I’m a member of quite a few backyard chicken enthusiast groups on Facebook, and it seems like every day someone is telling a gruesome story about their backyard chickens being attacked by a predator.
Most want to know what killed their birds and how to stop it. Others are so frustrated by predators that they give away their birds and stop raising backyard chickens altogether.
Lots of work is needed to protect your chickens
I get the frustration, and I understand their anger. Raising chickens is fun until you walk into your backyard and find your birds ripped apart. All that investment of time, emotion, and money has gone for nothing. I have had this experience, and I understand.
The best way to stop this scene from playing out is to know which animals are likely to threaten your birds and how to protect your chickens. With that said, it’s important to face the reality of chicken keeping. The fact is that most people will lose birds to predators, especially if they let their birds free-range.
Those who say they’ve never had predator attacks are lucky. No one wants or invites a predator attack, but you’ve got to understand the world from a predator’s point of view. A predator can’t go to the grocery store and buy food if it’s hungry. A predator has to work for every calorie it consumes. The easier it is to get those calories, the better. Backyard chickens are like an all-you-can-eat buffet. A small chink in their armor means an easy meal.
Here’s advice for identifying and protecting your chickens from their top predators across the United States. There are predators, such as bears and fishers, that are region-specific, so it’s always a good idea to talk to locals and/or your extension service to find out exactly what’s in your area.
Ironically, man’s best friend is not always a chicken’s best friend. Dogs often top the list of the worst chicken predators. I have personal experience with this one!
About six months into raising my first flock, two roaming dogs broke into my fenced yard, which resulted in nine chickens being killed and three injured. The dogs weren’t killing for food, they were killing for sport.
When dogs break into a chicken area, they’ll chase everything until it stops moving. Roaming dogs don’t just happen in the country, they’re pretty common in suburban and urban areas too. They don’t have to be feral. Many people just don’t keep their dogs under control.
Because they are so common, it’s important to know your rights when it comes to other people’s dogs. In my case, we didn’t realize the chickens were being attacked until the dogs were making their way out of the yard.
The dogs made the fatal mistake of going down the hill to some neighbors’ property and tried to attack their family dog. Let’s just say those dogs didn’t go on to hurt anything else.
But can you kill an attacking dog?
Not everywhere. Laws vary by locality and situation. Know them before an attack happens so you can react properly in the moment. You don’t want legal troubles on top of a predator attack.
It’s also a good idea to let your neighbors know you’re keeping chickens and make sure everything’s kosher before a problem occurs.
Don’t discount your own dog because you might need to protect your chickens from your own dogs. When we got chickens, I never gave a thought to our dog hurting our chickens, and she never did. However, I did hear stories from lots of folks whose mothers and grandmothers were known to tie dead chickens around their dog’s neck, like a necklace, to keep the dog from killing again. I’m not sure if that works or not.
The best thing is to consider your dog’s breed and temperament and to train your dog using a professional trainer if necessary. Be sure always to supervise your dog when it is around your chickens until you’re sure it’s safe. It’s not your dog’s fault if fatalities occur.
In case you are wondering about cats, they really are not a problem for adult chickens. The only time they’re a problem is when you’re raising chicks, since they are defenseless and bite-sized. We always keep our chicks in an enclosed brooder, so they stay safe, and our cats aren’t put in a bad situation where their natural instincts can cause harm.
Hawks and Owls
The most important thing to remember with flying predators is that they are protected by law. It is illegal to kill or harm them. Find another way to deter them. Do not end up on the wrong side of the law.
The most common hawk predators are red-tailed, sharp-shinned, and Cooper’s hawks. Bald eagles and golden eagles are becoming more of a problem as their numbers grow. The most common owl predators are great horned and barred owls.
There are normally few signs of a hawk or owl attack save some scattered feathers and maybe a few body parts. Even if you see a hawk or owl at a kill site, you’re not guaranteed that’s the culprit.
Flying predators like an easy meal and will piggyback on the kill. After the fact, you can look at the feathers for clues. Beak marks on the shaft can indicate a flying attack. Tissue at the base of feathers indicates that the feathers were pulled after the chicken was dead. Clean feather bases indicate plucking shortly after the kill.
There are lots of ways to prevent aerial attacks. Since owls hunt starting at dusk and into the early morning, get your birds into the coop early and let them out late. The plastic hawks and owls from your farm store can be an effective deterrent. No hawk wants to mess with another predator!
Just move your plastic figurine around from time to time to break a pattern. Roosters are great at keeping an eye on the sky, warning their hens, and even protecting them from an attack. Hanging shiny objects like old CDs and pie tins from trees can scare hawks.
Plastic netting covering your chicken’s run or yard provides a nice hawk shield. Lawn ornaments that rotate in the wind can scare a hawk away.
Yep, trash pandas are cute but deadly. They’re mostly nighttime hunters, but you can see them out during the day, especially from March to July when it’s breeding season and females are feeding their young.
Raccoons are smart, clever, and resourceful. During one summer, we kept finding a young raccoon in our coop in the middle of the day. It didn’t harm the chickens since they were out roaming. It always went straight for the feeder and would sit and consume all the feed until we ran it out of the coop.
Raccoons are also dexterous and strong. They will find small holes in your coop or weak points in your run and work on that area night after night until it finally gives way. Always look around your coops for scratch marks to see if you’ve got an unwanted visitor and fix all weak points immediately.
Signs of a raccoon attack include missing birds, carcasses with a missing head and limbs, birds pulled into fencing, half-eaten carcasses, and scattered feathers.
Raccoons can be dangerous. Check on your local laws before dealing with them and get professional assistance if needed. You don’t want to run afoul of the law or end up in the hospital.
Foxes and Coyotes
I have great respect for foxes. Of all the predators, they are possibly the smartest, the quickest, and have the most nerve.
The two most common species of fox are the red and the gray fox. Red foxes are ground hunters. Gray foxes are comfortable on the ground and in the trees, where they can be safe from other predators and catch arboreal prey.
Foxes will stake out a chicken area and become accustomed to your routine. When they know you’re not likely to be around, they will strike. Fences aren’t a huge deterrent because foxes can climb them. If foxes can get into your coop, they’ll kill everything and drag off carcasses to consume later.
The most common fox attack will involve one or two birds with almost no evidence left behind. Usually, you’ll just come up with a missing bird or maybe a few scattered feathers.
The biggest deterrent for foxes is a secure coop and an uncertain routine. If I see a fox around our property, I automatically put my birds in their coop and run and don’t let them out to free-range for a few days.
I also vary my routine, letting the birds out and putting them away at different times, and visit my coop at different times throughout the day. If you have a guard dog, leaving it out while your chickens are roaming can help.
If you have coyotes in your area, they can also be stealthy like a fox and are sometimes mistaken for foxes. While foxes will stake out a coop, coyotes will enter the area, grab the easy food and leave.
A fenced yard can be a good coyote deterrent. Coyotes and foxes are most active at dawn, dusk, and through the night, so make sure your birds are safely tucked in their coop during those times.
The fight to protect your chickens goes on
There is a lot of work needed to protect your chickens from predators, and building a coop is not enough. You need to learn what predators live in your area, what their habits are, and what works best to keep them at bay. Check with the local authorities and figure out if it’s legal to hunt them and if not, find other ways to discourage them from visiting your property.
Suggested resources for preppers: