While not the most likely of chicken predators, owls can sometimes pose a threat. Learn how to keep owls away from chickens and how to appreciate the benefits owls have on the farm.
In the realm of poultry predators, owls and hawks have an aura of mystery that surrounds them. They’re not bound by the earth and can’t be stopped as easily as putting up a solid fence. But the reality is they are not the greatest threat to a flock. The ground assault from raccoons, foxes, and other four-footed mammals is much more relentless and focused on the all-you-can-eat buffet at the coop. However, it’s not unheard of to experience losses from owls and hawks.
There are two things to remember when focusing on protecting chickens from owls and hawks – laws and identification. First and foremost, it’s important to know that it is illegal to harm or kill a bird of prey, which includes, hawks, owls, falcons, eagles, and kites. You can receive jail time and a hefty fine, so it’s not advisable to use predator elimination as a method to protect your flock from native birds of prey.
Identifying Your Predator
Also, it’s vital to correctly identify your predator. If you don’t, you may spend all your time and efforts on the wrong predator and continue to experience losses. In the case of an owl or hawk, you can’t always trust your eyes to accurately help you with identification. Sometimes an owl or hawk will be found at the scene of an attack and not have actually committed the crime. Finding food in the wild can be hard and consume lots of energy, so if they find a carcass, they’re unlikely to turn down a free meal.
Ground predators will sometimes take more than one chicken at a time if possible. An owl or hawk will eat one bird per day. Multiple losses at one time equal a ground-dweller. If an owl or hawk has attacked your flock, sometimes you’ll just come up short when you do your nightly headcount. You’ll find no evidence. That’s the same with other predators too. They’re stealthy.
Sometimes all that’s left behind will be a pile of feathers. If that’s the case, it can be impossible to identify the culprit. Scattered feathers can be the byproduct of many attackers. Owls and hawks do pluck the feathers and other inedible parts from their victims leaving a large pile of feathers on the ground. They will do this at the site of the kill if they feel safe or go to a plucking perch which is a safe place to roost and eat. An owl will swallow its victim whole if it can.
If you find a pile of plucked feathers it can sometimes result in valuable clues and make you feel like a forensic scientist. Look closely, sometimes you can see the beak marks on the feather shafts. And look for tissue at the base of the feather. If you find tissue, you know the feathers were plucked when the victim was already dead and cold – a piggyback crime. If you find clean bases, the victim was plucked shortly after the kill.
Raptors (birds of prey) will defecate at a kill site. An owl will leave heaps of chalky whitewash on the ground. A hawk will leave whitewash radiating out from the feather pile.
Protecting Your Flock
The easiest way to protect your flock from owls is to make sure your birds return to the coop at dusk and that you close the coop at night. People think that owls only hunt in the dark of night, but that’s not true. They will hunt in the evening when the light is dulling and they will hunt in the early hours of the morning. So, don’t let your birds out first thing. Let the light come up fully before opening the coop for the day. (This technique also works for ground predator protection.)
If you can, eliminate perch areas within 100 yards of the coop. This can be difficult as most coops are tucked into a tree line for shade or close to a house and other structures. But do what you can knowing it may not be perfect.
Close up buildings where owls and hawks can roost. But be aware. Barn owls are endangered in some states. They rarely eat chickens and should be encouraged to roost in barns and other structures.
If your chickens are going to free range, take their size into account. A small bantam chicken can be the same size as local birds which are on the accepted menu for birds of prey. A standard or heavy chicken is much less likely to be on the menu.
Think camouflage. Some people poo-poo this suggestion, but there are just as many that swear by it. When picking your chicken breeds, try to pick birds that blend in with the environment. A chicken with a lot of white feathers, like a White Leghorn, is more easily seen. On a personal note, my only confirmed loss from a bird of prey was a White Leghorn. With my next batch of chicks, I ordered Brown Leghorns and haven’t experienced bird of prey loss in years.
Provide lots of hiding spots. While you’re removing perch spots which are high up, don’t remove hiding spots for your chickens. Planting bushes and allowing your chickens access under decks and overhangs is essential when they free range. Smart chickens learn quickly to take cover if danger is circling overhead.
While hawks and owls are year-round predators, they do migrate in spring and fall. During those times, backyards and farms that are in the migration path can experience high predator volume. Be more diligent during those times and consider using more than one protection technique so you’re covering all your bases. Don’t be afraid to keep your birds inside for a few days to let the threat pass.
Consider getting a protector for your flock. If you have a poultry-friendly dog, let it out in the yard at different times through the day and especially at dusk. An owl or hawk isn’t going to take the risk of confronting your canine friend, so your dog can be a great solution for how to keep owls away from your chickens. Also, think about adding a rooster to your flock if you live in an area that allows them. A rooster can be really good at assessing potential danger. With an eye to the sky, a rooster will give a distinctive cry if he spies a hawk or owl. The hens know to take cover when they hear the rooster’s sharp, shrill warning whistle and will take cover until the rooster lets them know danger has passed.
It may seem cheesy, but pick up a fake owl or hawk the next time you’re at your local farm store and/or grab a few extra scarecrows at Halloween. Birds of prey don’t want to tangle with each other or a person, so if you mount your fake predator, scarecrow or both, your yard will become an inhospitable spot. Just make sure to move them around because birds of prey are smart and they understand routine.
Depending on the size of your yard and run, it’s prudent to add protection above your birds. Put a cover on the run attached to your coop. If your yard is small, consider running small wires overhead so birds of prey can’t swoop from above. Also, grab some old cd’s or pie pans and hang them from branches around your yard, they will move in the wind and sparkle even as the sun is setting. This can give a wary predator pause.
The good news is that hawks and owls aren’t the biggest concern that chicken keepers face and with a few simple techniques you can learn how to keep owls away from your chickens so they are happy and safe.