In this 16-part series, Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm draws upon her expertise as a farmer, agrarian, mother, and writer to provide the information you need to raise your own backyard chickens.
Words by: Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm
I cannot emphasize enough how dearly each and every predator on this list enjoys the taste of chicken (our species being no exception!). Like me, you may have tried to catch an escaped hen in your backyard. If you have, you know that it's a futile exercise: you probably found yourself awkwardly running to and fro with your arms stretched out while the hen dodged every clumsy grasp, evading capture with ease. For humans, this is a nearly impossible feat, but for a predator on four nimble feet or gliding on wings, the result is almost always a successful catch, day or night.
Your predator problems are dependent upon where you're located in the country and whether you live in a rural, urban, or suburban setting. Predators will range from the flying to the land-creeping kind, and the list is unfortunately quite long. In general, there are 20 common chicken predators to look out for.
To evade capture, your hens are relying almost entirely on you. Chickens have some natural instincts that keep them out of trouble, but in general, they're incredibly vulnerable creatures. Here are a few steps you can take to keep your flock out of harm's way:
Chickens are effectively rendered blind and paralyzed by the darkness, so a loose hen has a high risk of becoming prey after the sun goes down. The good news is that their lack of mobility at night makes it easier for you to catch them if one or two go astray. If you need to move a hen into a safe place, night is the time to do so.
To catch a hen, pick her up swiftly with one hand firmly but gently clasping her two feet together, and the other hand supporting her breast. Or, try a more advanced move: firmly clasp her feet with one hand, then gently hang her upside down. Her blood will rush to her head. This method relaxes the hen and is a surprisingly peaceful way to carry a bird.
If your local zoning laws allow roosters in backyard flocks, consider getting one. A good rooster will keep an eye to the sky while the hens scratch and peck in the grass. He’s looking for birds of prey, and when he sees one (or a plane), he’ll let out a low warble to his girls that tells them to take cover. They'll heed his warnings quickly, returning to the safety of their coop. Roosters are also equipped with talons on the backs of their feet, which can puncture any creature that tries to invade their space, giving the hens a few precious seconds to run. Roosters are not infallible and can still be easily overpowered by many predators, but they do offer some security. Without a rooster around, hens are essentially defenseless and will rely on your watchful eye during the day.
Surrounding your flock's daytime enclosure with a fence is essential. At the very least, it keeps out daytime predators like an overly excited neighborhood dog or curious house cat, and will provide you with some peace of mind when you're not around to watch your flock. Traditional chain link or closely boarded wooden chicken fences should have holes no bigger than two inches in diameter and must be at least four feet high to prevent both intruders and escapees.
Electrified options can be handy because unlike a stationary fence, they are relatively portable, allowing you to move the flock's territory as needed. However, there are some important safety precautions to take with this type of netting. It's very important to turn off electric netting before moving or taking it down, but just as important to turn it back on once it's in place. The kind that's most useful for chicken keeping can be lethal to any animal if not hung taught and turned on. When set up incorrectly, it's quite easy for a predator or chicken to become entangled in the netting, and strangulation by netting is something that we have sadly had experience with on our farm. Electric netting will not work in deep snow, so it's important to have a back up option such as a permanent wooden or metal fence if you live in a heavy-wintered area.
This is the number one question I get from visitors with young kids on my farm. When turned on, electrified netting is not lethal to humans nor to animals. A shock from a fence box will startle you, and it might even hurt, but it can’t kill you.
The coop itself must be a fortress. Even holes as big as a silver dollar can be dangerous for your hens. Many predators are remarkably limber at fitting through the smallest of openings, and you'll need to check for such openings at least monthly.
The door to the coop is the must vulnerable part. If you're not often home before dark (especially in the short daylight hours of winter), consider installing an automatic door for your coop. Options include solar doors that open and close with the rising and setting sun, and timed doors that you can set manually. In my experience, timed doors are the most useful, because solar doors tend to open a little too early in the summer, when most humans are drawing the blinds to sleep in. On these early mornings, your hens might find themselves with only the foxes to feed and water them.
If you are using a screen for some of your coop's walls (which is a great idea for air flow and light), be sure to opt for welded wire, not chicken wire. The latter is a woven wire that can be easily cut by some of the more motivated predators and will sag over time, allowing more opportunities for a break in. Welded wire is much stronger and will keep for many years. Bolt cutters are required to open welded wire, and that's a tool that even the most enterprising fox does not have at his disposal.
Keeping your flock secure day and night is a tall order for any chicken keeper, but with a bit of planning and an understanding of the predators that roam your neighborhood, you can ensure that your hens remain alive and healthy, providing you with breakfast and joy all year long.
Once your flock's coop and grazing area is secured, it's time to start thinking about the space where your hens will lay their eggs. Read on for Kate MacLean's guide to the perfect nest box.
A note from Pete and Gerry's:
For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.
September 23, 2020
Bats also kill chickens when they attack them on the neck to suck their blood.
Yikes, yes. Unfortunately there are quite a few predators out there, so it's important that we are aware of them and do our part to help protect our flocks.
October 04, 2019