than rural. For this reason, small urban coops need to be protected from the top, bottom and perimeter.
Protection against fox, no matter where you live requires a comprehensive defense. These beautiful creatures are also resourceful, strong, and, as the cliche suggests, very clever. They are able to both dig under and climb over inadequate fencing, as well as find and squeeze through gaps in housing. Protecting against fox attack should include a fence at least 5-6 feet high, and a buried or apron bottom to deter a digger. Chicken wire is somewhat useless with fox because of their ability to chew through thin metal. Once inside the inadequate fence or unsound coop, foxes often kill multiple birds at once, and will bury some for later.
Signs of Possum attack: feathers and footprints, obvious struggle, wounded chicken but surviving, missing or cracked eggs
Possums are primarily scavengers, and don’t really prefer to work hard for their meals. They will target chicks, eggs, and adult chickens that are within easy reach, such as chickens that are roosting low for the night. Possums are not good diggers, nor as clever as fox or dog, but they are skilled climbers. Prevention from a hungry opossum ‘attack’ would include a covered run and a decently secure coop at night time. They will usually go for eggs over anything else. Many people leave scrap outside the run to keep them scavenging instead of attacking their hens. Many times chickens survive an possum attack.
Signs of skunk attack: feathers and footprints, obvious struggle, wounded chicken but surviving, missing or cracked eggs, skunk odor
As with opossum, skunks are more scavengers than hunters of chicken. They are, however, very interested in chicken eggs and have been known to pluck eggs or chicks right out from under a hen sitting in her box. Unlike opossum, skunks are more diggers than climbers. A sturdy fence with a ground apron will prevent or at least deter skunk tunneling. Checking your existing fence for holes is also important for skunk defense, as they are wonderful wrigglers and will fit into extremely small spaces.
A skunk problem around your coop might present a larger problem of how to remove it without getting blasted with odor. A live trap and a relocation strategy (provided you’ve first checked that your local laws do not prohibit trapping and relocating) should be considered, as should be ways to remove the spray that you will surely come into contact with as you attempt this strategy.
Another tactic, maybe more attractive than trapping, is to leave meals for visiting and hungry skunks towards the perimeter of your property. An easy dinner rather than one they need to work for might be more attractive for skunks as well as opossums and other scavengers.
Signs of raccoon attack: feathers and footprints, obvious struggle, multiple brutally killed chickens, missing neck/chest regions, carcass present.
Unlike other animals who are fond of digging under, hopping over, or finding holes in coops or fencing, raccoons have the added vex of being able to manipulate latches and move obstacles aside to reach your chickens. They have also been known to actually reach in through fences and grab unsuspecting chickens without even bothering to make their way inside coops or fencing.
Raccoons are also somewhat wasteful after they have gotten a hold of a chicken. Often they will consume the neck and chest area of a chicken, then leave the rest of the carcass to pursue round two, next chicken.
Aside from the usual precautions already mentioned, using tighter weave gauge wire or hardware cloth around the run will prevent a raccoon from a reach-in and grab attack on your flock. Also because of the raccoon’s ability to undo latches and open doors, a door latch that requires pointed manipulation is a good idea. Finally, the top-most area of the chicken coop needs to be secure, no holes or gaps between roof and walls, lest these skilled climbers can enter as they scale even the tallest of coops.
Besides trapping a live raccoon you have seen lurking (again, local laws must be researched to assure that trapping and relocating is allowed in your area) attacks may further be prevented by a barking dog, predator (including dog) urine around the vicinity, and of course a secure coop and run with no holes or gaps.
Fisher Cat, Weasel, and Minks
Signs of fisher cat, mink, or weasel attack: feathers and footprints, obvious struggle, multiple brutally killed chickens, missing neck/chest regions, carcass present.
Weasels, fisher cats, and minks are just some of the 55 species in the the family Mustelidae, which is also commonly referred to as the weasel family. The least weasel which we will discuss here, is common in the northern US and Canada, but this family is carnivorous, and chances are no matter where you go in the western hemisphere, you’ll be in the territory of at least one of the species with similar attributes. It is therefore important to identify the type of animal in the family weasel that may be endemic to your area, because although carnivorous, not all species in this family hunt chickens.
Weasels are particularly fond of entering coops at night and wiping out every single chicken inside. The horror scene of opening the door to your coop and seeing carcass after carcass of dead, but intact chickens is one you won’t soon forget. Weasels prefer killing by neck biting then sucking out the chicken’s blood, and as such are animals you really would like to stay away entirely from your birds.
Protecting your chickens from weasels, fisher cats, minks, etc., means a thorough check of the coop, top to bottom for holes or gaps that these weasels can capitalize on. Galvanized wire may be a good option for coops that have a gap between roof and walls, and also a good deterrent for digging predators (weasels included) if added to the coop floor.
Keeping any animal requires a certain degree of responsibility to ensure it’s well-being. Owning chickens follows suit, and one of the main responsibilities of keeping them is protecting your flock from harm. We can only do our best, but regardless of where you live there are predators, and there are general ways a chicken owner can prevent these predators from attack.
Most importantly, fence in your coop and run. Free ranging carries with it a huge degree of danger, and a fenced in large run might instead be an option to save your chickens from predators and yourself a lot of grief. Fencing needs to be sturdy, tight, and buried as much as possible to prevent diggers. A safe coop that is securely latched at night, and enclosed with hardware cloth over windows, roof gaps, and floor, if possible, is ideal. Deterrents such as predator urine, electric fencing, guardian dogs, automatic chicken coop doors, etc., should be employed when possible.
We as chicken keepers can only do our best, but our best requires consideration of potential predatory animals and proactive measures to ensure our flock’s safety.