Chicken predators are always a concern for small flock owners, but the risk of attack may actually be worse in winter months.
Winter is the season of privation for all creatures, but extreme weather can change it from a time of scarcity to a season of starving. Here are some techniques to prevent attracting predators and to help if predators are already there.
The Usual Suspects
Do you raccoons eat chickens? You bet. It seems that man and beast alike agree that backyard chickens are tasty. Consequently, there is a significant list of potential chicken predators looking to dispatch your chicken flock at any moment. The most common of suspects: domesticated dogs, raccoons, raptors (eagles, hawks, owls, osprey, etc.), foxes, coyotes, wolves, skunks, possums, snakes, rats, cats (from house cat to mountain lion), bears, pole cats (which includes minks, weasels, martins, fishers cats, etc.), mice, crows and of course, humans. Truly, your chickens, their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to attack on all fronts.
Prevent Chicken Predators From Being Drawn In
An important step is to not lure creatures into your yard in the first place. The No. 1 predator attractant is open and accessible food. It is often common to leave “treats” in the yard, but this is an open invitation for other hungry animals, particularly in wintertime when food sources are limited.
Predators lured into your yard will be emboldened by the reward of an easy meal. These animals will search for more food rewards – including your flock. It is noteworthy that small chicken predators such as mice, rats and crows initially attracted to just chicken feed will quickly turn to stealing eggs, killing chicks and even attacking bantam birds.
Feed your flock – but don’t leave treats lying about the yard and don’t store excess feed outside. Remember that even some large chicken predators, such as bears, are attracted to chicken feed and scratch. Bird feed is an easy source of calories for a bear trying to pack on hibernation weight.
Predator-Proof Your Coop
In addition, chicken keepers must predator-proof their coops. It is simply poor stewardship to not provide a flock with a properly built home. Here are several considerations:
First, learn how to build a chicken coop that is durable. A motivated predator can and will break through flimsy walls, floors and roofs. I have heard of raccoons busting through a coop roof to attack and devour a hen. Coops built with gaps or weakness will allow dexterous creatures to squeeze or manipulate their way inside. Weasel and opossum can slip through amazingly small holes. And raccoons are like monkeys; they are able to open many types of simple latches and locks.
Second, build your coop using predator proofing materials. The main point is to not use the screening material commonly called “chicken wire.” Chicken wire, in a word, SUCKS. Though it is cheap to buy and easy to use, you ultimately get what you pay for. Many common chicken predators are able to bite or claw through chicken wire. Make the proper investment up front and build your coop using a material called hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is a heavy-duty screening material that comes in rolls. Yes – it is slightly more expensive and difficult to work with than traditional chicken wire, but it also keeps many chicken predators out of your coop.
An important tip when using hardware cloth is to make certain you use the right size and gauge. Hardware cloth is a crisscross square-style screening. The material is measured in gauge (thickness and strength of the wire) and size (size of hole in between the crossing wires). Ideally, one should use hardware cloth that is no less than 19 gauge and with holes no more than a ¼ – ½ inch (0.635 – 1.27 centimeters). Smaller gaps in the mesh are essential for preventing predator attacks through the material. Hardware cloth with 1-inch (2.54 centimeters) or larger gaps allows snakes, mice, rats and smaller polecats to squeeze inside your coop. Additionally, raccoons are well-known for reaching through gaps large enough to fit their arms, and then maiming or killing chickens. A raccoon will rip the head, legs and wings off a chicken even though it is unable to get the wounded or dead bird outside of the coop to eat.
Third, fortify bottom of your chicken house by burying 12 inches (30.38 centimeters) of hardware cloth around the perimeter edge of the coop and run. Many animals such as dogs, skunks and coyotes will dig a tunnel under the edge to access to birds. Buried hardware cloth stops chicken predators from tunneling into your coop.
Finally, it is best to build a coop with its floor off the ground. Coops made from converted sheds often don’t have the protective hard cloth buried around the edge of the floor. Rats, opossums, snakes and mice may dig underneath and take up residence. Once comfortably established, these chicken predators will go in and out of the coop through the floor – eating feed, eggs and sometimes birds. Depending on the size of the shed-style coop, it can be very difficult to root out predators that have ensconced themselves under the chickens.
Check Habits and Yard
Your habits as a chicken owner can profoundly affect your flock’s safety. Make an honest assessment of your habits. Are you locking your chickens up as soon as it is dark or are you leaving the coop wide open until late at night or the next morning? This is an important point; some chicken predators are nocturnal and start hunting as soon as the sun goes down. Are you collecting your eggs early and often each day? Neglected eggs in the coop are another attractant to your flock. Your chickens are reliant on you to be a conscientious keeper and to form good habits to keep them safe.
Additionally, good fences make good neighbors. This is true between you and your human or animal neighbors. Take the time to walk your yard and inspect your fence. Repair or replace any weak boards and fill all gaps in and under your fence.
Get a Guard
Traditionally chicken flocks had their own guard systems: roosters and well- trained dogs. Though some people doubt it, a dog can be easily taught to protect poultry from predators.
Similarly, the function of a rooster in a flock (aside from making babies) is to protect his hens from danger. Roosters instinctively make good guards; they are alert and constantly scanning for potential predators. Once danger is spotted, a rooster will call out an alarm and marshal his flock to safety. Roosters have even been known to physically fight off predators in the middle of an attack.
Tools to Deter Chicken Predators
There are other ways to scare away potential attackers. Some deterrence tools include reflective pinwheels, ribbons and tape, or sprayed chemicals or pheromones. One respected deterrent is the Nite Guard system, which provides a simple technological answer to a difficult problem.
The Nite Guard Solar-Powered Night Predator Light is comprised of small, highly durable boxes fitted with a solar panel strip at the top. At night, the Nite Guard system flashes a red light (using the stored solar energy) which frightens chicken predators from coming close and investigating your coop and flock. The Nite Guard system is easily attached to the sides of coops, runs, barns, fences, etc.
The Urban Chicken Podcast is holding a contest to win a free Nite Guard Solar-Powered Night Predator Light. The contest is open for entry until March 15, 2014. To learn how to enter to win this Nite Guard system listen to the Urban Chicken Podcast episode 041 (Click here to listen).
Losing beloved birds to grisly deaths is something we all want to avoid. It is better to take the necessary steps to protect your flock from the beginning than try to get rid of an empowered and persistent predator later.
How do you protect your flock in the winter?
Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.