Identifying your Chicken’s Backyard Predators

Protect your homestead chickens by knowing what predators could be coming after them, and what you can do to stop them.

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by Unsplash/David Brooke Martin
The surest way to identify a predator, aside from seeing it in action, is to find a clear set of tracks.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, 2017) by Gail Damerow helps readers through the ins and outs of rising their own chickens. For more than 40 years, this book has been the go-to guide on everything about chickens, from choosing your first chicken to fending off parasites and illness from your flock. In the following excerpt, Damerow discusses how to identify possible predators to your chickens.

“What are you building there, a bunker?” My visiting uncle was referring to the concrete foundation of an under-construction chicken house on our new farm. Looking at it through his eyes, maybe it was overkill. On the other hand, a neighbor had told us, “Chickens don’t live long out here,” and nothing we could do would stop predation.

Well, as long as we kept our flock in that bunker, we never lost a chicken, except for two that disappeared one day when we let them out to forage and they wandered into the woods to scratch in the dry leaves. That first (and last) time we allowed the chickens to roam from their bunkered yard, two hens fell victim to a pair of foxes with hungry kits.

Later we moved the hen house to one end of our barn, some distance from the house, and soon learned that our chicken bunker had lulled us into complacency about the local predator population. Plenty of critters out there enjoy dining on home-grown poultry as much as we do.

Identifying Predators

The first step in deterring a predator is to identify it. Each critter leaves its own calling card that lets you know which animal you’re dealing with. Having raised chickens for some 40 years, I’ve seen quite a few of these signs, but every now and then I get stumped, largely because the predators haven’t read the books and don’t always conform to their own standard operating procedure.

One sure sign, of course, is tracks. If you’re having trouble finding tracks, spread sand on the ground where the predator will likely step, smooth out the sand, and confine your chickens until you have a chance to look for tracks in the sand after the prowler may have visited. This method requires persistence if you’re dealing with a predator that comes around irregularly.

In an active poultry yard, tracks quickly get obliterated, so you can’t count on tracks alone. Your best guide is to examine where, how, and when birds turn up dead or missing.

Missing chickens were likely carried off by a fox, coyote, dog, bobcat, owl, or hawk. One time I was working in my yard and could only watch helplessly as a hawk swooped down and carried away a full-grown bantam hen that had been happily scratching in the orchard. Although a hawk rarely carries off a full-grown bird, we take great care to protect chicks, as small birds are particularly attractive and easy prey for hawks and other predators.

Although an owl may carry away a small bird, its calling card is more likely to be a dead bird with just the head and neck missing. Neither hawks nor owls are shy about marching right into the poultry house. One icy winter morning we entered our chicken house to find a young owl snugged in among the roosting chickens, and none too eager to leave. One warm spring day, we found a hawk inside our chicken coop killing a cockerel, with a second dead cockerel nearby.

If you live near water, a mink may be doing the dirty deed. Raccoons, too, will carry off a chicken and may raid the poultry yard as a cooperative venture, then squabble over their kill. You may find the carcass some distance from the house, the insides eaten and feathers scattered around.

A snake will eat chicks without leaving a trace. We once found a black snake in our brooder after he had gulped down a couple of chicks, then (being too fat to slip back out through the wire) curled up under the heat lamp to sleep off his fine meal.

Domestic and feral house cats will make chicks disappear but they leave the wings and feathers of growing birds. On rare occasions a cat will kill a mature chicken, eating the meatier parts and leaving the skin and feathers, and sometimes other parts, scattered around. On my first chicken ranchette, I lost nearly every chick hatched by my hens until I live-trapped a cat someone had turned loose to fend for itself.

I accidentally learned the best way to train a cat to leave chickens alone when my new kitten followed me to the chicken yard. She took an interest in some baby chicks, and the mother hen puffed up to twice her normal size and chased the kitten. For the rest of her life, whenever any chicken happened by, that cat laid her ears back and skulked away.

Rats will carry off baby chicks without a trace. A rat will pull a chick down into its tunnel, but a too-large bird may get stuck and you’ll find its body, usually head first, at the tunnel opening. Older birds are more likely to be found chewed up by rats, usually around the bone. A rat leaves droppings near feeders and may get protein by pulling off and eating feathers from roosting birds. Rat tunnels and holes gnawed in walls provide entry for other predators.

Chickens found dead in the yard, but without any missing parts, were likely attacked by a dog. Dogs kill for sport. When the bird stops moving, the dog loses interest, which is why you often find the victim of a canine attack near where it was killed. I once found a full dozen of my fryers dead and lined up neatly on the walkway. I was trying to guess what kind of predator could have done such a thing when my new puppy came bounding up with yet another fryer to add to his collection.

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. Fishers and martens may kill and stash chickens, then return and eat later. Weasels can sneak into housing through openings as small as 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) and sometimes run in family packs that can do significant damage in an amazingly short time.

If you find dead birds that have been flattened, the only thing you know is that some kind of predator frightened them. In trying to get away, they piled in a corner or against a wall and the ones on the bottom 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 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 birds into fluttering against the wire, and any that got stuck in the wire lost their heads.

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 and neck are missing, and feathers are scattered near a fence post, the likely perpetrator was a great horned owl.

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, bite at protruding feet, and pull off legs.

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. 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 a ‘possum kills a chicken, it usually eats it on the spot.

Birds bitten around the rear end and that have their intestines pulled out have been attacked by a weasel or one of its relatives. A hen that has prolapsed may look similar, as the protruding red tissue attracts other chickens to peck, and if they peck long enough and hard enough before you intervene, they will eventually pull out her intestines. Other signs of cannibalism that may be mistaken for signs of predation are missing toes and wounds around the top of the tail of growing chickens. A hen with slice wounds along the sides of her back got them after being repeatedly mated by a sharp-clawed rooster.

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, rats and skunks by rolling them away. A skunk that has been pilfering eggs may leave a faint odor; however, if you think you smell skunk but find pieces of shell in or around the nest, the raider is more likely an old boar raccoon, which emits a similar odor.

A snake eats the egg right out of the nest. During the summer, a 4-foot king snake lives in the hay-storage area of our barn. We’re happy to have him clear out the rodents. We call him The Terminator (Mr. T for short) and don’t mind that he pilfers the occasional egg laid by a hen that has wandered into the barn, but we have to take great care that he can’t get to our baby chicks.

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. Sometimes after cleaning out a nest, a bold ‘possum will curl up in the nest and take a nap.

More from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens:

Backyard Fenced Chicken Range
Broiler Chicken Health Issues

Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Fourth Edition by Gail Damerow. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.