The Usual Suspects
You will have your own “cast of characters” when it comes to major predation threats in your neighborhood. Try to find someone in your area—a trapper, wildlife expert, or more experienced flockster—who can advise you about local predators, their modus operandi, and successful defense strategies. Such advisers can be especially informative about “reading a kill” for telltale signs identifying the predator most likely to have made a hit. Thanks to my friend Sam Poles, the most expert trapper in my county, for his valuable insights about some of the more common predators listed here, with whom most of us flocksters have to learn to coexist.
Foxes are wily and persistent and can be devastating if we do not anticipate their evasions of our defenses. A fox will make only one kill at a time, which it will eat elsewhere, though it will make many in following raids if we don’t shut down a demonstrated line of attack. Sam has observed that a fox leaves splashes of feathers every forty yards or so, to a hidden place where it feels secure enough to enjoy its meal. Foxes are diggers, but may require repeat visits to dig a large enough hole under a fence to get through. So check perimeters frequently for digging activity. Even better, install a barrier deep into the ground at the base of fences.
Raccoons are smart and incredibly strong—one tore a hole in the poultry wire on a pasture shelter here, with its bare paws. (Bet you can’t do that!) As skilled climbers, they can exploit any weakness in our defenses. Typically a raccoon will take only a single bird in a successful raid. However, in the late spring or early summer, when a mama raccoon is teaching her young to hunt, the family may leave behind multiple uneaten kills.
Opossum and Skunk
Neither species makes attacks on active chickens, but opportunistically will prey on sleeping birds if they get inside the coop at night. Both are quite fond of eggs as well. A possum will start by eating the head, or will eat in through the vent to get at the internal organs, which it prefers to muscle meat. After a kill, a possum may remain close by, sleeping off its meal in a corner or up under the rafters. A visit by a skunk will of course be signaled by its distinctive smell.
Weasel and Mink
These slender, efficient killers can slip through extremely small openings and devastate your flock. Their attack reflex is triggered not by hunger but by movement of terrified prey—so they can leave behind a lot of carnage, as we discovered in our first predator loss: nineteen New Hampshires not long out of the brooder. Both may eat a head or a leg, but their favorite food is blood—most carcasses will reveal wounds to the neck only, through which the attacker drained their blood.
Hawks leave a big splash of feathers where they hit a victim—whose body you may find close by, since it’s difficult for the hawk to lift it and fly away. It will begin eating the head and crop, and will likely return to the kill next day to continue eating. Note that it’s not necessarily the biggest hawks who are most likely to make a successful strike on the flock. Almost all my losses to hawks have been to the medium Cooper’s Hawk, rather than to the abundant and much larger Red-tailed.
If you find a dead chick who has been “slimed” (covered with dried shiny residue like the trail of a slug), it is likely that a snake unsuccessfully attempted to swallow it.
A bear is not likely to actively hunt for poultry. It is likely to come after chicken feed, however, if it can smell it. If that feed is stored inside a coop full of sleeping chickens, the bear may opportunistically dine on several. If there are bears in your neighborhood, a range feeder full of chicken feed is not a good idea. Electric fencing will deter a bear, but only if it hits it with its nose—if it doesn’t, it will simply walk through or over the electric fence.
A lot of dead bodies on site, none of them eaten, likely indicate a “fun and games” attack by a dog—or a couple, in hunting pack mode. If you see dogs “running at large” on your place, have a serious talk with its owner or call your county’s animal control officer right away, rather than risk an attack.