In the Shadow of the Hawk
This article was first published in the October/November 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry.
A rude awakening
“Hey, what’s going on?” I heard Ellen ask, followed by a snick of the latch on the door.
“Don’t open the door!” I screamed. “Do not open that door!” In a deranged frenzy, I continued swinging the spade at the nimble-footed creature dancing among scattered carcasses. “You @%#$& little $@#&@, you killed my little chickens!” I shrieked, taking another wild swing.
My daughter Heather started our first flock of chickens, more than twenty years ago. We brooded that first group of 26 New Hampshire Red chicks in an ersatz brooder in my shop, then, when fully feathered (about four weeks), put them out into an 8 x 16 ft shed that was on our place when we moved in. During the day, they happily enjoyed sunshine and bug chases out in a fenced run, but we were careful to shut them in the coop at night, to ward off raids from predators.
One morning a week later, my wife Ellen opened the coop—onto a scene of appalling carnage: little feathered carcasses lay everywhere, a few missing head or leg, all with bloodied necks. Numbed with horror, she shut the door again.
After I got home to the sad news, I went out to clean up the massacre. I had gathered up more than a dozen stiff little casualties, sick at heart, when the cutest little head popped up from behind a board, a look of Who, me? innocence on its face. I didn’t even know what this critter was, but knew it had to be the source of this horrible mayhem. Grabbing a spade and shutting the door, I began chasing the little villain around the coop, screaming and cussin’.
The little guy was amazingly good on his feet, but finally I landed a blow that almost cut him in half. I picked him up, feeling both astonishment that anything so small could be such a killer, and admiration for his perfection—his needle-like teeth and silk-like pelt. Here was a creature evolved to do one thing supremely well: kill for food.
I realized now that I had been naive when I set up my defenses against fox and ’possum and raccoon, never dreaming that I had to exclude a stealthy stranger this small from the henhouse. If I even thought of the possibility of a weasel, I assumed it was the size of a mink. Now I confronted a Least Weasel (Mustela frenata), smallest (by far) of the weasel tribe. Excluding a short tail, he was no more than six inches long, amazingly slender—anywhere a rat could get in, this guy could as well. Using the head as a template in reverse, I went around the coop, testing every opening under the eaves, beside the rafters. Wherever I could fit that head, I nailed blocks to exclude further attacks.
We lost 19 out of 26 in that initiation into raising poultry near neighbors who like our chickens as much as we do. (I was amazed to find as I continued picking up the bodies that seven little chickens had actually survived, hidden well enough to escape the weasel, though for days afterwards utterly traumatized.)
We have had losses to a Least Weasel only once more in the intervening years. As said in my article on electric net fencing, I have found electronet almost foolproof for protecting the flock from predators. One August, however, when the ground was extremely dry, I found a dead hen inside my electronet fence three mornings in a row. Though I ensured both fence and charger were in good working order, the kills were all inside the fence, and each hen showed the chewed neck characteristic of weasel attack. I could only assume that a Least Weasel had come in under the lowest charged wire of the net. It would have made contact with the wire, but the insulating effect of the pelt together with the dryness of the soil provided no ground for the current in the fence, and the weasel received no shock. For two weeks thereafter, I shut the chickens inside their pasture shelter at night—that is, I put into place a physical barrier to the weasel. At the same time, I increased the robustness of the ground in the fence system: I purchased three ½-inch thick, eight-foot ground rods, which I drove full length into the ground under the eaves of the poultry house and near the water hydrant, where the soil was certain to be moist any time of year, and connected all three with heavy gauge wire. With the enhanced ground in the system, I’ve never had a subsequent problem with grounding (or with weasels), even in times of drought.
Your worst potential predator
Most beginning poultry enthusiasts think of foxes or raccoons when thinking of predation threats. But your most bloody-minded predator could be—your neighbor’s dog (or even your own). Even dogs who are the sweetest of poochies at home may transform into entirely different creatures on the roam. Especially if running with other dogs, the hunting pack mentality—which for millennia meant survival—takes over, and they can become cunning and efficient killers.
The first summer we abandoned the static chicken run, we had 50 Cornish Cross broilers in a Joel Salatin style 10x12 mobile pen on pasture. The birds were growing well, obviously benefiting from the pasture, and I was pleased by the new direction we were taking—until I went out one morning to find mangled white carcasses scattered over the pasture. Two of my neighbors’ dogs were still on the scene, clearly pleased with their exploits. (They had both dug under the bottom rail of the pen, and torn a hole in the poultry netting itself, to get at the hapless birds inside.) When I called them, they came without hesitation, wagging their tails. I then called the animal control officer, who hauled them away to the pound. Later, at my request, their owners came over to review the remains of the attack. Fortunately, they paid what I asked for the slaughtered birds and the repair of the pen.
Unfortunately, not all owners are so cooperative when solicited by flock owners being harrassed by their dogs. A buddy of mine has gotten fed up with going to owners of dogs on the loose who say, in response to his report of harrassment of his flock, “Oh, really? Wow, you’ve really got a problem there, don’t you!” My buddy says that these days such owners only get one courtesy call. After that, it’s “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
My solution to the attack on my mobile pen was to “wire for defense”: I mounted a small battery-powered fence charger right on the pen, and ran single-strand electric wire around the pen, both at nose level near the ground and about 12 inches up, standing it off from the pen with insulators. I never again had an attack on a movable pasture pen with a functioning electric defense.
I have, however, experienced two successful dog attacks on chickens inside fencing. One was from a wily old bitch and her year-old daughter (kept by a neighbor but not especially well fed, I suspect—these dogs were hunting not as fun and games, but out of hunger). Again, that pack mentality came to the fore: One dog would rush the fence, spooking the chickens inside into panic flight over the fence—right into the waiting jaws of the other dog. Another case where the animal control officer came riding to the rescue, and hauled the marauders off to jail.
I once lost a young goose inside electronet to two dogs who obviously were wise to the sting in the net, but who used the same cunning to rush the geese in a narrow portion of the fence, forcing one to panic over the net and meet its doom. Since then, I avoid net fences with corridor-like portions, but configure them with plenty of interior space into which the birds retreat when threatened from the outside from any angle. If you are installing fixed runs with conventional poultry netting, I recommend wide and roomy over long and narrow.
I have heard reports of large dogs (or coyotes) jumping over electronet, which is usually 42 inches or so high. Certainly large canines can jump that high; but in my experience, they tend to lead with the nose. Once that sensitive probe gets a jolt from the fence, they do not back off and think, “Hmmmm, if at first you don’t succeed—” but rather, high-tail it into the next county.
A bit of research into your local and state laws regarding livestock and unrestrained dogs could be useful, especially if you have to confront the owner of a dog that is harrassing your flock. Most areas favor the livestock owner in such cases. Laws of both my county and state, for example, require dog owners to keep their dogs under control, and even give livestock owners the right to kill dogs “running at large” and harrassing their animals.