Predator-Thwarting Design Considerations for Southwest Florida


In the Brooder
10 Years
Sep 19, 2009
I'm trying to write an overview of predator design considerations for Southwest Florida. Although I had chickens here for a dozen years, I haven't had any in a while and I'm looking for constructive criticism to make this the best advice possible. I particularly interested in responses from people who are currently raising chickens in Southwest Florida.

The biggest threat to urban hens in Southwest Florida is other animals. There may be other parts of the country that have to contend with dogs and cats, hawks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rats and corn snakes. We have all those. But Southwest Florida may be the only place where we need to start thinking about Spiny Tailed Iguanas, Nile Monitor Lizards, Burmese Pythons, and Rock Pythons. Unless you have a design that accounts for all these threats, you may lose birds in the future to these new threats. The fact is chickens are deemed a tasty meal by many species.

Don’t think of your coop as the first form of hen protection. The coop should actually be the last line of defense. There are four levels of protection to acknowledge. The first is the suite of natural instincts that the chickens come with. Their jungle fowl ancestors were able to run, hide, or fly to escape a variety of predators. They roosted off the ground and hatched chicks that could follow the mother hen within minutes of hatching. Many of these survival traits have been retained, more so in some of the wilder breeds, possibly less so in varieties bred for cage life.

The final three aspects of protection correspond the three different situations your birds find themselves in. These are the factors you control. The first is concealment while the birds are ranging in your backyard, if you let yours out. If predators can’t see your chickens they are not likely to attack during the day.
An opaque wall or fence will reduce the attention your birds get from neighboring dogs (neighbors too). Many dog breeds have hard-wired programming that makes it nearly impossible for them to resist chasing chickens. When they catch them, they kill them, then move on to the next one until they are done. And it is rumored to be very difficult to break dogs of the habit once they have experienced the cheap thrill of terrorizing and killing a flock. So it is worth the investment to keep neighborhood dogs from learning about the existence of your birds. We recommend a substantial opaque barrier around any part of the yard you may let chickens roam in. [They should not be leaving your property.] A visual barrier is better than nothing, but a physical and visual barrier is better yet. One side benefit of an opaque barrier is that your hens may conclude the grass is greener on the other side if they can’t see the other side.

Cats can easily scale fences that stop dogs, but are far less problematic in our experience than dogs. (Some aggressive hens will actually drive cats from a yard.) If you have cat problem you may need to only let your hens out while you are there to watch, or have a talk with the cat’s owner.

Shrubs or shelters can provide cover that may reduce Cooper’s and Sharp Shinned Hawk problems. These hawks are accipiters that seem to prefer smaller birds – pullets (young hens) and bantams (miniature breeds). Accipiters tend to hunt from perches, so having tall trees or poles around probably increases the risk. Some chicken keepers string material above head height to thwart attacks, with mixed results. Since the larger Cooper’s Hawk only weighs a pound, they are more likely to take on nine ounce pigeon-sized birds, and less likely to mess with a five pound Ameraucana or a ten pound Jersey Giant. But Coopers, particularly the females that are larger than males, will attack birds larger than themselves, kill them and attempt to eat them on the spot. If you have small or young birds and let them out during the day, you should not be surprised if some disappear without a trace. And once they find your flock they will not forget what looks like the fly-through window at Kentucky Unfried Chicken. Losing a bird or two from a large flock is not devastating, but when you only have a few birds, one or two losses can be crushing.

In summary, larger, more alert chickens that spend less time in a yard with shrubs and cover will probably fare better than smaller birds exposed in the open with taller trees nearby. Bottom Line: If you can’t afford to lose birds, minimize the amount of time they are exposed to hawks by keeping them in a covered pen. The only good news is that Sarasota is near the southern limit of the Cooper’s hawks range. Cooper’s are primarily seasonal visitors in Sarasota so be extra vigilant during tourist season.

The second level of protection occurs when then birds are confined in a pen, chicken tractor, or covered run attached to the coop. This needs a wire mesh top to deter hawks and strong wire mesh sides. One might think chainlink or “chicken wire” is good enough to keep raccoons, opossums, foxes, dogs, and cats at bay since they can’t squeeze through it, but raccoons and opossums are not above reaching in and trying to grab a panic-stricken bird. Then they pull pieces through and gnaw on them. You don’t want that. You may be correct if you assume thin chicken wire works for keeping chickens in, but it’s not the ticket for keeping big salivating dogs and high IQ raccoons out. Therefore you may want to include smaller hardware cloth ½” or 1” mesh wire for at least the first 18” off the ground and in any area where something might be able to reach a hen. Then the reach-through bandits will be thwarted.

If they can’t bust in or grab a hen, they will try to tunnel under. Many of these predators have apparently watched The Great Escape multiple times and are dedicated and prodigious diggers that will quickly excavate a route up and under into the chicken yard unless you are prepared. A concrete floor is a safe luxury – anything less will require buried wire fencing to deter digging. The buried wire has to be something they can’t get a snoot under.

Bear in mind that there are two distinct types of chicken run: ones that only open to the coop and ones that also have an second opening to your yard. Let’s call the first a sealed run and the second a lobby pen. If you have a lobby pen that is a transition between your yard and the coop, the door to the yard is a critical component. We recommend a guillotine-style chicken door that raises and lowers in a secure track. A line from the top of the door through a pulley enables you to close the door from a more remote location. The door should be smooth, tall and/or heavy enough that a raccoon cannot grab it and lift it.

The fourth, most defended, component is the coop itself. The coop must be solid, secure, and predator proof because once a predator gets inside a closed coop the chickens are sitting ducks (so to speak) and will all be killed unless someone hears the commotion and intervenes in time. All openings must be secured with sturdy ¼” or 1/2” wire mesh (hardware cloth). Doors and windows must be snug fitting with no possible way to weasel in. Any hatches for feeding, watering, cleaning, or egg-gathering must lock in a way that a bored ambidextrous raccoon with a night of free time can’t undo them. The ideal hatch would be one that returned to a securely locked position on its own.

That leaves the entrance from the chicken pen into the coop as the remaining and most obvious entrance point for predators. Chickens will learn to enter the coop to roost around dusk, which is when many predators start hunting. Therefore it is imperative to have a strategy to securely close the chickens in each night, every night. Once again an up-down, guillotine-style chicken door is recommended.

None of the above strategies deals with rats or snakes, both of which can fit through very small holes, the size of a quarter for a rat, smaller for a snake. Corn Snakes only pose a threat for chicks and smaller birds they can swallow whole.

Although we prefer to think there are no rats in our neighborhoods, a walk around the outside of any local upscale mall will reveal the presence of black plastic rat traps. Your chickens will not bring rats to your neighborhood -- the rats are already there and will find your operation. Rats may initially be more interested in chicken food than chickens, so keep all feed in tightly closed metal containers since rats and mice can gnaw through most plastic containers in one sitting. Rats are more likely to be active at night, so try to feed your birds early in the day to minimize what’s available at night. By feeding table scraps to chickens in the morning, you are actually reducing vermin problems when compared to casually adding food waste to a backyard compost pile – an omnivore’s feeding station. And while rats may start with chicken feed, that’s a gateway food for them that can lead to egg eating and sometimes also trying to feed on chickens – so a tight coop and proactive trapping are recommended. Remember to inspect your coop for signs of gnawed entry – rats are diligent nighttime chewers who, given enough time, will work their way through just about any substance.

This four tiered approach does not guarantee no predator problems, but it is about the best that can be done. Each level is designed to afford higher protection, theoretically reducing the number of species that might pose a problem. The fence should take care of dogs, which may well be the biggest threat. If a dog somehow gets in the fence, and the chickens are safely in their wire run with an undiggable floor, they should still be safe from dogs as well as from raccoons, opossums, foxes, cats, and bobcats. And a well-designed coop with snug, locked entrances and a guillotine-style chicken door should also minimize rat and snake problems.

Chickens are survivors. They roam free in many locales from Key West to Kauai and get by. But domesticated breeds are not always as tough and savvy as wild game hens and your small flock may well be operating without their first line of defense – an aggressive rooster that guards his hens. The tradeoffs for no crowing in the early morn is that you have to replicate the other rooster roles, from protecting the hens to getting more chicks.

Remember that confining birds can paradoxically put them at greater risk if a predator does get in the coop, since the chickens can’t escape. Good initial design requires more thought and investment, but greatly increases the likelihood of success.

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