Predator Management for Backyard Poultry
With the loss of their natural habitat, more wildlife are entering urban settings. Some of these wildlife are predators of poultry. Common predators that prey on poultry flocks include the following mammals, reptiles, and birds:
- dogs and coyotes
- house cats
- foxes, especially red foxes
- members of the weasel family, especially least and long-tailed weasels
- snakes, especially rat snakes
- hawks, including red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks
- owls, most commonly great horned owls
What killed my bird?
The best long-term solution for protecting your flock is preventing predators from getting to it. Of course, this tactic is easier said than done, but please check out the tips on the How to Build a Coop page. If you are having a problem, in order to develop an exclusion plan, you need to determine which type of animal is preying on your birds.
Often, the condition in which you find your flock is an indicator of which predator is involved.
Dogs: Both Feral and Domestic
Domestic dogs allowed to run free in a neighborhood can be a problem for poultry flocks. In addition, feral dogs pose many problems to all kinds of live stock. They often kill simply for the fun of it. Although domesticated for hundreds of thousands of years, dogs have retained some of their hunting instinct from the days before they became human companions.
Not all dogs will attack a poultry flock. In fact, some breeds are good guard dogs for a flock. Factors that contribute to the likelihood that a dog will attack a flock include the breed of the dog, the presence of other dogs, and the dog’s past experiences. Some breeds have a greater tendency to chase prey than others. This inclination can be heightened by the presence of other dogs, often resulting in pack behavior. Also, if a dog has had success in the past at getting food by attacking a poultry flock, it is more likely to repeat the behavior.
Although coyotes have been seen traveling in large groups, they usually hunt in pairs. Coyotes are primarily nocturnal (active at night) but often can been seen during daylight hours. They were once diurnal (active during the day) but, through adaptation, have developed more nocturnal habits to adjust to habitat pressure from humans. However, it is not unusual to still see coyotes during the daylight hours.
The most common wildcat in the United States, the bobcat is only about twice the size of a typical domestic cat. Like cats, bobcats can see in low light. They prefer to hunt during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk but will attack anytime of day. They can easily carry off a chicken or two from your flock. A bobcat may eat an entire bird in a single feeding or carry the carcass away. Bobcats prefer woodlands but will venture into backyards in search of prey, especially where housing encroaches on their normal habitat.
Even if well-fed, domestic cats will kill young birds. Cats are messy eaters that tend to leave parts of prey in the open areas where they have eaten. Typically, they eat the meaty portions of a bird and leave the skin, with feathers attached. With smaller birds, however, cats often consume the whole bird, except for the wings and scattered feathers. In addition, cats usually leave teeth marks on every exposed bone of prey they have eaten.
Foxes, red foxes in particular, prey on poultry flocks. Foxes usually attack a bird at the throat, but some kill by multiple bites to the neck and back. Normally when a fox has been in the hen house, evidence includes only a few drops of blood and feathers. The fox carries away the dead bird, often to a den. Foxes also eat eggs. They usually open the eggs just enough to lick out the contents and leave the shells beside the nest. Most foxes live in wooded areas or on open plains, where they dig dens in the ground. They sometimes use hollow logs for dens. Gray foxes, the only foxes that readily climb trees, may den in hollow cavities of trees.
Raccoons are a problem both in urban and rural areas. Houses with nearby gutter access or that have trees located in or near the coop may suffer from greater raccoon exposure. Garbage cans and dumps can be major sources of food, attracting raccoons to urban areas. Once settled in an area, raccoons will seek other food sources, including backyard poultry flocks. Raccoons enter poultry houses and take several birds in one night. They often tear and chew a bird’s breast and crop and sometimes eat the entrails. They may remove eggs from the nest and take them away, usually within 9 meters (28 feet) of the nest, to eat them.
The least weasel has been referred to as the smallest living predator. It is long and slender, with a long neck, a narrow head, and short limbs. Least weasels weigh only about 30 to 55 grams (1 to 2 ounces) and are usually 165 to 205 millimeters (6-1/2 to 8 inches) long, with much of that length being tail. They are seldom seen and rarely trapped. They are active day and night and in winter and summer, and they do not hibernate. When a least weasel kills, it wraps its body and limbs around its prey and kills with a bite to the base of the skull. Least weasels can squeeze through holes as small as 1/4-inch in diameter. Consequently, they typically can get through chicken wire. Because a weasel must eat food equal to four times its body weight each day, weasels are voracious eaters.
Skunks do not kill many adult birds. In general, when a skunk attacks a flock, it kills only one or two birds and mauls others considerably. Also, skunks love eggs. Usually, a skunk opens an egg at one end and punches its nose into the hole to lick out the contents. Eggs that have been eaten by a skunk may appear to have been hatched, except that the edges of their openings are crushed. A skunk may remove eggs from a nest but rarely carries them more than 1 meter (3 feet) away.
Opossums are omnivorous in that they eat birds, fish, insects, mushrooms, fruits, vegetables, and even eggs. When an opossum raids a poultry house, it usually kills one bird at a time, often mauling its victims. It causes eggs to be mashed and messy, often chewing the shells into small pieces and leaving those pieces in the nest. Opossums usually begin feeding on adult poultry at the cloacal opening. They consume young poultry completely, typically leaving behind only a few wet feathers.
Snakes are both a problem and a blessing. In general, I prefer to have snakes rather than not have them as when there is a lack of snakes, the rat population seems to sky rocket. In addition, most snakes are benign, so be careful and think careful about the consequences before eradicating snakes. If a snake is a problem, a relocation program is often the best answer.
Snake predation can be hard to identify because snakes eat their prey whole. For example, a snake can eat an egg whole, so the only sign of intrusion is a missing egg. The aftermath of a snake’s egg-eating activity differs from that of raccoons and skunks, which typically leave shells behind after eating eggs.
Rat snakes are known to eat eggs and young chicks (those less than a month old). The size of the hole needed to get to a flock depends on the size of snake. Also, a snake must be able not only to enter the enclosure but also to exit after swallowing its prey. Typically, snakes able to enter through gaps that are 1/4-inch in diameter or smaller do not cause predation damage.
Of the variety of hawk species that prey on poultry flocks, the most common are red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks. Hawks typically take their prey during the day. They have very keen eyesight and scan for prey from elevated perches. When a hawk spots prey, it swoops down and lands on the prey with its talons, often killing the prey on impact. A hawk may carry off a young or bantam bird and eat it elsewhere, leaving no indication of predation other than a missing bird. If a hawk eats a bird in place, it typically eats the breast, cleanly plucking the feathers. Feathers with flesh clinging to their ends may indicate a hawk.
Owls are a huge benefit the environment, but can devestate a poultry flock. Securing birds at night is the best answer. The owl that most commonly preys on poultry flocks is the great horned owl. Normally, barn owls and screech owls do not bother poultry flocks. Owls are more active at night, and that is when they typically take birds. Great horned owls live in many types of habitats, from coastlines to grasslands to mixes of woods and open fields. Great horned owls eat many kinds of animals, including chickens, ducks, and other poultry.
Many flock owners who allow their birds to free-range protect their flocks from ground predators by using movable fences. These fences may or may not be electrified. For an electrified fence, the amount of electricity used should be enough to stun but not kill an animal. Aside from being less dangerous to people, this type of fence more effectively keeps predators away from a flock. A stunned predator may be discouraged from bothering the flock. A dead predator, however, will soon be replaced by another predator. In addition, an electrified fence may unintentionally kill animals that may not be predators, such as small screech owls who perch on the fence along a ground. Think carefully before employing electrified fences and try to use the most minimal possible. When installing our electric fences, we used solar panels to power them. I've also had success with a tightly woven wicker fence which can easily be purchased, or with some time, homemade. The downside of the wicker fence is that it is sometimes not very tolerant of significant amounts of rain or intense, direct sunshine.
In addition to attracting ground predators, free-ranging poultry are highly susceptible to aerial predation from hawks and owls. One solution to this problem may be modifying the habitat around the area where the poultry range. Eliminate any perch sites within 9 meters (100 yards) of the flock by removing isolated trees and other perching surfaces. However, in doing so, you may also be eliminating well needed shade and whenever possible, we prefer not to remove trees.
You also may consider housing the poultry at night and we find this has been essential to successfully maintaining flocks. Most poultry can be trained to move into a poultry house at night by feeding or watering them indoors at dusk. Even simply putting their roosts in the indoor air is usually sufficient to make them go indoors. When moving chicks out of the brooder and into the coop, place them in at night and they will identify with it as their home. They may stay in the coop for a few days, but eventually will learn to move in and out of the coop with the adult birds.
If a persistent hawk or owl is in an area, the easiest way to protect your flock is to use a covered run. Orange netting is best because hawks and owls see orange well. Hawks can get through any loose or weak spots in the covering, so make sure it is secure. Keep in mind that hawks and owls are federally protected species; you may not legally shoot, trap, or euthanize these birds. Noise and bird bombs are no longer legally available, and they have not been shown to be overly effective anyway. Some people have reported success with fishing line strung about every 3 feet or so around the birds' free ranging areas, but I cannot personally report the same outcome.
Another option for protecting a flock is to keep the flock confined in floorless pens that are moved around on pasture routinely, often daily. In some cases, however, such enclosures may not be sufficient to protect the flock, and additional peripheral fencing may be needed. For persistent predators, it may be necessary to provide your flock with a run that is covered with welded wire. If you allow your birds to go in the run at night, make sure that predators are not able to dig under the fencing. Bury hardware cloth at least 30.5 centimeters (12 inches) into the ground to deter diggers.
Additional recommendations for management precautions include the following strategies:
Using Guard Animals
If you want to free-range your flock and local predators are a problem, consider getting guardian dogs. If well-trained, these dogs are extremely effective at deterring predators, both during the day and at night. This approach to predator control requires that the dogs stay with the flock at all times.
These dogs are very gentle and will attack only as a last resort, if at all. There primary means of guarding is deterence through barking, so they may or may not be suitable for more urban areas. For more information on live stock guard dogs, check out the Yard Talk discussion about these invaluable animals.