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Getting along with Predators

The following article was originally published in the June/July 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. Note that the two sidebars in that article I am here presenting in separate pages, as “The Usual Suspects” and “Purchased Aids for Predator Defense”.

Added to the site November 20, 2013.

There are any number of neighbors in our local ecology that are tolerable in moderate numbers but whose reproductive powers are awesome, and whose populations explode to catastrophic levels absent some sort of check. If you’ve had problems with rabbits or voles in your garden or mice in the henhouse, imagine a population level ten or a hundred times anything you’ve seen to date. Imagine the devastation to garden and orchard if crop-damaging insect populations soar. Imagine losses in your flock if weasels and minks were around in abundance. Fortunately we have some excellent partners to help keep some sanity in the neighborhood free-for-all: predators.

Predators in the Neighborhood Ecology

Too often our response to predation threats to our poultry is a shoot-from-the-hip assumption that the obvious solution is to kill the predators. If we appreciate the critical roles predators play in our local ecology, however, we will honor them and respect their access to habitat in which they can range to fulfill those roles. Of course, the efforts we make to nurture our flocks for matchless eggs and dressed poultry for our families would come to naught if predators have easy access to our birds. The obvious compromise strategy is: The best offense is a good defense.

Fox-predator

“Greatest destroyer
of mice”

Weasel-iStock_000015892373Medium

Weasel

Owl-iStock_000015560710-cropped

Diving Owl

Our notions of what predators eat lean toward the dramatic: They feast on animals of most interest to us—lambs, calves, piglets. Chickens. Turkeys. The truth, more prosaically, is that the most important foods for most predators likely to prey on your flock are precisely the animals mentioned above: rabbits, insects, and rodents. Long before your poultry moved into their neighborhood, skunks and opossums and raccoons fed themselves largely on insects and rodents. We think of fox and hawk as the quintessential poultry predators, but my natural history guide deems the fox “probably the world’s greatest destroyer of mice,” while many species of hawks specialize in rodents and rabbits—and some feed on insects as well. Owls prey on rabbits and rodents—and the larger species take minks and weasels. Coyotes eat more rabbits and rodents than sheep and goats—or poultry.

If you find these thoughts on the positive roles of predators hopelessly idealistic and believe that shoot-from-the-hip is precisely the practical solution of choice, reflect on some of the real-world problems with “going on the warpath”: Killing a predator does not solve the problem of predation, it simply opens up its territory for a new claimant—and the warpath solution has to be brought to bear on it in turn. Sounds like an exercise in futility to me.

Note as well that a new claimant to that territory hasn’t had the experience of being defeated by your defensive measures, and hence may be even more likely to get lucky and make a hit. For example, when I put up a wire enclosure for my shredder-composter chickens to work in, a fox tried to dig its way in—once. When it hit the wire barrier I had dug in, it never bothered with another attempt. I often see a fox ignoring my chickens as it trots by their electronet perimeter—clearly it has been well instructed by the demon in my fence. Which fox would I prefer in my neighborhood: the one who has learned not to bother probing my defenses, or a new claimant to an empty territory who certainly will probe—and perhaps find an overlooked opening in the wire, or arrive when there’s a short in the electronet?

Practice defense by preference, and be assured that predators are not stupid: If they have tried to get past your defenses and been frustrated, they will not keep wasting their time on a lost cause—but will go hunting mice or rabbits instead.

Fortress Gallus

The most significant consideration as you plan your defenses is the fact that most wild predators are nocturnal by preference. However freely you range your flock in the day, therefore, make sure to shut them up every night inside a shelter that is absolutely secure against predators. Make their roosting quarters “Fortress Gallus” and you will prevent most nighttime losses.

Shutting your flock up tight is not incompatible with maximizing ventilation, a key to flock health, so long as you use wire mesh to block predator access while permitting airflow. All my henhouse window frames have half-inch hardware cloth permanently installed. All doorways have solid outer doors (usually latched open) with protective inner doors of light framing and hardware cloth.

Do note that two-inch poultry wire is not a good idea for the henhouse. A weasel—and likely a mink—can slip right through a two-inch opening. And a raccoon can reach through, grab a chicken too close to the wire, and pull it apart piece by piece as it enjoys its meal.

Remember the open spaces under roof rafters and check for holes where siding has rotted—any opening big enough for a rat will give easy access to a Least Weasel, smallest of all true carnivores.

I like an earth floor in my coop, since it better fits my deep-litter approach to manure management. (See “When Life Gives You Lemons. . .” or Chapter 7 of my book.) However, an earth-floor coop must have a perimeter barrier all around, dug in to a depth of eighteen inches or so, to deter digging predators—metal roof flashing or hardware cloth work fine. If you are building your coop from scratch, an even better, though more expensive, solution is to place the henhouse on a concrete block foundation, dug in well below frost line, which—in addition to being a barrier to digging predators—will not rot in contact with the highly bioactive litter.

There are a couple of predators that are almost impossible to exclude from Fortress Gallus if the flock has access to the outside during the day, as they should: rats and snakes. Rats are not typically a threat to adult chickens, but can be devastating to helpless chicks, whom they drag down their burrows. The most important preventive in my experience is avoid free-choice feeding inside the coop—it’s an invitation to rodents to “be fruitful and multiply.” And don’t give them anywhere to hide: Avoid clutter on the litter; shelves should be open to prevent nest-making out of sight; clean up weedy or brushy growth around the henhouse. For an existing population, a good barn cat makes a great partner. Trapping or the use of poison baits may be in order.

Blacksnake

Blacksnake

A snake such as a blacksnake does not come into the coop looking for your chicks—it comes looking for mice, one of its favorite foods. Ever the opportunist, if it finds your chicks—or eggs—it is quick to make a meal. So preventing mice infestations is critical—again, my main strategy is avoiding free-choice feeding. And as with rats, giving snakes no clutter under which to hide discourages their hanging around. Practicing these two simple remedies, I rarely see a blacksnake in my henhouse.

Protecting Ranging Poultry

I hope that no visitor to this site keeps the flock entirely confined indoors. The benefits of giving your flock access to biologically diverse ground are so numerous—for health and contentment, for foraging superior natural foods, for saving on feed bills—you owe it to them to give them as much range as you can manage, within the limitations of your situation, especially those imposed by local predators. Some flocksters find they can completely day-range their flock without serious losses (so long as they lock them in the coop securely at night).

Predators most likely to limit success with day-ranging are diurnal ones (active during the day) such as dogs and hawks—and foxes when their populations are excessive. (Foxes tend to be nocturnal. If you see them during the day, it may indicate that the local population is high and that competition is forcing daytime hunting.) See below for more on dogs and aerial predators.

If local predator threats are an obstacle to day-ranging for you, there are two excellent compromises between liberation and security. Guardian dogs if well trained and properly managed are extremely effective at deterring predators of all types, both day and night (assuming they spend the night near their charges). While more often used with larger flocks, I’ve corresponded with flocksters with only a couple of dozen chickens or so who say it’s worth keeping a guardian dog because it’s simply not possible for them to keep poultry otherwise.

Electronet-setting-up

Setting up
Electronet

My own choice for foraging my flocks over good pasture while protecting them from heavy hitters is electric net fencing, or electronet—lightweight plastic mesh fencing with steel-tipped plastic posts woven into the mesh, easy to set up or to move as you rotate the flock over pasture. The horizontals of the mesh are interwoven with half a dozen extremely fine stainless steel wires that carry an electric charge, from a fence energizer powered either by household current or battery (perhaps with an added solar panel to keep the battery charged).

Electronet is not for everybody—it may not be appropriate if you have a lot of close neighbors, especially with very young children. But if it’s a good fit on your homestead, it gives close to absolute protection from anything on the ground with a nervous system. (It does not protect from aerial predators, of course. More about them below.)

Micro-flocks of a dozen or fewer birds can be protected on pasture in a mobile shelter or “chicken tractor,” perhaps with a small run of bolt-together wire-on-frame panels attached. If you move the shelter and pen frequently, predators will be less likely to approach them. And remember, in case you don’t have pasture: Many a flockster “pastures” the flock on the lawn. Turn that dead-end chore into a resource!

Racoon-TIMBAKO

Raccoon

If you simply cannot pasture (or “lawn”) your flock, you may be stuck with a static run. In that case, surround it with protective wire, five feet high and well dug into the ground to block digging predators. Two-inch poultry wire may be acceptable in this context (it’s cheaper), but remember that just-hatched chicks can run right through two-inch mesh. Raccoons can climb a wire fence of any height, so be sure to lock your birds in the coop every single night. And please, for sanitary manure management, prevention of runoff pollution, and greater flock contentment—keep that run covered in a deep mulch of organic debris (which your chooks will obligingly turn into compost for you).

Hawk-iStock_000002875553Medium-cropped

Hawk

Aerial Predators

Probably there is no more “your mileage may vary” factor in poultry husbandry than predators who commute in by air. Some flocksters find aerial attacks rare—others find that anytime their birds are in the open, they’re in the crosshairs.

Owls hunt at night, and may land and walk around on the ground seeking prey. So even if your birds are in a pasture shelter inside electronet, it’s a good idea to keep them shut inside overnight. Owls are also crepuscular—active in the half-light conditions of early dawn—and may make a hit on a flock that is free to start foraging at first light.

Hawks may attack anytime during the day, but in my experience have tended most to hit in the first hour of daylight. If I keep the flock shut inside until I get out to supervise, my losses to hawks are rare.

You can turn the airspace over your flock into an obstacle course for birds of prey by running lengths of monofilament fishing line—pulled tight and tied at random between trees, posts, and the like. Monofilament line is invisible to raptors, who become seriously spooked when they fly into it. Some flocksters report that the strategy works fine—until a smart raptor figures out how to run the labyrinth. So plan to change the configuration of your lines occasionally if you try this method.

I mentioned bolt-together pasture pens above. If you have raptors around, attach an additional panel on top to make it secure from aerial attack.

Mixing farmstead species can help deter aerial predators. For example, flocks on pasture with sheep seem to be less subject to aerial predators. I have seen a group of young geese converge to drive away a hawk diving on a group of chicks sharing their pasture.

Gallus gallus was conditioned to escape predators long before it became domesticus, of course. Chickens are alert to threats, and if one of them gives the alarm, they all rush for cover. So be sure there is cover to be had wherever you range your birds, whether brush or low tree limbs or a pasture shelter (needed for shade in any case).

If a guardian dog might fit in your situation, it’s good to know they’re as effective against attacks from the air as on the ground.

Pets as Predators

Domestic cats on the prowl are unlikely to be a threat to adult chickens, but a chick in their path is just another bird they feel entitled to stalk. Make sure they can’t get at yours.

Dogs can be even more devastating than wild predators. Ask me how I know: Our most catastrophic loss ever—of fifty broilers just ready to slaughter—was to a neighbor’s two dogs out on the razzle. They weren’t hungry—killing fifty chickens was just fun and games to them.

Dogs may terrorize confined birds they can’t actually attack if they’re able to get close enough to them. We once had two hens die from stress after being severely threatened by a dog through a wire mesh window.

State and local laws usually side with owners whose livestock are harassed by dogs “running at large,” even giving owners the right to shoot such dogs while defending their livestock. Study applicable ordinances well enough to be able to quote them chapter and verse to dog owners not taking their responsibilities seriously. Your local animal control officer may help to resolve such situations without the necessity of taking extreme measures.

The Rogue Predator

I mean what I say about the best offense being a good defense—and about preferring a local predator who’s been thwarted by my defenses to one who’s certain to probe them anew. But you may have to deal occasionally with a “rogue predator”—one who, despite your best efforts, manages to get past your defenses and enjoy dinner at your expense. Unlike the predator who has been conditioned by its inability to get at your flock, the success of the rogue conditions it to keep coming back for more. Even though in my experience such cases are extremely rare if we are practicing defense first, foremost, and always, it may be necessary to kill such a repeat offender to defend the flock.

Consult relevant laws, both state and federal, before taking such a drastic step. Raptors especially—but in some cases other predators as well—are protected by law, and penalties can be quite severe.

If you don’t care for guns, consult someone who is expert at trapping. And if your rogue is a hawk or falcon, get in touch with the nearest falconry club. Enthusiasts who hunt with these raptors may be licensed to live-trap them for training.

The one option I no longer favor for a rogue predator is to live-trap, haul, and release. Wouldn’t it be outrageously inconsiderate of me to haul my problem down the road and release it for some other hapless flockster to deal with? At least as seriously, like most animals, predators are intensely territorial. An animal released into unfamiliar territory is lost in the world, under enormous stress, and will likely succumb to other predators or competitors—hardly a more “merciful” outcome, to my mind, than killing the rogue predator outright.

Final Thoughts

When we think about predators, we really should reflect first of all on ecological balance. My mentor Joel Salatin spends a good deal of thought and effort establishing habitat on the thousand acres of Polyface Farm precisely in order to encourage predators. Predators such as hawk and owl, for example, who will take out weasels and minks intent on attacks on his pastured flocks.

Dealing with predation is a learning curve. Sooner or later you will have losses. Don’t be discouraged, but do learn from each successful hit so you can make the necessary changes to your defenses. The only flockster who will be hopelessly defeated by predators is the one who has losses, makes no changes in flock defense, and expects better results in the future. (Wasn’t that Einstein’s proverbial definition of insanity?) That isn’t poultry husbandry, that’s feeding the foxes!

I am a member of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. Correspondence with other members reveals that they have solved their predator challenges and suffer only rare losses. These are folks whose livelihoods are on the line, who simply cannot afford heavy losses to predators. If they can rise to the challenge of safeguarding flocks of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, certainly with well thought out, evolving defenses in place, we can as well.