Q: What do I need to know about birds of prey if I keep chickens?
A: As a flock-keeper, it is important to know that birds of prey, including raptors who hunt in daylight like eagles and hawks, and owls who hunt at night, will definitely kill and eat chickens in your flock if given the opportunity. Birds of prey come in many different sizes and colors, and various species are found throughout the world. This article will help you understand their hunting behavior and give you tips to help protect your flock from their aerial assault.
How birds of prey hunt
Unlike the most ground-bound predators of chickens (which may kill many birds or an entire flock at once), birds of prey will normally only kill one chicken at a time. Due to the predatory birds' long, sharp talons, the chicken killed will appear to have been stabbed with a knife, with many deep wounds and slashes, usually on the back and breast. The breast is often eaten, and owls will sometimes eat the head of your chicken, too.
Day-hunting birds like hawks, eagles, and falcons will cleanly pluck feathers. If you find feathers plucked with flesh still clinging to the ends, your bird died of some other cause, and the raptor was just scavenging. Sometimes, however, if the bird of prey is large and your chickens are small bantams or young birds, your chicken may just be carried off to be eaten elsewhere, with nothing remaining.
Birds of prey may defecate near the kill site, leaving stripes or splashes of white. If you have a day hunting bird, for example, you might find feathers plucked and scattered, and then stripes of whitewash from defecation on or close to a nearby fence post, tree or telephone pole. Owl defecation will be chunkier, chalkier (and they generally don't pluck feathers).
Many day-hunting raptors are migratory, and especially if you live in an urban area, will usually not stay in the area harassing your flock for long. Anecdotally, we tend to hear more reports of predation by hawks in the spring and fall, perhaps when many of these birds are on the move. If you live in a rural area, though, you may be located in their summer or winter hunting grounds. Even then, chickens are not their preferred prey.
Because it is relatively common and it is large enough to prey on chickens easily, the raptor that most often preys on chickens is probably the Red-tailed Hawk. Bald and Golden eagles and other larger birds may prey on your chickens, too. Even very small hawks like the Sharp-shinned may sometimes try to get one of your chickens, although they normally stick to hunting wild birds the size of sparrows and robins.
How to protect your flock from birds of prey
Raptors are not the most common predators in most cases to begin with, so keeping your flock safe from birds of prey is not terribly complex. However, there are a few important things to consider as you decide the most effective way to head off the threat in your particular situation.
- Lock your flock up at night, when owls are hunting. Since they hunt at night, owls preying on chickens that are securely cooped will be very rare.
- Completely cover smaller runs. For the daytime hunters like hawks, falcons, eagles and the like, you may opt to cover your run with aviary netting. No tall fence will keep out these flying hunters since they attack from the air, so the only way to exclude them is to cover your run with wire or plastic netting. Chicken wire is also fine for this, and cheap plastic netting will work equally well for smaller applications. Tying brightly covered ribbon on the cover can help hawks to spot the barrier (otherwise they may dive right through without seeing it, and then get trapped in the run with your chickens!).
If your run is not covered and is very small, your birds have nowhere to run when a hawk comes. If that's the case, they can pile on top of one another in a panic, and trample one another like mobs at Christmas. So, even if the hawk doesn't make a successful kill, if your birds are penned in a small, open run, they may still get very hurt. You will almost always want to cover a very small run for that reason. Many small coops come with covered runs, so you can keep your chickens enclosed during times when there is some lingering danger and you can't be there to supervise.
- Partially cover larger runs. With larger yards, of course, covering the entire run can be quite expensive! Thankfully, however, in a larger area, your flock is less likely to get hurt or trampled in a panic since they have more room to run and hide. So, with a larger run, most people won't want to go to the expense of covering it entirely. In that case, you may choose instead to provide a partially covered run. This gives your chickens a place to hide and take cover from predators attacking from above but does not provide complete protection. If your chickens don't spot the hawk, they can still be taken by surprise.
- Provide plants for protective cover. Even providing a row of bushes for your chickens to hide beneath near the coop offers good help for them in case of flying predators. Birds of prey can't effectively swoop down through branches, and your chickens will (hopefully) still be able to see through them to determine when it's safe to come out again.
- Enlist a rooster's help. If you live in a place where they are allowed, roosters are great in helping to keep your chickens aware of dangers from hawks. In fact, they have a specific cry to let the flock know to take cover from an airborne danger. While the hens are foraging for tasty goodies, the rooster will keep an eye out for danger, and he will place himself in harm's way to give the hens time to escape to safety.
While the idea of aerial attackers coming after your precious flock may seem daunting, following these tips should go a long way toward protecting your flock from birds of prey.
A Special Note:
Do not hunt or trap raptors. They are protected by international treaty. If you hunt or trap them, you could be looking at genuine jail time or humongous, life-crushing fines--sometimes even just for possessing a single feather (and even when you simply found that feather on the ground). Seriously, just do NOT. We can't stress this enough. If you do have a raptor hanging around your coop for a long period of time and your birds are not in a secure, covered run, you can normally call your local agricultural extension office to see if they will relocate it for you, or if they can point you to someone licensed to do so.