Without much cover in which to hide, predatory birds can pose a very real threat to a flock of free-ranging chickens, especially small ones such as bantams, juveniles and chicks. On the whole, they move quickly and leave little evidence behind.
One of the most common raptors in North America is the keen-sighted red-tailed hawk. It’s identified by its broad wingspan and short, fanned tail. Of the nocturnal predator birds in North America, the common barn owl is the most likely to pay a visit to your chickens. The barn owl uses its immaculate hearing, rather than sight, to locate and capture prey.
While it takes a rather large raptor to carry off an adult, standard chicken, do not underestimate the audacity of a hungry raptor. Most predatory birds will focus on small or weak prey, but they are still capable of inflicting damage on any member of your flock.
If you suspect your property or neighborhood is home to any species of predator birds, call your county extension office or enlist the help of avian experts at your local bird or wildlife sanctuary.
Don’t attempt to trap or capture any predatory bird on your own. Many native North American raptors are federally protected and to illegally capture one could land you with some serious jail time and fines.
A bird of prey is the archetypal hunter. Unlike the other predators mentioned, true birds of prey are strictly carnivorous. They’ll rarely forage or scavenge for food to supplement their taste for meat.
Daytime predatory birds usually take only one chicken at a time, but they may return for more. Truth be told, raptors rarely leave a calling card. More often than not, chickens that fall prey to raptors will simply disappear.
Here are a few clues they might leave:
- Chickens disappear while free-ranging (usually thanks to hawks, eagles and falcons).
- Chickens missing, with only scattered feathers remaining (also hawks, eagles and falcons).
- Surviving chickens have deep puncture wounds (from talons).
- Dead chickens found on the roost at night with missing heads or only the head and neck eaten. Dead or injured chickens will have puncture wounds around the head and neck. (You can blame owls for this one. Once inside, an owl may be moved by blood lust and kill more chickens than it can eat.)
- Piles of feathers under fence posts or similar structures where the raptor has consumed its prey (a habit of nearly all predatory birds).
Your Flock’s Defenses
To safeguard your flock from overhead predators, provide some sort of aerial barrier. Cover outdoor runs with roofs or netting. Anything that disrupts a raptor’s line of sight and ability to maneuver will prevent them from effectively grabbing a member of your flock. Some chicken-keepers hang old DVDs from ropes above outdoor pens to confuse aerial predators. The sharp glare in the sun can weaken a raptor’s vision during a hunt.
Also, provide something pastured birds can hide under in the event of an attack, such as low bushes, potted plants and other vegetation. Chickens are incredibly perceptive to anything flying overhead and will quickly seek cover if they feel threatened.
If your city or neighborhood allows it, add a rooster to your flock. He will keep one eye overhead for any aerial predators and alert the hens to any danger. As always, securely lock up your flock each night. Close any windows or doors that do not have a mesh lining to keep nighttime birds of prey—namely, owls—from getting inside.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.