Two main predators will bite the heads off of chickens and just leave the rest of the body behind.
These culprits are raccoons and owls.
Interested why this happens, and how you can prevent it?
We cover that, and more, below.
Animals That Bites The Heads Off Of Chickens
Raccoons are intelligent critters that know they can expertly reach through the wires of a chicken run to grab a chicken by the neck and pull the head off.
They may work together in groups, with several raccoons scaring the flock from one side, while one raccoon waits on the other side of the run, waiting to reach through the run to grab an unsuspecting chicken.
Raccoons do this because the head is easily accessible, and they enjoy eating the brains of other animals.
If they are given free access to the coop because they figured out the door latch or you forgot to lock the door one night, then they may also eat the chicken breast, crop, and entrails. If a raccoon or a few raccoons attack, they may eat several chickens in one night, then come back a few nights later for another quick and easy meal.
Once they find the egg box, they will routinely help themselves to that as well.
If you happen to spot footprints, raccoons are easy to identify. They have five toes on the front foot and five toes on the back foot. The front foot will be about two and a half inches wide and long, while the back feet are four inches long and about two and a half inches wide.
The front foot is strikingly similar to a human’s, except they have small circular dots near the end of the digits. These dots are their toenails clicking down into the soil as they walk.
Raccoons are versatile eaters, and their diets can change depending on what is available.
They are omnivores and opportunistic scavengers, thriving on various food sources, including crayfish, frogs, eggs, rodents, plant material, fruits, roots, nuts, and berries.
Additionally, they will often eat livestock feed or human garbage if it is accessible.
Studies have even indicated that some raccoon populations have adapted to rely heavily on human-provided foods such as dog food or fast food.
All in all, the diet of a raccoon is always changing due to the abundance of food resources around them in their given environment.
How to Prevent Raccoons from Attacking Chickens
Keep trash and scents to a minimum.
- Never leave your trash outside and unsupervised.
- Don’t feed your cats or dogs outside, or feed them small amounts of food in limited intervals.
- Bring chicken feed inside overnight. Feed from automatic feeders inside the coop to limit the scent it puts off.
- Do not feed chickens (or other animals on your property) any scraps after dark. Chickens get on their roosts after dark and will leave the food for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. The scent of the scraps will be an attractant for raccoons.
- Build a secure coop and run. Make sure the coop cannot be accessed by raccoons by sealing it tight and using a lock or a tricky latch so that the raccoons cannot crack it open. In the run, make the holes so small that raccoons cannot reach their paws through. Bury the wire underground so they can’t dig their way into the run or coop.
- Consider adding electric netting around the perimeter of the coop and run. This will prevent raccoons, and other unwanted predators, from having easy access to your flock.
How to Deter Raccoons After An Attack
- Add motion sensor lights. The lights are not a deterrent, but the thought of human presence might be.
- Use motion sensor sprinklers. They won’t appreciate the impromptu bath and may scurry off.
- Secure the coop and run, making it safer. Board up holes, add underground fencing so animals can’t dig through, add electric fencing or netting, use more secure latches with locks, and make sure the chickens go into their coop and are sealed in there as soon as it is dusk or sooner. Don’t let chickens out of their coop until after sunrise.
- Consider trapping raccoons and moving them to new locations. You should move the raccoons to a heavily wooded area that is away from other farms, at least ten miles away from your property. Please check the laws and recommendations for your area for relocating raccoons, though. In North Carolina, for example, you must release the raccoon on your property, or euthanize it. This is due to concerns over traveling rabies.
- Of course, euthanizing raccoons is also an option. Be sure to check your local regulations (for city and state) before proceeding.
Owls hunt at nighttime and look for just about any bird or animal that is their size or smaller.
The first thing an owl does after swooping down on its prey, is to remove the head. This kills the animal, meaning the owl is less likely to get hurt. It also immediately provides the owl with some amount of food and then gives easy access into the body cavity of the animal, where all the nutritionally-dense organs are.
If an owl is interrupted while feasting, it may leave the rest of the body hoping it can return later.
This is why owls often leave beheaded chickens behind. They may also realize the chicken is too heavy to carry away and decide to abandon the kill and try for something else. It’s risky for an owl to sit on the ground, where they are vulnerable to other predators.
Owls will usually defecate a chalky whitewash liquid at the scene of the crime.
Owls travel alone, and they don’t need a lot of food. Because of this, owls will only kill one chicken at a time and will needlessly kill chickens without attempting to eat them.
If a larger owl attacked your chickens, they might carry the chicken off to its nest rather than eating it on the ground. In this case, you may find a head, and a few stray feathers, but nothing else.
Owls are typically carnivorous birds, dining on a variety of smaller creatures such as mice, voles, and other small mammals; fish, frogs, lizards, and other vertebrates; and insects.
Some varieties have been known to occasionally snack on fruits and berries from time to time. To break down their meals before digestion, owls have powerful talons that tear the skin off their prey’s face for them to consume more of the nutritious organs that are easily accessed once the neck is opened up and the body cavity is exposed. This eating habit is why you’re so likely to find beheaded chickens after an owl has struck.
How to Prevent Owls from Attacking Chickens
Put up Fake Owls
Owls, and other birds of prey do not want to tangle with other birds of prey. If they believe that another large bird has claimed the area and your flock below, they will move on in search of food elsewhere.
Most owl attacks happen in the spring and fall when owls are migrating and hungry. They are new to the area and don’t know how territories work. Use this to your advantage by putting up decoys to ward them off.
Cover the Chicken Run
If you have the time and resources to do this, then cover your chicken run with a roof.
Covered chicken runs:
- Sheild the flock from rain, snow, hail, and harsh sunlight
- Protect the chickens from so many predators, including owls
- Ensure that chickens can’t fly out
- Keep the run and coop clean, less rain and snow means less mud in the run and coop
- Invites chickens to spend more time outdoors, all year round
- Gives you more vertical space because it allows you to add perches and roosts to the run
Is a covered chicken run sounding like a good idea? Be sure to read the six best chicken coop run roofs.
Protect Chickens Dusk to Dawn
Make sure your chickens are put up securely in their coop thirty minutes to an hour before sunset and after sunrise.
Owls hunt all night but also in the thirty to sixty minutes before sunset and after sunrise.
If you don’t have one already, consider getting an automatic chicken coop door opener. It’s easy to install and lets the chickens in and out of the coop at the same time every day.
With one of these, you don’t need to get out of bed when you aren’t ready, or plan your trips away from your house to correlate with the chickens’ schedules.
You can gain some of your freedom back while your chickens can stay safe and maintain a routine that meets their needs.
How to Deter Owls After an Attack
After an owl has attacked, the best thing you can do is keep your chickens safely tucked away in their covered run. If you don’t have a covered run, keep the chickens in their coop while you add a roof to the run.
You absolutely cannot haze, injure, or kill owls or other birds of prey, no matter if they preyed on your livestock or not.
Most are protected and / or endangered. Harming these birds in any way can instantly result in hefty fines or jail time. Fines can go to $250,000 or sometimes more.
Build scarecrows. Owls are still afraid of humans, so use this to your advantage. Set up a realistic scarecrow in your yard to deter owls from coming back.
Add a guard animal. If something changes the owl that just swooped down onto your chicken, the owl is likely to let go and fly off without seriously injuring the chicken.
Give your chickens more hiding spots.
Tall grasses, low-growing trees, shrubs, bushes, and even porches are good hiding spots for chickens.
If they see an owl overhead, they can quickly take cover to stay safe.
Add a rooster to the flock. A protective rooster will always keep an eye on the skies and make lots of warning noises if he spots an owl or other bird of prey. This gives the other chickens a chance to hide in a safe spot.
Which Animal Bites the Heads Off Chickens: Final Thoughts
Now that you know you either have a raccoon or owl problem, it’s time to take action.
Use one of more of the mentioned steps to better prevent and protect your chickens from predators.
Provide your chickens with safe, predator-proof coops and runs whenever possible.
If you free-range your chickens, you are more prone to loss, but you can still do a few things to increase the chickens’ overall safety, like adding watch animals, using decoys, and offering lots of good hiding spots throughout your property.