Confusing predation problem.

Matt Armstrong

9 Years
Mar 8, 2010
About a year ago I inherited a small flock of about eight hens from a friend of mine. Since then, I've purchased about fifteen pullets and a Rhode Island Red cockrel which has since blossomed into a prize-winning rooster. Yesterday, I had three hens and my rooster left. I bought two more pullets today and I intend to replenish my flock, but I have a serious predation problem. I lost five last week alone, and I've been doing quite a bit of research into chicken predation lately but not really coming up with anything definitive. I'm hoping that someone here could maybe help me out with this. Bear with me, I'll be as detailed as possible.

I'm located in the northern part of Middle Tennessee, and our wildlife habitat closely resembles that of Kentucky, Virginia, and for the most part northern Alabama and Georgia. I'm not sure if anyone here is familiar with this type of ecosystem or if it even matters, but at least maybe it gives you a general idea of what sorts of predatory wildlife we have in this area. If not, I elaborate below.

Animals native to this area which may potentially prey on chickens are...

1. Coyotes, red fox, gray fox, raccoons, opossums, and skunks are all common in this area and known to prey on chickens. On either side of our place are large cow pastures surrounded by small wooded areas, with coyotes denning in the treelines of both pastures. We can hear them at night when the trains pass through, because they yap, howl, and make a lot of noise. I haven't seen any gray foxes in this immediate vicinity but every now and then you'll see a red fox that's been killed on the road. I've either seen two raccoons in the last year-and-a-half or I've seen the same raccoon twice. Last summer I caught a raccoon on the porch digging through the trash, which isn't all that far from the chicken coop. Last weekend I actually caught a possum eating one of my Golden Comet hens in the coop, which was one of the least pleasant things I've ever had the misfortune of seeing and I took care of it swiftly. I know for a matter of absolute fact that striped skunks are common in this area, but I've never seen one around the house or in the yard. A lot of old-timers from this area swear up and down there are bobcat here, too. However, I've never seen a bobcat or any sign of one, and I'm yet to meet one of these old-timers whose actually seen one, either.

2. Aside from the mammals, we also have birds of prey in this area. Red-tailed Hawk are the largest and probably the most common, the second most common probably being the American Kestrel. We also have Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, and Great Horned Owl. Of all the owl species, Great Horned Owl or Barn Owl are probably the most common in this area. We also have an almost unbelievable abundance of Turkey Vulture, which may (though extremely rarely) kill and eat prey when carrion is unavailable.

3. Snakes could pose a problem in the summer, spring, and maybe early autumn months. They're out of season now and I'm not currently considering snakes a threat. When it warms up, I can expect several species of snake to potentially become a problem. We have a type of snake here that the locals call a "chicken snake", though I don't know if that's a technical term or a nickname. Around here the old-timers are big on giving snake species a generic or nickname. The "puff adder" for example, is the Hog-nose Snake, which we have here. We also have Garter Snakes, Black Racers, Copperheads, Water Moccasins, Eastern Timber Rattlesnake, and maybe some types of Milk or Rat Snake. The non-venomous species are most common. Of the venomous species, the copperhead is most widespread and it's venom is more suited for smaller animals than larger ones. So that's maybe something I should look out for when it starts to warm up.

4. As with any flock of any size that free-ranges out in the country, there's a bit of a dog issue. I came home one day last summer to find I had a yard full of strays. Luckily, they hadn't gotten anything yet and I was able to run all of them but one off pretty easily. The one that kept coming back got ample warning before I had to offer a little extra persuasion. Apparently it wasn't enough, because it was back three days later for more persuasion. I haven't seen that once since. There is a Great Pyrenees whose owners live on the road behind us, and the dog either gets out of his pen or the owners let it out on a regular basis. I've caught it in or around my yard on several occasions, and it's big enough to not only do serious damage to my chicken flock but also to larger livestock such as the neighbor's cows or even people. Other than that, I haven't seen any stray dogs around, but some of the people down the road have unfenced and unchained dogs that I suppose could come up to the house if they were so inclined. I don't guess there's anything stopping them.

5. Out in the country where there are farmers and ranchers there are barns, and where there are barns there are barn cats. Most of the time barn cats aren't a really big deal, but cats that are left untended often reproduce prolifically. Sometimes when they do, the kittens are born out in a field or in the woods and no one ever finds them. The result is a fairly large population of feral cats, and though some may think cats pose little threat to a full-grown adult chicken, I personally wouldn't be so sure. Chickens are birds, and a cat's compulsion to hunt and kill birds is well noted and not exactly one of their lesser-known characteristics. Though I don't necessarily think my chickens are being killed by cats, I don't want to push my luck by pretending that cats aren't a potential threat.

So now that the list of possible offenders is out of the way, I'll try and describe what I've found in terms of evidence. This is the confusing part for me, because there's quite a bit of it that just doesn't add up and I'm fairly certain that I've lost chickens to several species of predator.

1. The first brush we had with potential predation was with a Red-tailed hawk. The second day we were out working on our chicken coop, a hawk dove on one of my hens but didn't manage to grab it and left empty-handed. That confirms the notion that hawks can and will catch, kill, and eat chickens if given the opportunity. Just because a hawk didn't catch one that time doesn't mean that it hasn't since or won't in the future.

2. The first actual, successful attempt at predation occurred one day late last summer or early in the fall. The chickens are always in the coop at night, and for the most part we keep a pretty close eye on them and keep them counted at various times during the course of any given day. Late one afternoon we noticed that we were missing four or five of our hens, and a short search revealed several piles of feathers but no carcass or excessive amounts of blood. The piles of feathers were found mostly in a more-or-less vacant lot to the side of us owned by our neighbor, and they were in a sort of line- one after the other, over the course of a hundred yards or so arching around an old barn. Each pile of feathers belonged to a particular chicken, which indicated to me that there was a chase or that they were picked off individually over the course of an hour or more. We turned those fields and lots upside down looking for carcasses, but never found any sign of one.

I was walking though one of the neighboring fields in late November of last year and found a chicken's breast bone in the treeline. That particular area where it was found is near a coyote den, but also prime red fox habitat, close to the pen where the Great Pyrenees is usually kept (and close to the place where I first saw it loose), and I also found raccoon droppings nearby. I'm not certain it was from one of our chickens or if that particular bone was related to the initial event, but interesting because the path of the feather-piles also seemed to point in that direction. I've read that coyotes usually take the most direct route back home, and that red foxes kill excessively and never leave carcasses. It seemed too clean for a dog, too quiet, and from what I'm reading dogs usually leave partially mauled carcasses behind. So to me, the evidence according to available sources seems most consistent with red fox, but again I'm not an expert and I could be totally wrong.

3. Throughout the early part of winter, I only lost a couple of my hens. Both of them were picked off individually in the same vacant barn-lot. Again, there were no carcasses but piles of feathers. There was snow on the ground during that time and I tried to look for tracks, but all I found were a lot of rabbit tracks, a couple of sets that may have been raccoons, and a couple that appeared to be small canid tracks- which could have been fox, but could have also been my Chihuahua/Beagle mutt (who was a stray that wandered up a couple of years ago, scared of his own shadow, and hence became known affectionately as "Chicken"). The actual chickens bully the poor little guy all over the yard- and he tries as hard as he can to be one of the gang but they want no part of him. He even scratches and picks cracked corn with them, so I've ruled him out as a danger to the birds as well.

4. The night I caught the possum in the coop, we also lost two other hens. One of them was a Barred Rock, and my dad actually found the feathers- in two separate piles, on the south end of the yard but with no carcass in sight. The other hen unaccounted for was a Golden Comet, and I found a pile of her feathers on the west corner of the yard the very next day. Unlike the earlier attacks, these occurred at around dusk. We found them just after dark, and were outside with all of the hens accounted for just before sunset. I believe that catching the possum in the coop with a dead chicken that particular night may have been a bit of a coincidence. The other two piles of feathers were a significant distance from the coop, and I don't believe the possum killed and ate three chickens that far apart in that short of a time span. Even if it could, there were no carcasses, which aren't consistent with possum predation.

5. Probably about three days later, I noticed two more hens missing. The day before I'd cleaned the coop out pretty thoroughly from where the possum had feasted inside the coop and was subsequently terminated inside the coop. After noticing that I'd lost yet two more hens, I went inside the coop which should have been clean and feather-free to find a substantial amount of Golden Comet and Barred Rock feathers scattered about the coop. It turned out that I was indeed missing another Barred Rock and another Golden Comet. Yet again, I found no carcass or excessive amounts of blood or severed, mauled, or otherwise misplaced body parts.

After losing the last two, apparently from inside the coop, I've made a big effort to always be here to lock them up at night. I've also been keeping the little dog outside more, as I'd noticed an increase in chicken predation coinciding with him spending more time inside at night. Somehow or another, I think he was in some capacity a deterrent. My dad's pretty adamant about not wanting to pen them up, but I fear it's probably going to be the only way to keep them safe and alive. Unlike cows or horses, chickens have little or no natural defense against much of anything, and are vulnerable to attacks from a wide variety of predators. It would be silly to think that I could just sit outside all day and night with a shotgun to kill anything that attacks them. To begin with, for any wild predator I kill, there are probably hundreds more. Secondly, eliminating one predator usually opens a niche for another to move in. I don't want to eliminate a fox problem, for instance, and thereby cause a coyote problem. I have bought a small raccoon and possum trap in hopes of catching something and at least get an idea what I'm dealing with, but as of yet I haven't caught anything.

So, my question is pretty complicated. First, based on the evidence given, what does it sound like I'm dealing with? Second, what are some good ways of dealing with it that don't involve penning the chickens up? Third, what are some good ways of dealing with it that may in fact involve penning them up- are are downsides to keeping chickens in pens? Are there particular things I need to do to keep certain predators from breaching a pen? Are there any tips for trapping predators that I may be unaware of? How may I determine for certain what's killing all of my chickens? I'd appreciate any help I could get. I don't particularly like having to shoot animals.

Matt Armstrong
Coons and a whole family of them.
I lost about 5 in one night that I forgot to go back out and lock up the coop.
It got dark about 6 and I went out at 8. It happend just at dark. No bodies left and since they took my two white leghorns, a trail of feathers heading to and up the trees.

We have killed several and usually it is a family group together and over a period of 2-3 days before we get them all.

Since I have been keeping a dog chained in an area near my coop, they haven't been back. knock on wood.
Sounds like you're dealing with several types of predators. Possible ways to prevent future losses are to lock the birds at night (absolutely necessary), free range only when you can be home to supervise, build a secure run.... Free ranging unsupervised and not being locked up at night obviously are not options where you live. If you want to get a better idea of what is coming around your property on a chicken eating mission you could install a game-trail-cam, driveway alarm, or sprinkle flour around your coop (to see tracks).

I'm sorry for your losses. Hopefully you can take measure to secure your birds to prevent futher losses. I'm sure others will come along with more ideas!
Your situation sounds similar to mine. Rural Virginia, we have almost every predator you could imagine. I free ranged my birds successfully for well over a year with only one loss. Then this past summer, that ended. I lost a lot of birds in a short space of time. It was like the predators suddenly found us, and they were loving the chicken buffet.

I saw a coyote in the yard, I saw a fox in the yard, I know I lost at least one bird to a hawk. My husband would kill a predator, and I'd hope it was over, but it never was. It didn't take me long to figure out that if I wanted to end the heartbreak, I had to keep the birds penned up.

They were very unhappy at first, being used to free ranging in our enormous yard and the surrounding woods. They are used to the confinement now. We actually have 3 large pens for them, and we only let them out in the evening when we are outside with them.

I loved having them scratching around the yard. It was so quaint and homey. But it stopped being practical, and we had to make the decision to lock them up for their own safety. I think that's where you are, too. If you want to keep them safe from your predators, and it sounds like you have a multitude of them, you'll need to build a secure pen. And always lock them up safely in their coop at night.

Good luck.
I live in So.Cntl Ky..have the same predators..the first year I had chickens here..I lost 41 before discovering a sow raccoon to be my major problem. After getting rid of her..which took several nights of my son sitting in the back of his truck watching the pen!!..we also had a very brave red fox..heard a commotion one day..went out to check and he/she was chasing a large roo from the barn area up towards the house..came to within 25 ft or so of house. This was a 3-4 yrs ago..I finally gave up on free range, built a large chicken yard with 6 ft hi wire with a top..I have some small pens on the outside of the large yard that house bantams..this past fall I went out to feed and had a young raccoon on top of one of the pens..I walked up within 10-12 ft of it, yelled, it looked at me, continued eating, I yelled slowly climbed down and ambled off through the the problem is still there. I do live in a rural farm area that has massive hunting property it is to be expected.
Matt, sorry but there is a big sign over your place that says "free food." Until you solve this problem, it will be unsafe to free range your chickens without supervision. I doubt that it is dogs-they would be more likely to destroy the entire flock in one fell swoop. Since killed birds are being carried away, I would lean towards fox, coyote, or bobcat. Since all are preparing to raise young, depredation will most likely increase. Trail cam for identification of the problem and electric fence for deterence. Good luck-Geo.
I have one suggestion that helped my husband and I catch a night time predator. (Depending upon how far away you are from your barn and if electricity is readily available). We placed our sons baby monitor in the barn and put the receiver in our bedroom. The monitor we had was a long range one but I think you would be surprised at how far they can work. We placed the receiver in there and sure enough we could hear a commotion and my husband would run out the door and was able to kill our predator which was a weasel. It is worth a try.
So, my question is pretty complicated. First, based on the evidence given, what does it sound like I'm dealing with? Multiple predators. Second, what are some good ways of dealing with it that don't involve penning the chickens up? I don't know of any. Third, what are some good ways of dealing with it that may in fact involve penning them up- are are downsides to keeping chickens in pens? Predator proof coop with a covered run. Open the run to a fenced area like an orchard that provides some cover. Pen the chickens up at night. I don't see any big downsides to keeping chickens in a coop as long as it is large enough for them. They won't be eating as many critters though. Are there particular things I need to do to keep certain predators from breaching a pen? Correct combination of materials like fencing and wire. Are there any tips for trapping predators that I may be unaware of? From your narrative even though you may not have said so I think you probably know most of the trapping methods and also know that trapping won't eliminate the problem. How may I determine for certain what's killing all of my chickens? Catch them in the act. I'd appreciate any help I could get. I don't particularly like having to shoot animals.​
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I live in the same area and I deal with the same type of predators as you do Matt Armstrong.

Coon's, possum's, coyote's, bobcats, stray dogs and hawks. You name it and I got it.

My neighbor's saw a huge wolf like dog hanging around my coop and in the field but Koda and their dog Teddy ran it off. Unless it's a huge white German Shepard (which I highly doubt) it has got to be a wolf.

My cousin over Thanksgiving saw a huge big white dog in a graveyard (South of me) and when she called it to come over for some petting it snarled at her and ran away. She got some pictures and now I'm worried that we have wolf's around here.

We have enough trouble with Coyote's why do they have to bring in WOLF'S to keep the deer population down?!

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