Aaron J. Ison, B.S.
Avian Disease Investigation Laboratory
Sara J. Spiegle, B.S.
Avian Disease Investigation Laboratory
Teresa Y. Morishita, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACPV
OSU Extension–Veterinary Medicine and Avian Disease Investigation Laboratory
Predation is not common in commercial poultry production. However, predation is a big concern for backyard flocks and organic poultry producers. The reason for this difference is in the way flocks are housed and managed. Commercial poultry producers maintain flocks within buildings for their entire production cycle. These buildings are usually constructed with concrete foundations and a complete roof, and open areas are enclosed by fine net-meshing (i.e., broilers and turkeys) or enclosed entirely by metal siding (i.e., layers). Commercial flocks are at risk from small predators and birds of prey when the building structures are not maintained. Backyard flocks, maintained by small farmers, hobbyists, and youth, are usually housed in existing barns that may not be adequate for keeping predators out. In addition, they may not be housed at all, allowing the birds to free-range and take cover under existing structures. Organic operations are also prone to predation if birds are raised free-range, where they are allowed to graze. Flocks are at the highest risk, especially during the night, if they are not provided with any enclosed structure for protection.
A number of different predator species can wreak havoc and economic losses on poultry flocks. Chicken flocks are often more prone than turkey flocks, due to the size of birds. Moreover, younger, smaller birds are more prone to predation. Predators include coyotes, raccoons, foxes, weasels and their relatives, birds of prey, opossums, skunks, rodents, and snakes. Domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, can also be predators of poultry.
For birds of prey, hawks will take birds during the day; whereas, owls will take birds during the night. Often, domestic dogs will not eat the birds, and the carcass may be found in close proximity to the site of attack. Scattered feathers may also be a sign of panic-stricken birds. Piling or smothering can also indicate potential predation. For example, frightened birds can pile in a corner and smother each other.
This occurs when birds are kept in a pen enclosed by loose meshing. Birds of prey can scare birds and cause them to jump or fly up, allowing their heads to protrude through the meshing. Raccoons will reach through openings, grabbing and ripping off the bird’s head through the meshing and wire caging.
Raccoons are notorious for their hand skills and intelligence. If birds are kept in a mesh-style pen, raccoons are able to reach nearby, unsuspecting birds and pull their legs off.
Opossums and skunks will prey at night. Unprotected nests are easy targets for predators. Rats can carry away day-old chicks and can also bite older birds in the hock joint, which can cause a swelling and infection.
Weasels and their relatives tend to bite at the vent region, pulling out the intestines. Some birds can be found walking around, dragging their intestines. Weasels and their relatives also kill for fun, which can leave scattered feathers with bloody or torn carcasses.
Turkeys are known to huddle in an area away from open sides to avoid predators that may be stalking around the perimeter. The weight of the huddled birds is enough to suffocate and/or crush the birds below.
Cats, if brave enough, may unsuccessfully prey upon large birds.
Although this can be predation of some kind, this may also be the result of cannibalism if a bird has a prolapsed rectum after passing an egg. Chickens will be attracted to the bright red tissue and will peck at it, causing wounds.
The easiest way to prevent predation is to keep flocks within buildings. However, for the majority of backyard flocks and organic flocks, this is unfeasible or is not a desired alternative. The next best way of prevention is to lock birds up during the night and maintain a vigilant eye. Open poultry houses should be enclosed by fine meshing to prevent entry by wild birds. Killing of predators, both domestic and wild, is not recommended. Non-lethal methods are available and include:
Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Dr. Donald Burton of the Ohio Wildlife Center and Mr. Micheal Pogany of the Columbus Zoo for the use of their photos.
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