Managing Predation in Poultry Flocks

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

April 5, 2022
Managing Predation in Poultry Flocks

Finally, spring is in the air! It's the time of year where everything is waking up, including predators. Foxes are having their kits, coyotes are having their pups, and birds of prey are migrating to their northern breeding grounds. The lean winter season coupled with the fact that most prey species have not yet had their young means that predatory species are hungry… and poultry are the prefect meal.

Predators work on a risk-reward scheme. If they aren't very hungry or the poultry draw them out of their wooded habitat too far, the threat of humans and their activities may dissuade them. However, if they are hungry, the poultry are easily accessible, and/or the humans aren't threatening, then all bets are off. This time of year, we get many calls from poultry owners who have had a large part of their flocks devastated by predators in a single afternoon, or over multiple days. Below are some of the tips that I share with them to help them rebuild and manage their free-range poultry flocks with less risk.

 

Make Coops Predator-Proof

Many times, poultry coops are built with poultry netting and rest on a dirt or gravel base. These are always the most susceptible to unwanted entry, even if the doors and windows are closed. Predators have all night without interruption to work at poultry enclosures to gain access. A fox, raccoon, or coyote can easily dig under a coop wall or rip through poultry netting to gain access. For this reason, we recommend that poultry enclosures are constructed with solid or hardware cloth bottoms, and that any wire used in their construction is hardware cloth with a one-inch by one-inch square maximum opening.

Holes and cracks in coops are also a concern. Anything larger than an inch in diameter can allow for the access of a weasel, which can kill tens of chickens in one go just for the sport of it. Obviously, larger holes allow for larger predators. All holes should be sealed with concrete, wood, or hardware cloth.

 

Keep Them Cooped Up

Sometimes it makes sense to keep poultry cooped up for a little while when a predator has found them. While it's not foolproof, keeping your birds locked up for a few weeks can help move a predator onto other food sources. However, if there is a lack of prey in the area or they have young to feed, they may be back for a low risk, high reward meal after the lockdown period.

 

Electric Fencing Works Wonders

Simple non-electrified fencing is not effective on its own against ground predators unless it is 6'-8' tall and regularly checked for digging activity. Even then, there are many predators that can climb it. Any shorter, and they just jump over. I know someone who had backyard chickens and a fox that jumped over the 4' perimeter fence with ease, taking out their flock in one afternoon. Sadly, this is not unusual.

Adding electricity to a 4' fence is a deterrent. While electric shocks won't kill predators, they will dissuade them if they get a zap. There are many companies that sell a product called electric netting. This product can be moved around to create new foraging areas for poultry, and comes with either plug-in, battery-operated, or solar chargers. Stranded electric fences are usually not sufficient because predators can climb over or dig under them without getting shocked. Stranded fences can become more effective if they have multiple strands close together at the bottom and/or have a positive/negative configuration. More strands closer to the ground deters digging, and the positive/negative confirmation results in a shock if both a positive and negative wire are touched at the same time when the animal tries to climb the fence.

When considering this type of fencing, remember that it always has to stay hot. These fences on their own are not deterrents enough and can be easily jumped or walked through. However, if the fence is hot, a curious predator will get their nose/face shocked once and that will be the end of that. To keep the fence hot, always make sure that the power source is charged, that vegetation is trimmed to reduce the voltage loss (keeping your fence hotter), and that sag is reduced (another reason why these fences can lose their bite).  


Get a Guardian

For some, a livestock guardian may be the answer. There are many types, with pros and cons to each. These animals are typically larger than the largest predator that you want to dissuade and live with the flock either while they're free ranging or full time. They are typically raised such that they are bonded to their charges. Guard geese and livestock guardian dogs are two of the more popular options for poultry and can protect them against threats both from the air and from the ground.

Guard geese are a popular option for some flock owners - they're small, easy to care for, and can be aggressive with potential threats. Many suggest getting one goose to force it to bond with the poultry it guards, but this may be detrimental to the goose's well-being from a psychological standpoint. Having two or more is better for their welfare but can result in them bonding and not doing as good of a job guarding the flock. Even if you have one (or more!) that do a good job guarding, they're still birds, and are just as susceptible to predation as other poultry species. They may make a big ruckus about potential threats though!

Livestock guardian dogs are another popular choice, especially for larger poultry flocks. There are multiple breeds that do well with small charges, but they do need to be trained to ensure that they don't accidentally harm the poultry they live with.

 

Get Some Cover!

Sometimes, birds of prey end up being large threats on poultry farms. Unfortunately, you can't fence these animals out or remove them from the property. Providing cover for poultry consisting of living cover (trees, bushes), a run-in area, or a shade cover can aid in protecting them. Not all poultry will be able to go under cover when an ariel predator strikes, and it's likely that you'll still lose birds, but the losses may be reduced.


Make Your Poultry Area Frightening

There are some devices on the market that can deter predators, including fox lights, scarecrows, and wavy arm flailing tube people. These devices set in a rotation can cause enough disturbance in an area that predators feel threatened and look elsewhere for food. A word of caution though: don't leave one device up for too long - a hungry predator may take a chance, realize there is no apparent threat, and go after your poultry anyway.

 

Be Cautious with Predator Removal

Sometimes, a particularly bold or aggressive predator may need to be removed from an ecosystem. Before any removal, contact the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to receive a permit. Remember that birds of prey are protected, and you cannot remove them - exclusion and deterrents are your only options here.

Removing a non-problem predator from your ecosystem can result in more problems than you bargained for. When a predator leaves an area, there are more to fill that space… and an animal that was minding its own business may be replaced by one that knows that poultry are an easy meal, causing more problems in the future. My word of advice is that if you have predators around that are for the most part leaving your poultry alone, then it's a benefit to keep them nearby.

             

The protection of poultry from predators is a never-ending battle. The use of varied tactics that work for your management style can help you to achieve success.




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