I live on Gabriola Island, a small island off a much larger one, Vancouver Island. Our isolation from the mainland has meant we are relatively fortunate not to have the same kinds of predators other chicken keepers contend with: skunk, opossum, bobcat, lynx, cougar, bear, coyote, fox or snakes. We’re lucky, but we still lose birds to aerial threats (eagle, owls, hawks), mink, marten, raccoons, and ravens. One of the worst, and the one many people don’t consider until it’s too late, are dogs: everyone’s got one, they can do a lot of damage in a few minutes and most people have not predator-proofed their birds against them. My neighbours’ Shih Tzu had a couple of encounters with my flock, when they were free-ranging, but thankfully didn’t do much damage.
My experience with predators is, knock on wood, quite limited: in almost 10 years I’ve had nine hawk attacks (one where my partner managed to scare a Kestrel into dropping a small hen) and one daylight raccoon attack, in which I was able snatch the hen back. The two we rescued both survived; the other seven were not so lucky.
The hardest thing about having chickens is losing them. It’s one thing if they die of old age, or even illness, it’s another if they’ve been killed by predators. I belong to a number of Facebook farm groups and have seen the graphic depictions of the devastation that they can create.
The purpose of this article is to help you identify the potential culprit and figure out ways to thwart them. I come at this topic as both a chicken keeper and a naturalist. We all understand that predators are part of a larger food chain and they are just doing their thing. They didn’t know their latest meal was your favourite bird you raised as a chick or your kid’s 4H project. Don’t take it personally. The more we encroach on their habitat, restrict their movements into increasingly smaller sections, do away with wildlife corridors and change the climate, the more we will have wildlife-human-livestock conflicts.
Our top priority should be how to co-exist with the wildlife that live in our area. If we keep livestock how do we keep them safe? It’s not always possible to fully protect them 24/7, but there are some things we can do to mitigate our losses.
Firstly, we can try to identify the predator. How can you tell who killed your bird? It helps to know what predators live near us and how they behave.
Did it happen at night or in the day? Lots of primarily nocturnal animals are opportunistic and may kill your livestock during the day, but most diurnal animals don’t hunt at night.
Learn how to recognize tracks. I live in an area that gets very little snow, but when we do I’m always surprised to see raccoon tracks around my pens. It’s evidence that my property is part of their home territory, but they don’t cause damage to my flock.
Here’s some info to help you determine what predators may have injured/killed your birds.
Warning: At the end of these tables are some graphic photos of predator attacks.
What Killed My Chicken?
1-2 Birds Killed
|Entire chicken eaten on site||Hawk|
|Bites on breast/thigh; abdomen eaten; bird eaten on site||Opossum|
|Deep bites on head/neck, head/neck missing; feathers missing||Owl|
|Entire bird eaten/missing; scattered feathers||Coyote|
|1 bird gone; maybe scattered feathers||Fox|
|Chicks pulled through fence, wings/feet untouched||Cat|
|Chicks killed; abdomen eaten; musky odour||Skunk|
|Head bitten off; claw marks on neck/back; partially buried||Bobcat|
|Backs bitten; heads missing, necks/breasts torn, breasts/entrails eaten; bird pulled into fence and partially eaten; carcass found away from housing; maybe scattered feathers||Raccoon|
Multiple Birds Killed
|Birds mauled but not eaten; fence or building broken into; feet pulled through wire and bitten off||Dog|
|Bodies neatly piled; killed by small bites on neck/body; back of head/neck eaten||Mink|
|Small bites on neck/body; bruises on head/under wings; back of head/neck eaten; bodies neatly piled; faint musky odour||Weasel|
|Rear end bitten; intestines pulled out||Fisher/Marten|
|Chicks dead; faint lingering odor||Skunk|
1 Bird Missing
|Feathers scattered or no clues||Bobcat, Owl, Cougar, Fox, Hawk|
|Fence or building broken into; feathers scattered||Dog|
|Small bird missing; lingering musky odour||Mink|
Several Birds Missing
|No clues||Coyote, Hawk, Human|
|Feathers scattered; no clues||Fox|
|Chicks missing; no clues||Snake|
|Small birds missing; bits of coarse fur at coop opening||Raccoon|
|Chicks/young birds missing||Cat, Rat|
|No clues||Human, Rat, Snake|
|Empty shells in and around nets||Dog, Mink, Opossum, Raccoon|
|Empty shells in nest or near housing||Ravens, Crows, Jays|
|No clues or empty shells in and around nests, maybe faint lingering odour||Skunk|
Adapted from: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow
I put a call out to other chicken keepers about what they’ve experienced. Here’s a sample of what various species of predators can do to our birds:
Just about everything eats eggs: canines, raccoon, opossum, weasel family, raven, crow, skunk, domesticated dogs and snakes.
With the exception of some owls, most predatory birds (hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, crows) are daylight predators who tend to tear off the head and breast. If large enough they will carry a chicken away, leaving a pile of feathers behind. If not, they will feed on it in place and return for a later meal if possible.
Weasel Family (Mink, Marten, Weasel & Ferret)
These are the ones that seem to kill for fun – they go into a frenzy biting birds and draining blood. If you find a large pile of chickens with very few injuries and not much eaten then suspect someone in the weasel family.
Our best friends, our constant companions, are some of the worst culprits. Most of us have dogs and often learn too late how much damage they can do when chickens look like fun, squawking wind-up toys. Train your dog early and ensure it doesn’t have access to your birds until its fully trustworthy.
The problem is often not our own, but our neighbours’ dog, who has gotten off their own property or is allowed to run at large. And sadly, many owners don’t seem to take responsibility for wandering dogs and do little to remedy the situation.
“The neighbours’ dog came over, broke in and went on a killing spree in the early morning hours before we were awake. There were seven large birds killed in the attack this time: a full-grown turkey, two geese, a large rooster, a Muscovy drake, and two Jumbo Pekin ducks. There aren’t pictures of all the bodies because other scavengers came in and scooped a couple after they died and another died of bite injuries three days later. The hole in the fence where the dog came through still isn’t fixed and they deny their dog was responsible, even though I can see one of my dead ducks in their yard.” – Kaetlin Lynch
Coyote & Fox
Lynx, Bobcat & Domestic Cat
“This is Lucinda the Lynx: she brought her kit to the all-you-can-eat buffet that was my duck coop. 13 ducks later. Sigh. Why yes, that is an electric fence. 8000 volts now you mention it. Yes, Lucinda is inside my duck run.” – Tracey Johnson
Bearbera, climbing in and out of my chicken run. She and her three little cubs, haunted me for two months. I had the Conservation Officer out daily for weeks. I put up electric wire, spikes and a wire roof. She wasn’t interested in any of my measures. She didn’t get any chickens, though she did destroy the shed I keep my garbage in. I keep it chained shut, but that didn’t stop her from trying, and trying. – Tracey Johnson
Although most often active at night, raccoons will attack during the day. In fact, my only raccoon incident involved a daylight attack in which the raccoon came into my pen and grabbed a hen. By the time I got out there it was trying to pull her through the fence – fortunately she was bigger than the mesh and I was able to snatch her back. Ivy had scratches, an injured eye and chewed feathers on both wings, but made a full recovery.
I know several people who have had birds attacked by raccoons when they were penned. Raccoons just reach through the mesh and chew whatever they can grab. In one case, the hen’s wing was torn off and she recovered, minus the wing. In another, a friend had two sick birds crated in her infirmary and a raccoon decapitated both of them through the mesh. If you find birds pulled through fencing it’s a raccoon. Other evidence includes: punctures, chewed feathers, decapitation, partially eaten entrails, clumps of feathers and missing bodies.
Here’s an interesting case: this chicken was killed either at night or in the early morning hours and this was all that was left of it. If it had been found later in the day I might have guessed raccoon kill (it was carried away from the pen) and then scavengers came to pick it clean. I’m not sure what predators live in that area that would kill at night and eat that much of a carcass in one sitting.
The next question is what will you do once you’ve discovered who the culprit is? As an advocate of trying to co-exist with wildlife I would advise that your first measure is to fortify your security and figure out strategies to reduce further losses. I’m not a proponent of killing wildlife as a first option. If that is your choice find out what the regulations are in your area for killing or trapping wildlife. Some places have laws regarding live trapping and relocating native species.
Often we can remedy the issue without drastic measures. When I grabbed my hen back from the raccoon I was concerned it would return to the chicken-buffet. I set out a live trap and had no luck. You always hear the mantra: ‘Once they’ve tasted blood, they’ll be back”. Apparently, not so, in my case. From the tracks I’ve spotted just today, they’re here but haven’t caused me any further grief and it’s been several years. Knock on wood, they stay that way.
Read Predator Proofing 101 for some ideas on how to keep your birds safe.
Photos courtesy of Bitchin’ Chickens friends: Allen, Alysha Gray, Anna Runnings, Connie Haslam Green, Dana B, Diana Bouchard, Gwen Langer, Joanne Gudza McNeill, Kaetlin Lynch, Katanna, Marie Lomas-Cage, Marissa Benson, Samantha Warden, Tracy Johnson & Trish.
Many thanks to Keith Seibold, my computer coach, for working on the predator tables. Unfortunately all his hard work got lost a bit in translation when imported into WordPress. It still works, its just not as pretty as Keith’s version.