Keep a flock for long and sooner or later you’ll be asking yourself, “What killed my chicken?” Many marauders love our backyard chickens as much as we do, and each leaves a calling card that offers a clue as to which predator you’re dealing with. Having raised chickens for several decades, I’ve had my share of signs to evaluate — the feral cat that persisted in nabbing newly hatched chicks from under my mama hens, the fox that made off with two of my layers, the bobcat that carried away a turkey and came back for more.
Sometimes identification is easy, like the time a hawk swooped down and grabbed a bantam hen right before my eyes. (Learn how to protect chickens from hawks.) But every now and then I get stumped, mostly because not all predators have read the same manual, so they don’t always conform to the standard operating procedure for their species. The best you can do is try to examine where, how, and when a bird turns up dead or missing.
A flat-out missing chicken could have been carried off by a fox, coyote, dog, bobcat, hawk, or owl. Unless the bird was small, an owl is more likely to leave the carcass behind, head and neck missing. If your coop is near water, a mink may be the culprit. Do raccoons eat chickens? You bet. A raccoon killing chickens may carry away the entire bird, in which case you may find the carcass in the proximity of the coop, the insides eaten and feathers scattered around.
Chicks that disappear could have been eaten by a snake or by a house cat, domestic or feral. A rat, too, will disappear baby chicks without a trace.
A chicken found dead in the yard, but without any missing parts, was likely attacked by a dog. Dogs kill for sport. When a bird stops moving, the dog loses interest — often to chase after another bird.
Like dogs, weasels and their relations (ferrets, fishers, martens, mink, and so forth) also kill for sport. If you find bloodied bodies surrounded by scattered feathers, you were likely visited by one of them. Weasels can slip into a coop through an opening as small as 1 inch, and a family pack can do significant damage to a flock in an amazingly short time.
Which parts are missing from a dead bird can help you identify the culprit. A chicken found next to a fence or in a pen with its head missing was likely the victim of a raccoon that reached in, grabbed the bird, and pulled its head through the wire.
When you find a bird dead inside a chicken pen and run (or a coop, for that matter) with its head and crop missing, your visitor was a raccoon. If the head and back of the neck are missing, suspect a weasel or mink. If the head and neck are missing, and feathers are scattered near a fence post, the likely perpetrator was a great horned owl.
A bitten bird, either dead or wounded, may have been attacked by a dog. If the bites are on the leg or breast, the perp was likely an opossum. If the bird is quite young and the bites are around the hock, suspect a rat. A bird bitten in the rear end, with its intestines pulled out, has been attacked by a weasel or one of its relatives.
When you’re raising chickens for eggs, losing eggs to a predator gets discouraging. Missing eggs could have been eaten by rats, skunks, snakes, opossums, raccoons, dogs, crows, or jays.
Rats, skunks, and snakes make off with the entire egg. A snake eats the egg right out of the nest. Jays, crows, ’possums, raccoons, dogs, and occasionally skunks leave telltale shells. Jays and crows may carry empty shells quite a distance from where they found the eggs, while a ’possum or ’coon leaves empty shells in or near the nest.
I hope your flock remains safe from predators. But should one visit your coop and run, the following table (adapted from my book Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens) offers a starting place to help you identify what killed my chicken.
What Killed My Chicken?
|One or two birds killed —|
|Entire chicken eaten on site||hawk|
|Bites in breast or thigh, abdomen eaten; entire bird eaten on site||opossum|
|Deep marks on head and neck, or head and neck eaten, maybe feathers around fence post||owl|
|Entire chicken eaten or missing, maybe scattered feathers||coyote|
|One bird gone, maybe scattered feathers||fox|
|Chicks pulled into fence, wings and feet not eaten||domestic cat|
|Chicks killed, abdomen eaten (but not muscles and skin), maybe lingering odor||skunk|
|Head bitten off, claw marks on neck, back, and sides; body partially covered with litter||bobcat|
|Bruises and bites on legs||rat|
|Backs bitten, heads missing, necks and breasts torn, breasts and entrails eaten; bird pulled into fence and partially eaten; carcass found away from housing, maybe scattered feathers||raccoon|
|Several birds killed —|
|Birds mauled but not eaten; fence or building torn into; feet pulled through cage bottom and bitten off||dog|
|Bodies neatly piled, killed by small bites on neck and body, back of head and neck eaten||mink|
|Birds killed by small bites on neck and body, bruises on head and under wings, back of head and neck eaten, bodies neatly piled; faint skunklike odor||weasel|
|Rear end bitten, intestines pulled out||fisher, marten|
|Chicks dead; faint lingering odor||skunk|
|Heads and crops eaten||raccoon|
|One bird missing —|
|Feathers scattered or no clues||bobcat, cougar (aka catamount, mountain lion, panther, puma), fox, hawk, owl|
|Fence or building torn into, feathers scattered||dog|
|Small bird missing, lingering musky odor||mink|
|Several birds missing —|
|No clues||coyote, hawk, human|
|Feathers scattered or no clues||fox|
|Chicks missing, no clues||snake|
|Small birds missing, bits of coarse fur at coop opening||raccoon|
|Chicks or young birds missing||cat, rat|
|Eggs missing —|
|No clues||human, rat, snake|
|Empty shells in and around nests||dog, mink, opossum, raccoon|
|Empty shells in nest or near housing||crow, jay|
|No clues or empty shells in and around nests, maybe faint lingering odor||skunk|
|Adapted from: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow|
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.