In the Shadow of the Hawk
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 afterward 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 a 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 10×12 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 harassed 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 harassment 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, “Hmm, 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 harassing 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 harassing their animals.
The masked bandit
One season when I was negligent and didn’t have a battery in the charger on my movable broiler pen, I had a sharp reminder from Mr. Raccoon of the importance of keeping my defenses up. The raccoon visited the pen during the night and tore a hole in the wire poultry netting (I bet you can’t do that!), then simply reached in and helped himself. There were eleven young broilers on the menu that night. Needless to say, I didn’t waste any time getting a new battery in service, and there was no more midnight drama out on the pasture.
The only other time I had losses to a raccoon was, again, my own fault. I had used electronet fencing to “park” a flock of layer hens on a plot of grass I intended to convert to blueberry bed—the chickens were busily “tilling in” the established sod for me. The site was on a slight incline, and as the chickens scratched up the existing grass, the debris gradually sifted downslope and accumulated over the lower charged horizontals of the fence. Every day as I serviced that pen I would say to myself: “Hey, boy, better pull that stuff off the fence!” But you know how it is on the homestead—always on the run—and I failed to take the needed action. Then one morning, alarm bells went off in my head even before I consciously registered the splashes of feathers out over the pasture. I grabbed the electronet—not a whisper of charge. “Well, duh, boy,” I castigated myself, “got it now?” The masked bandit charged me only four laying hens for his kind and most valuable lesson: When using electronet, keep the fence lines clean.
There are a number of potential predators—skunk, ’possum, coyote, bobcat, mink—that I won’t discuss because we’ve never had a problem with them. Please do become familiar with the likely predators and their modus operandi in your own locale. [See “You Think You Have Predator Problems?”.]
I will discuss one potential predator we’ve never had a single loss to, simply because we see this leprechaun of the woods so frequently, and meet so many people who complain that they can’t keep chickens on their place because of—foxes. Brer Fox is resourceful and wily, a competitor for our chickens worthy of our respect. I have friends who wail every time I see them about all the chickens they’ve lost to the fox. Invariably, I recommend electronet fencing. Invariably, I hear the same tale of woe next time I see them. I want to shake them and demand, “When are you gonna start raising chickens—rather than feeding the fox?!”
We love to see the foxes come through our property—beautiful creatures who seem to be enjoying their outings to the fullest. Many times I’ve seen them walk within yards of my flocks and not even glance at the birds—doubtless they’ve already gotten a snoot-full of the wizardry in my fence.
The most recent sighting occurred just a few days ago. A red fox came into the backyard while Ellen and I were having lunch by the kitchen window. As it entered the orchard, I assumed it was “just passing through,” like so many foxes we’ve seen on our place. But when it suddenly doubled back, I wondered—since it was obviously a rather young fox—whether it would make an attempt on the chickens, not having been properly instructed by my fence. It crept closer to the fence, apparently intent on prey. Then it pounced—and came up with a plum that had fallen from a tree. Holding its better-than-nothing plum daintily in its mouth, it made off into the woods.
A sly fellow
It’s easy to keep most intruders out of the henhouse. It is almost impossible, however, to keep out a snake. Aside from giving one a start when one comes upon them unawares, though, snakes are unlikely to do a great deal of damage. Keeping the rodent population in check will help limit the interest of snakes in the poultry house, as they usually come in first seeking rodent prey, and only then discover the joys of eggs in nests and recently hatched chicks.
My most interesting close encounter with a snake followed my discovery one day that one of my Muscovy ducklings was missing. Next day a second duckling had mysteriously disappeared. When yet a third was missing next morning, I ransacked the poultry house, and found a big black snake under a piece of plywood, three distinct lumps decorating its ample length. Putting on long thick gloves, I pinned the snake’s head with a stick and caught it with my free hand. When I took it up to the house to show Ellen, I held it up as high as I could, its head in my left hand, its tail dragging the ground. Since I am five feet eight, the snake was well over six feet long—the biggest black snake I ever encountered on our place.
The rule here with snakes (black snakes are the only ones I’ve ever found in the chicken house) is this: If I find them when they’re still just checking things out, I catch them and release them elsewhere on the property. If they’ve already had a taste at Harvey’s Diner, they have to go: I catch them, tie them inside a feed bag, then drive about six miles away, where I release them in some woods, hoping they’ll readily make the transition to the new environment.
Visitors from above
With only rare exceptions, subject to my correction, I have found that electronet gives complete protection from anything on the ground with a nervous system. But it is no defense from aerial predation, and we have occasional losses from raptors. I don’t mind “occasional losses,” since I have great respect for the hunting birds, and am grateful for the services they provide, particularly rodent control. On only one occasion have I come close to “fighting dirty” with a raptor—a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk who wore out his welcome Chez Harvey. I lost count of the number of half-grown chickens taken by that Coopers—he was eating those little guys like popcorn. Just as I started looking at the old literature’s strategies for taking out a rogue hawk, my friend moved on, I assumed as the next stage in his migration. Our homestead’s bounty certainly strengthened him for the journey.
Be aware of local and federal laws protecting raptors—they can be quite severe, and for good reason: These magnificent birds deserve our protection. Under certain circumstances, the owner who is losing poultry to a raptor may apply for a permit to kill the bird. A better option, though, might be to contact a local falconry club—often, aficionados of this sport have the equipment and the expertise (and the permits) to live-trap hunting birds. My friend Mike and I called on a member of a falcon club one year after a number of “hits” from the same Red-shouldered Hawk. He set up a live trap of most interesting design, cleverly baited with live pigeons (not accessible to the hawk), and left it in place for three weeks. We didn’t catch a hawk, but we didn’t have any more hits, either.
One year I lost three guinea hens in a three-week period. My buddy Sam, a trapper, speculated they had been taken by some eagles whose nest he had observed not far away. It being nesting season, Sam suspected the parents were feeding fledglings heavily. Later that year I saw one of those Bald Eagles, perched in the top of a tree not far from my home. An awesome sight, and one that made me see the pilfered guineas as more gift than loss.
When raptors stoop on their prey, they hit with incredible force. Sometimes they injure or even kill a bird that they actually cannot lift to carry away. I once saw a hawk hit one of my juvenile ducks, then fail to get off the ground. When I came running, the hawk flew away, leaving the duckling dazed but unharmed. A less felicitous outcome met a young turkey at my friend Mike’s place: I found the turkey lying dead in its pasture pen, uneaten but obviously hit hard by something with long talons.
Repeat “hits” from the same aerial predator can be discouraging, but there is usually a solution to the problem if you observe closely and find the patterns of behavior. This pasture season, I have had a number of hits from a good-sized raptor I’ve never seen, though I have seen a number of his half-eaten kills, of fairly big young chickens. After several hits, it became obvious that my visitor was arriving in the early hours, before I got out to feed the flock. My solution was to stop rotating the flock over individual pasture plots, using open pasture shelters, and to net the entire pasture area, anchoring the electronet system on the main poultry house. I now keep the flock shut up at night, and release them to the pasture only when I go out to feed. Since adopting this strategy, I have had no further losses to the hawk.
Being good neighbors
All of us who love raising poultry do so in the shadow of the hawk, in the eye of the fox in the hedgerow. I urge you to see these neighbors—and yes, eager diners on our birds if given the chance—not as The Enemy, on which we wage merciless war, but as fellow members of the great community of life in which we are privileged to live. Ellen and I have always tried to receive predator attacks as lessons to be learned, instructions in the adjustments we need to make to live in harmony with these worthy neighbors, while keeping our flocks (mostly) intact.
I have at times placed the offal from slaughter day out in the edge of our woods as a conscious offering to Fox and Raccoon and ’Possum—a way of expressing my sense of fellow-creaturehood; of saying “Thank you” that I have been able to raise my poultry in peace with them; a recognition of their need as well to eat, and respect for the fact that they were here first.
My longtime mentor Joel Salatin has designed his farmscape with conscious intent to accommodate the maximum diversity of life possible, incorporating numerous ponds and wooded plots as habitat. His assumption is that there is safety in diversity: If there is habitat for Rabbit and Field Mouse, then Fox has plentiful hunting and leaves Joel’s layer flock alone. If Hawk and Owl have their place, they snatch up Mink or Weasel venturing out onto open pasture with an eye on Chicken.
Don’t get me wrong, Joel is no sentimentalist—if he has a persistent problem with a “rogue predator” who isn’t satisfied with the table he has tried to set for it, Joel is not above going out at night with a strong light and a scoped rifle. But the main thrust of his efforts, and his mindset, is to create neighborhood rather than war zone. That should be the goal of us all.