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About the Author
Gail Damerow has written extensively on raising chickens and other livestock, growing fruits and vegetables, and related rural know-how in more than a dozen books, including What’s Killing My Chickens? and the best-selling Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Encyclopedia, The Chicken Health Handbook, and Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks. Damerow is a contributor to Chickens and Hobby Farms magazines and a regular blogger for Cackle Hatchery. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, where they operate a family farm with poultry and dairy goats, a sizable garden, and a small orchard. Visit her online at gaildamerow.com.
Read an Excerpt
Scene of the Crime
"There is nothing like first-hand evidence."
Everyone who keeps poultry sooner or later experiences that heart-stopping moment of realization that a predator has come to call. A typical first reaction is to rush in, assess the damage, and clean up the mess. But stopping to carefully survey the scene can give you valuable clues toward determining what type of predator was involved, and therefore what precautions you can take to prevent a future recurrence.
Although this initial survey can be extremely helpful in narrowing down the list of potential predators, it may not provide a conclusive identification. Further clues may be found in the form of tracks, scat, and other signs left at the scene, as described in the next chapter. In an active poultry yard, however, where such signs already may have been obliterated, your first best guide is to examine where, how, and when birds died or went missing.
Each predator species has a typical way of killing and consuming its prey. "Typical" is the operative word. Not all animals within a single species work in exactly the same way. Further, younger members of the species may work in a slightly different manner than the older, more experienced members. Still, certain clues can point you in the right direction. For starters, mammals and raptors leave different sets of signs.
When birds are missing from the poultry yard, among the important initial clues to note are how many are missing, their age and size, and any damage to the fence or coop that may indicate whether the predator walked or flew. When birds are left dead at the scene, again note the number of birds involved, their age and size, and the condition of the facilities, as well as the appearance of the remains. Photographing the remains will give you a visual record of which parts were left behind, as well as recording the day and time of your discovery.
When baby poultry go missing without a trace, the culprit is usually a snake, a rat, or a house cat. None of these predators is capable of carrying off a mature chicken but can disappear one or more chicks in no time flat. In general, when small birds are missing, suspect a smaller predator. Larger predators capable of carrying a mature chicken, or even a turkey or goose, are more likely to do so than bother with smaller, younger ones.
A snake will eat whole chicks, leaving no evidence behind, except maybe the snake itself. We once found a black rat snake in our homemade wood-and-wire brooder after it had gulped down a couple of chicks and then — having gotten too fat to slip back out through the wire — curled up under the heat lamp to sleep off the fine meal.
Rats, too, can disappear baby chicks without a trace. A rat will pull a baby chick down into its tunnel, but if the bird is partially grown it may get stuck at the entry. You may find the bird, having been pulled head first, with its feet sticking out of the tunnel opening.
Domestic and feral house cats can easily disappear baby birds. One year, I lost a batch of chicks to a feral cat that was feeding her kittens in a nearby vacant lot. Another year, I lost several goslings that were housed with their parents behind a chain link fence. I couldn't fathom what was getting to them until I happened to see the little goslings pop through the fence to graze on the lawn, then have trouble squeezing their fattened bellies back through the fence. Nearby, intently watching the goslings, was the neighbor's cat.
I accidentally learned the best way to train a cat to leave chickens alone when my own new kitten followed me to the chicken yard. She took an interest in some baby chicks following a mother hen, whereupon the hen puffed up to twice her normal size and charged the kitten. For the rest of her life, that cat laid her ears back and skulked away whenever a chicken got close.
Other potential threats to baby poultry include ground squirrels, foxes, skunks, minks, and weasels. Among predatory birds, those that favor baby poultry include the smaller hawks — such as sharp-shinned and zone-tailed hawks — along with crows and ravens. Ducklings and goslings on open water are additionally susceptible to being nabbed by a snapping turtle, a large fish such as northern pike or largemouth bass, or a young alligator.
Grown Birds Missing
Mature poultry that disappear without a trace may have been carried off by a fox, coyote, dog, bobcat, eagle, owl, or hawk. Foxes and coyotes can disappear a large number of birds within a short time without leaving any signs, and will hunt during the day when feeding young. A bobcat usually takes one bird at a time and may leave a trail of feathers. Domestic dogs are particularly careless about scattering feathers, along with injured and killed poultry.
Although a hawk rarely carries off a large chicken, a big hawk can snag a bantam, as well as a growing chicken or other type of poultry. An owl, too, may carry away a small bird, but is more likely to leave a dead bird with just the head missing. Neither hawks nor owls are shy about marching right into the coop for a snack. One morning I opened the coop door to find a young owl snugged in among the roosting chickens. Another time I found a hawk inside the coop, wrestling with a sizable cockerel.
An eagle usually carries the bird away from the coop and then picks its bones clean, leaving nothing but a skeleton, sometimes not far outside the poultry yard. After missing one of our chickens, we once found this calling card in the middle of our hay field.
Raccoons, too, will carry off a chicken or duck. They may raid the coop as a cooperative venture, then squabble over their kill. As with an eagle, you may find the carcass some distance from the house, but only the organs will be eaten and the feathers scattered around.
On rare occasions, a housecat (usually feral) will kill a mature chicken, eating the meatier parts and leaving the skin and feathers, and sometimes other parts, scattered around. A bobcat usually carries away the bird to eat elsewhere, and may bury, or cache, any uneaten part to snack on later. A fox or mountain lion will do the same. You can sometimes find the cache by following a trail of feathers and blood. Coyotes and bears also cache, in which case the carcass is more likely to be torn apart rather than left largely in one piece.
Birds Dead or Wounded
Bitten birds, either dead or wounded, may have been attacked by a dog. If they are young birds and the bites are around the hock, suspect a rat, which may also seek protein by pulling off and eating feathers from birds on the roost. If the bites are on the leg or breast, the biter is likely an opossum. Possums like tender growing birds and will sneak up to the roost and bite a chunk out of the breast or thigh of a sleeping bird. On the rare occasion that a possum outright kills a chicken, it usually snacks right then and there.
Chickens found dead in the yard, but without any missing parts, were probably attacked by a dog. When the bird stops moving, the dog loses interest, leaves the bird where it died, and seeks a livelier playmate. Don't discount the possibility that the perp might be your own dog. I once found a dozen dead fryers lined up neatly on the walkway next to my fish pond. I was gazing at them while trying to guess what kind of predator could have done such a thing when my new puppy came happily bounding up with yet another bird to add to his collection.
Like dogs, weasels and their relations (ferrets, fishers, martens, mink, and so forth) engage in killing sprees. If you find bloodied bodies surrounded by scattered feathers, you were likely visited by a member of the weasel family. Fishers and martens may kill and stash chickens to come back and eat later. Weasels can sneak into housing through an opening as small as 1 inch (2.5 cm). They sometimes run in family packs that can do significant damage in an amazingly short time.
If you suspect a predator has been casing your coop, and you find dead birds with no obvious injuries other than possibly being flattened, the only thing you know is that the predator frightened them. In trying to get away, they piled in a corner or against a wall and the birds unfortunate enough to end up at the bottom of the pile suffocated.
Parts 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 is most likely the victim of a raccoon that reached in, grabbed the bird, and pulled its head through the wire. Or a bird of prey could have frightened your chickens into fluttering against the wire, and any that got stuck in the wire had their heads bitten off.
When you find a bird dead inside an enclosure 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 is missing and the front of the neck is eaten, perhaps down into the breast, and your bird has been plucked, the perpetrator is a raptor.
Just as a raccoon will reach into a pen and pull off a chicken's head, so will it also pull off a leg, if that's what it gets hold of first. Dogs, too, may prowl underneath a raised pen, biting at protruding feet and pulling off legs. Birds bitten around the rear end with their intestines pulled out have been attacked by a weasel or one of its relatives.
POULTRY FEATHERS AS CLUES
Poultry feathers left by a predator can provide important clues as to the animal's identity. If feathers are scattered around at random, the predator is likely a mammal. If feathers create a trail leading away from the poultry yard, the mammal is probably a bobcat or a fox. If feathers are concentrated within a circle, the predator is an eagle, falcon, or hawk.
Let's say, for instance, that you find the skeletal remains of a bird surrounded by a mess of feathers. Coyotes and raptors both eat the flesh off the bone and leave the skeleton largely intact. The pattern of the feathers, whether scattered or forming a circle, will tell you (respectively) whether you're dealing with a coyote or a raptor.
Damage to the feathers themselves provides another clue. Although it's not entirely definitive, feather damage can be helpful when combined with other clues found at the scene. Here's what to look for:
Quill shattered. A great horned-owl uses its strong beak to pluck out feathers by grasping the base of the quill, leaving feathers whole and possibly with the quill end shattered.
Quill crushed. A falcon also uses its beak to pluck feathers by the base of the quill, leaving feathers whole with the quill end flattened.
V-shape marks on shaft. A hawk plucks out feathers by grasping them part way up the shaft, often leaving V-shape beak marks on the shaft.
Quills cut raggedly. A raptor may shear off feathers, leaving the tips of quills in its prey. The quills ends will likely not be flattened, and will not show bite marks.
Feathers crimped. Besides plucking feathers with its beak, a raptor may also use its feet, leaving feather shafts bent in two places, like an elongated Z.
Quills cut neatly. A coyote may pluck out whole feathers, but also uses its molars to bite off feathers where they enter the skin, neatly shearing off the tips of quills at a consistent angle and leaving them slightly flattened. Groups of feathers bitten off together remain as clumps, held together by saliva. A fox also shears feathers at the quill tip.
Damaged webbing. A fox uses its canine teeth to shear off feathers, usually farther up the quill than a coyote would bite, and may also pluck feathers (commonly tail feathers) by gripping them partway up the shaft, leaving the web rumpled looking.
Quills chewed. A bobcat uses its molars to chew off small clumps of feathers, leaving quills looking jagged rather than neatly sliced through.
Pieces of feathers. A weasel, with its small mouth and teeth, bites off feathers in pieces and at varying angles.
Flesh clinging to quills. Bits of skin clinging to the tips of feather quills indicate the feathers were plucked by a scavenger from an already dead bird. Clean quills indicate the bird was plucked immediately after being killed by a predator.
Disrupted Setting Hen
Having a nest raided of its eggs is bad enough, but when the nest includes a setting hen, the hen as well as the eggs could be lost. Of course you'd want to protect a setting hen for the duration of the brooding period, but sometimes a hen — particularly a duck, goose, guinea, or turkey hen — has ideas of her own. When a nest is raided, a few clues may help you determine whodunit.
Some egg predators — including badgers, crows, ground squirrels, raccoons, and skunks — will typically eat a hen's eggs without killing the setting hen. They may attempt to steal eggs out from under the hen, or may harass her until she leaves the nest while they enjoy their meal.
A setting hen that voluntarily leaves the nest to eliminate, grab a bite to eat, get a drink, and (in the case of waterfowl) maybe take a quick swim covers her eggs with feathers and other nesting material before departing. If a predator startles her off the nest or has carried her away, the eggs will be left uncovered.
Some predators will eat both the hen and her eggs. Signs that a predator got the hen may be blood spots in or near the nest, and maybe a few random feathers. The dead hen may be found nearby, whole or partially eaten. If the latter, note whether the head is attached, detached, or missing.
A red fox will kill a hen by biting her in the neck and then will typically carry the hen away to eat elsewhere, leaving only a few feathers and perhaps a flattened area of vegetation where the hen was temporarily set aside while the fox filled up on eggs. A mink will kill a hen by biting her in the head or upper neck, and then, after eating a few eggs, may drag the hen to its den for dinner. A coyote will partially eat the hen, often including the head, leaving the remains near the nest. A bobcat will typically snatch the hen and immediately carry her away, leaving you to wonder where she went.
Many predators like poultry eggs as much as poultry keepers do. If and when such predators have access to your hens' nests will depend on the nature of your setup and on the type of poultry you keep. Indoor nest boxes are more likely to be visited by small, agile creatures. Outdoor nests — such as those favored by ducks, geese, guineas, and turkeys — are exposed to all the same predators plus the larger ones that tend to be wary of entering an enclosure from which escape may be difficult. Accordingly, your indoor nests are more likely to be visited by a crow, jay, ground squirrel, mink, or rat than by a badger, bobcat, coyote, or fox.
One of the first things to consider when eggs start disappearing is whether or not one (or more) of your own hens is eating them. Chickens, both hens and roosters, can develop the bad habit of eating eggs out of the nest. You may find an empty, partially eaten eggshell, or no shell at all. One sign of egg cannibalism is nesting material that's been dampened by sticky egg goo. The egg eater will quite likely have a yolk-smeared beak. Another indication that a chicken might be the culprit is finding the same signs in several nests. Most other egg predators typically won't stay long enough to travel from nest to nest inside a coop.
Another consideration is the possibility that a nest full of empty shells was not the victim of foul play, but rather the eggs were incubated and hatched behind your back. This occurrence is more likely when the eggs have been hidden outside the coop proper. A hatching chick of any poultry species breaks out of its egg by rotating its head around the blunt end of the shell, chipping away a narrow slit until the top (approximately one-third) of the shell separates from the bottom two-thirds. The shell membrane typically curls inward around the edges of the opening, and the inside of the empty egg shows signs of blood vessels. Sometimes the smaller end piece gets turned around and becomes cupped inside the larger piece of shell.
An egg that was eaten by a skunk may initially look like it hatched, but if you examine the shell you'll see a difference. After making a hole in the end of the shell, the skunk licks out the contents, in the process pressing its nose against the edges of the hole and crushing them inward. Further, a skunk typically opens an egg at the pointed end, while a chick hatches at the blunt end of the shell. Lingering odor may or may not be an additional clue, since other egg predators sometimes also smell "skunky."
Once you have determined that the missing eggs neither hatched naturally nor were eaten by your own chickens, signs found at the scene can help you determine the predator's identity. Such signs include eggs missing without a trace, the appearance of any shells left behind, and disturbances in and around the nest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "What's Killing My Chickens?"
Copyright © 2019 Gail Damerow.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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