It’s unfortunate, but it will happen: One day, you’ll walk into your chicken coop and find the worst-case scenario. Something has killed your chickens. It’s a nightmare scenario that happens to anyone who raises poultry. While it’s impractical to think that you can eliminate the threat of something preying on your chickens, you can do some things to mitigate the risk to your chickens.
Like any risk mitigation strategy, it’s always best to be proactive. In other words, do things to manage the threats before they even become a threat. By constantly thinking ahead and being diligent, you can protect your chickens when they can’t protect themselves.
The Risk Assessment
There are two ways to think about risk assessments regarding your chickens: pre-coop construction or post-coop construction. Each assessment strategy has a plan you can employ to help spot possible problems or eliminate the risk before it even becomes a problem.
If you haven’t built your coop yet, it’s relatively easy to think ahead and implement construction techniques to make your coop predator-proof when your chickens are in the pen. You can employ materials and construction techniques to mitigate threats by thinking like a predator.
If your coop is built already, there are still some things that you can do to retrofit it further. If you follow some simple considerations, your chickens will thank you.
If you are building a chicken coop from scratch, it’s much easier to plan predator-proof construction techniques from the beginning. While the urge to save money and cut corners on construction costs is omnipresent, if you want to protect your chickens and have a low-maintenance chicken coop and run to boot, start with good materials and be consistent in your construction quality.
For example, your chosen wire may be the most crucial construction component. Go into any hardware or feed-supply store that sells fencing supplies, and they’ll have chicken wire. Chicken wire is a light-gauge, hexagonally configured wire made to keep chickens in—not keep predators out.
A raccoon or bobcat can easily tear a hole in chicken wire and enter the coop to decimate your flock. Instead, use hardware cloth to protect your chickens. Hardware cloth is a heavier gauge wire than chicken wire and has smaller holes between the wires. The smaller holes make it more difficult for a hawk to get a talon through or a raccoon to tear a hole in the wire.
Therefore, it makes sense to spend the extra money to design your chicken run effectively and cover any coop windows with hardware cloth instead of chicken wire. Consider, too, covering the top of your chicken run as well. It will protect your chickens from avian predators or feral cats during the day when your flock is out foraging.
While you can use hardware cloth to cover the top of the run, you can also use sheet metal. Materials such as correlated metal or R-panels can have a dual purpose of protecting your chickens from threats that come from above. In addition, a coop roof can also provide shade on hot days.
Using the same hardware cloth material, you can also consider buying an apron around the chicken run. An apron is simply a width of hardware cloth that lies horizontally and runs around the perimeter of the chicken run at the run’s base. Once the apron is in place, you can cover it with soil to hide it.
The open wire spacing shouldn’t prevent grass from growing through the apron. What the apron does prevent, however, is predators digging at the base of the chicken run and getting in.
Install a Coop Door
The most vulnerable part of a chicken’s day may be when they sleep. Once your chickens go to roost, they are all but helpless. A chicken won’t fight back at a predator. Therefore, if predators get inside where your chickens roost, they could kill the entire flock.
A coop door can solve that dilemma. You can install a simple door that you’ll have to go out and close each time the chickens go to bed. Alternatively, several companies manufacture automatic doors that open and close via timers or a photovoltaic cell that makes the door open in the morning and close in the evening. Automatic doors are beneficial and convenient, especially when you’ve got to go out of town.
Whichever door you choose, the key is to completely isolate your flock at night where nothing can get in. Except for you, of course.
Use Good Latches & Strong Fasteners
Like hardware cloth, good latches and robust hardware to construct your coop and run are also imperative. It will cost you more money, but complex latches and strong fasteners such as screws and bolts keep out predators such as raccoons.
Raccoons are smart, and they can open simple latches with their articulating hands.
Because most predators come at night, you can help deter them by installing motion-activated lights around your coop.
In preconstruction planning, an electrician can run an underground power source to your coop. You can also install solar-powered lights for your run. The idea is to startle potential predators and scare them away from your chickens.
Predatorproof Your Yard
Even if you have an existing coop or are planning to build a new one, you can mitigate the effects of predators by proofing your yard. An easy way to do that is to keep weeds from your coop or plan your coop construction in an area away from weeds or heavy brush.
Remember, predators use their camouflage, cover and the element of surprise to catch their prey. If you can take some advantage away from the predators, you can mitigate their effects on your flocks.
Guard animals can also be helpful. A dog, a goat or a rooster can help deter predators.
In the end, it’s up to you to protect your flock. Even if you used the best materials and construction practices to build your coop, you still need to stay diligent and monitor your area continually.
I like to keep motion-sensing cameras deployed to see what may be sneaking around at night.
Today, you can buy these cameras from sporting goods stores, which are relatively inexpensive. Some cameras require you to remove a memory card and download the pictures, while others use cellular technology and text you an image the moment it’s taken.
In addition, look for tracks and scat that may indicate predators roaming nearby. By watching what’s happening around the coop, you can plan accordingly to deal with any potential predators.
Predator-proofing your chickens doesn’t have to be expensive or easy. By staying on top of the problem, you can ensure your chickens will live a long and productive life. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.
The Big Offenders
If you want to build a solution, you must understand the problem. One of the first steps is to determine what predators live in your area and understand the threats to your flock. Each predator species will prey upon your chickens differently, so it’s best to meet the threat head-on.
Therefore, the first step is to make a possible list. Consult with a local wildlife biologist or animal damage control specialist to find out what chicken predators are most common in a specific area.
For example, in my area, we primarily have coyotes, bobcats and raccoons. Therefore, feral cats and foxes aren’t much of a threat. As such, I can key in on these three predators and develop strategies in my initial construction and ongoing flock management to deal with these animals and keep them away from my flock.
To find out more about identifying common predators, check out my article “ID Chicken Predator Problems To Protect Your Flock.” But I’ll do a short recap here.
They are virtually everywhere and one of the most common mammals in the United States. They are highly adaptable and can make their home in cities and rural areas. These intelligent mammals have incredible problem-solving abilities. Couple that with articulating fingers and forepaws, and you have an animal that can be deadly to your flock.
Chickens are especially vulnerable to raccoon depredation at night. Because chickens can’t see in the dark, they won’t run when attacked. Therefore, the results are devastating and complete if a raccoon gets inside your coop at night.
While typically not chicken killers, these nocturnal animals are nest raiders. Slow-moving, they can affect your flock—especially if your hens are sitting on nests, incubating chicks.
Like opossums, skunks are primarily egg stealers. However, they will eat a chicken if given the opportunity. They tend to eat the chicken’s entrails as opposed to the breast or other meat. They tend to dig.
Learning to discern if a skunk’s been present is straightforward. Smell for them. While skunks spray when threatened, that musky smell follows them everywhere.
Daring chicken predators, they’ll steal a hen in broad daylight. After a short stalk, they’ll run into the flock, snatch a bird and run off to eat it. While they can dig and affect your flock while in their run or coop, your chickens are most vulnerable to coyotes when they are out foraging in the yard.
Like raccoons, coyotes are common in urban and rural areas alike. They are highly adaptable, prolific, and opportunistic and, as such, are a constant threat to your flock.
One of the most recognized and deadly predators for birds is the feral cat. These felines, for whatever reason, are homeless and are forced to hunt for their food. Feral cats are tough to detect because they are stealthy and come and go in the dark.
Unless you catch one on a motion-sensing camera, you may never see them. Instead, you may have a secret chicken predator that is like a phantom.
These formidable chicken predators can dig, sneak, chase down chickens and completely decimate a flock. Like feral cats, they are stealthy and difficult to see. Unless you catch them in the act, chances are you may never see the feline.
Bobcats are also more common than you may imagine. They live across the United States. Like coyotes and raccoons, they are highly adaptable and are commonly found in urban areas, as they use green spaces for travel corridors and prey on whatever animals they can find.
Hawks & Owls
If you’ve got an adequately built chicken run, hawks and owls can predate your flock. If the chickens run loose and free-ranging out of their pen, they are vulnerable. Hawks hunt during the day, and owls hunt at night.
Therefore, chickens locked up in a house at night aren’t susceptible to predation. The same holds during the day. Chickens confined to a run are safer from avian predators.
Foxes are crafty, can dig and will steal a hen and run off, and you may never know what happened to it. Where foxes live, they can be deadly chicken predators.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.