Of all the wild predators, the raccoon is the most likely to visit your coop and the most likely to do a great deal of damage to your chickens. For most owners of chickens, the raccoon is their birds’ main predator, second only to domestic dogs.
Raccoons are characterized by a mask of black fur around the face and eyes, a furry brown body and a fluffy tail with alternating black and brown rings. They can grow rather large, topping out between 15 to 40 pounds, depending on how well they’re fed, of course. They have long back legs and short front legs, making them look hunched over when on all fours.
You can find these native North America mammals in nearly every town, city and suburb. Opportunistic foragers and skilled hunters, raccoons prefer to make their homes near a water source, feasting on fish, crawfish, frogs, snails and other aquatic life. But they’re incredibly adaptable.
They’ll turn over garbage cans to dine on trash and scavenge for scraps. If motivated and hungry, they may even enter a home or other human dwelling in search of food.
Raccoons are incredibly destructive hunters of chickens. These crafty animals will hunt solo or expertly coordinate an attack in a small family group. They’re fabulous climbers, and their front paws are deceptively dexterous. They can open latches, undo locks and open doors.
Raccoons are also strong. They can (and will) tear apart chicken netting or wire. When all other attempts fail, they’ll thread their arms and hands through small openings and ruthlessly grab at—and tear off—any part of the chicken they can reach. Raccoons are creative and smart and will do anything within their power to get your chickens.
Expect to find quite a scene of carnage following a raccoon attack. Here are a few telltale signs.
- dismembered adults or chicks
- dead chickens found where they were killed
- dead chickens with entrails pulled out.
- multiple dead birds
- dead chickens with missing heads (or the heads of dead chickens dispersed throughout the coop)
- dead adults with only crop and/or breast eaten
- surviving birds with broken wings or legs (where the raccoon reached through gaps in housing or fencing)
- surviving birds with head or neck wounds or bites near the vent
- chicken body parts, such as legs or heads, or other pieces of torn flesh in or around the water fonts
- broken eggs/shells in or near the water font
- usually whole flock killed, with majority of the bodies left on site (and not carried away)
- bags of feed torn open and contents dispersed
- attack usually occurring at night
Your Flock’s Defenses
Provide your chickens with the best and safest housing you can afford to build and, given that raccoons are skilled climbers, build tall fences. Put roofs on any outdoor runs, and close up gaps in housing. Walk the perimeter of your coop, run and any other enclosure and look closely for any weak points. If they’re there, raccoons will find them.
When choosing mesh for your coop, always purchase heavy-duty hardware cloth over chicken wire (which is flimsy and easily torn by a resolute raccoon). Line windows, doors and roofs on any outdoor enclosures with 1/2-inch hardware cloth.
Raccoons aren’t great diggers, so they’ll rarely try to dig under fences or coop walls to get to chickens. However, they have an advantage over other predators in one area: the front door. Most importantly, lock up your flock every night.
Because of their nimble paws, raccoons can open locks and latches that other predators can’t, so firmly fix knobs, locks and bolts on any coop doors or windows. Slide-bolt and hook-and-eye latches are too easily popped open by raccoons and shouldn’t be used in a coop.
Instead, use clip latches or spring-loaded hook-and-eye closures (the ones that require an opposable thumb to pull and release). When it comes to keeping out raccoons, no type of lock is overkill to protect your chickens. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
A Mustelid Menace
Weasels, minks, ferrets, fishers and martens are just a few among the small carnivorous mammals considered part of the mustelid family, commonly called the weasel family. If you’ve never seen the damage they can do to a flock, you would almost think they were cute.
Animals in the mustelid family tend to smell rather pungent as well. Their powerful anal scent glands release a persuasive repellent odor. These little carnivores are nosy by nature, very active and constantly moving around on the hunt for prey.
As with other predators, whether or not your flock is vulnerable to these carnivores depends on your location. Most of the hunters in this animal family are rather small, so chickens aren’t usually their first prey of choice. Because of their svelte frames, these little guys can squeeze themselves through surprisingly small holes (about the size of a quarter) in wire mesh and openings in the coop, and they can dig under enclosure walls or climb fences.
Mustelid hunters are a good incentive to keep your coop clean. They’ll likely be attracted by rodents and decide to stick around to make a second meal of your flock.
Unlike other predators who kill or take one bird at a time, animals in the weasel family tend to kill or injure several birds during one attack. They also prefer to suck the blood of the prey animal, rather than consume large amounts of flesh. Consider that a mustelid mammal may be the culprit if you see some of the following after an attack:
- chickens killed and collected in small piles (weasel, mink)
- bites on the back of head and neck (weasel)
- only the head or neck eaten or bitten off (weasel, mink)
- bites around the vent and/or intestines removed or visible (fisher, marten)
- bodies tucked away to return to later (fisher, marten)
- small birds, such as chicks and bantams, entirely missing (mink)
- lingering odor (all mustelids)
Your Flock’s Defenses
Secure small openings and weak points, and keep a tidy coop and storage area. Stop weasels at their point of entry by securing corners and gaps that are larger than a quarter in size. Use hardware cloth with 1/2-inch openings to line windows and as fencing in the run. Store feed in predator-safe containers, and keep the coop clean to reduce or eliminate any rodents, thereby not attracting any mustelids.
Many of the mustelids are cautious around humans, so they’ll keep their distance where there is noise and light. Lock up your flock nightly. These predators are most likely to attack after dark.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.