As prey animals, chickens have limited resources for protecting themselves from predators. Running away or hiding are the most likely strategies your hens will use if faced with an intruder. A flock of chickens also might sound a vocal alarm should one or more predators arriveâ€”squawking loudly to one another to let flock-mates know there is reason for alarm and action.Â
Whether maintaining a rural or urban flock, you have an important role in protecting your hens. Consider the following tips to keep birds safe and secure.Â
Know Your Wild Neighbors
It may seem as if you already know the wildlife residents in your area. However, once you have an established flock of hens, you may find you have neighbors you werenâ€™t aware of.Â
Chickens are messy eaters that scatter their food far across any enclosure. Grains, remains of chicken treats, as well as fresh eggs and fecal matter are attractive to rodents and larger predators. Take time to learn who might find your hens and their habits easy pickings.Â
Read more: Should you give wet food to your chickens? Some do, and here’s why.
Once youâ€™ve discovered what might live in your area, learn more about the types of strategies they may use to prey upon your hens.Â
Coyotes are nocturnal animals but will hunt in the evening and early morning. Fox are opportunistic and sneaky, and will develop a plan before attacking. Opossums are lazy and pursue sick or injured birds.Â
Hawks and owls use high perches to assess their prey and will swoop in and take a small hen or chick away to a safe spot to eat. Skunks and snakes will be looking for eggs. Raccoons are the most dexterous and will work to open simple latches and leave a trail of devastation behind.Â
Many of these predators will leave the henâ€™s body or body parts behind but will take the head of a chicken. You can learn more by researching their nesting habitats and learning their footprints.Â
Consider strategies such as raising your coop off the ground and placing it in a secure enclosure. The types of predators that could be raiding your coop will in part determine fencing. For instance, coyotes can clear a 4-foot fence. Raccoons can reach through standard chain link and kill whatever hen they can grab.Â
Some chicken-keepers find that adding a hot-wire system around their perimeter can discourage persistent predators. There are easy kits to use to put a small, battery-powered hot-wire system along the bottom edges of the run to discourage digging or tunneling under. After a few zings from this system, diggers will stop trying to break in.Â
Motion sensitive lights in the barnyard or backyard can offer added nighttime protection. Easily installed, these lights might deter a predator that comes in range and is startled when the lights come on.
Hopefully, the lights will discourage hunters using the cover of darkness with the hope of scoring a fresh meal.Â
You may also find you need a buried barrier of galvanized hardware cloth to prevent digging invaders. These invaders, including mice and rats, chow down on chicken feed or pilfer eggs and chicks while creating openings for other predators to use as entrances and exits.Â
Rats can be the gift that keeps on giving as they settle in to consume the abundant resources your coop offers. They may make themselves at home in nearby sheds, barns or even home attics.
Using snap traps can be a successful strategy, but urban and suburban chicken farmers discover that this can be an ongoing challenge.Â
Regular coop cleaning can assist you in reducing predation. Remove uneaten food scraps, and keep the mess of grains mixed with fecal matter cleaned out of a coop and run areas. Good sanitation reduces the appeal to predators, and it also keeps your chickens healthier.Â
In addition to cleaning the coop and run, wash feeders and waterers. Clean popular free-range areas to support your cause. Plan for an annual or biannual major clean out that includes shoveling out layers of packed manure, scraping perches and scrubbing down nest boxes.
Be sure to store foods in secure containers or a secure location such as a garage or nearby storage shed.
Read more: Choose the right coop for your backyard chickens!
Listen to Chatter
After keeping chickens for a time, you may become familiar with the different sounds your hens make throughout the day. From early morning stirrings to impatient chatter when waiting for food or to be released from the run for free-ranging are the easygoing hum of daily activities.Â
You may discover that your flock also has calls of alarm. Hens distressed by the presence of hawks, for instance, will call out to one another across the area of their regular free-ranging activities. If you are indoors, youâ€™ll be able to hear these alarm calls and come running.Â
Hawks are patient predators waiting and watching chickens from a nearby tree or even the corner of a tall run. If spotted by your girls, the alarm will go up and hens may try to take cover under nearby shrubs and bushes.
Stepping into the free-range area will be enough to discourage a hawk briefly. And if you see one, it might be a good time to wrangle your hens back into their protected run.Â
If your hens free-range during the day, create more protected places to hide than hedges or shrubs. A safe shelter or two could be as simple as a wooden pallet perched on cement blocksâ€”something for your girls to run and hide under if they become aware of a hawk.Â
You could also reuse an old trash can cut in half to create a shelter tall enough for chickens and sturdy enough to block any flying predators.Â
Go to Bed
As the day draws to a close, encourage your flock to move from their free-ranging yard back into the coop. Popular chicken treats such as mealworms will help you get your girls home for the night.
(My own hens know the sound of a storage bag full of mealworms shaken to draw their attention.) Closing hens in at night, year-round, will increase their safety.Â
Dusk is a particularly vulnerable time for hens. Hawks and owls use the fading light to their advantage. Once, a hawk worked its way inside my chicken run. The hens safely retreated inside the coop, hiding together in a single nest box.
The hawk was trapped inside the run only to be discovered on late night rounds of the yard. The run door was left open, and the hawk took advantage of the opportunity to flee. But its presence was a warning for just how determined a predator can be.Â
Domestic animals such as dogs and cats can also prey on a flock of chickens. Dogs and cats hunt for sport and will leave behind a complete dead chicken. If the pets are your own, you can decide on different strategies for managing flock and pets in shared backyards.Â
Limiting access between your pets and the hens is your first line of defense. You may also choose to work with your pets by implementing training strategies.
Sometimes hens will help by chasing a young pup or kitten, making themselves more intimidating by spreading their wings to appear larger. You may want to keep your cats around though, because theyâ€™ll help control the rodent population.Â
A rooster as a protector comes with his own innate desire to protect his flock. Driven to pass along his genetic information, a rooster will fight a predator to the death. Your locationâ€”urban, suburban or ruralâ€”will be part of your decision to have or not have a noisy rooster.Â
Your family dog may also play a role as security detail. Dogs who have the run of a larger free-range yard during evening and nighttime hours can be deterrents to opossum and raccoons.Â
Being aware of not only who your predators are but when theyâ€™re most likely to be hunting is essential to protecting your chickens. This might include peak times of day as well as different seasons.
If you are in a climate with cooling fall or the arrival of a cold winter weather, you may discover increased predation. Mice, rats and birds of prey may become more tenacious as the weather gets colder.
Hunting may increase, and you may need to consider moving chickens into the coop earlier each day ahead of these natural predators.Â
If you discover that you have had an invasion, determine the who, what, when and where of the predator. Youâ€™ll need the tools and materials to repair or block holes, mend damaged fencing or replace parts of the coop.Â
Once you know what youâ€™re dealing with, remain alert to further attempted break-ins. If the neighborhood raccoon has been successful at the expense of your hens, itâ€™ll likely return. Be ready.
And, if the animal becomes a complete nuisance, contact your local wildlife control agent to learn more about live trapping and removal.Â
Keeping your flock safe will allow you to get to know individual hens, their qualities and innate nature. You will enjoy observing their behaviors and will find that they can be quite humorous fun to watch.
Take the precautions you need to in order to protect your hens and enjoy the products of your efforts.Â
Security & Maintenance
Even the best security measures can still be vulnerable. While you may not directly observe a predatorâ€™s presence, you can be alert to activity by evaluating footprints and watching evidence of digging and scratching around the run, as well as changes in your area that might increase the potential of predation.Â
For instance, an abandoned home being torn down in your neighborhood might mean displaced mice, rats or raccoons. Or the removal of trees for new construction can impact wildlife habitat enough to change animal behavior.
Changes in the living conditions of wildlife in your area can increase the chances that your hens, their eggs or their food become potential sources when they may not have been before.Â
Some predators are only in it for the fresh eggs. Collecting your eggs daily will help reduce this attractive smorgasbord item from your coop.
Daily collection of eggs will also discourage any hens themselves from breaking into their eggs and consuming them. Egg collection should be part of the daily care routine you provide your flock, just like offering fresh food and water.Â
Many predators are cautious about hunting in open spaces with minimal cover. Hens will enjoy the open spaces as long as there are borders of hedges and shrubs to hide under.
Predators tend to use stealth to their advantage but are reluctant to be exposed in wide-open areas.Â
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue ofÂ ChickensÂ magazine.