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 a variety of facility types that may or may not offer secure predator protection. 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 predator-proof housing.
A number of different predator species can cause damage and economic losses on poultry flocks. Chicken flocks are often more prone than turkey flocks, due to the size of birds. Younger, smaller birds are also more susceptible. Predators include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, weasels and their relatives, birds of prey, racoons, opossums, skunks, rodents, and snakes. Domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, can also be predators of poultry.
Patterns of Predation
Missing adult birds—coyotes, bobcats, dogs, birds of prey, and foxes
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. Coyotes are active night and day, though when living in urban areas amongst humans, they are more active at night. Feathers and a few scattered pieces may be left behind after dog, coyote, and fox attacks. Bobcats typically hunt during the hours of dawn and dusk, but can attack any time of day.
Missing eggs or chicks—opossums, skunks, rats, cats, snakes, coyotes, foxes, and birds of prey
Most predators of poultry will kill and remove chicks, often without any signs of disturbance, especially if the attack occurs at night. Unprotected nests are easy targets for predators. Missing or damaged eggs may be caused by skunks, snakes, rats, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, blue jays, and crows. Foxes, skunks, opossums, jays, and crows often leave shells of consumed eggs behind.
Missing heads—birds of prey and raccoons
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.
Birds with lacerations near the cloaca or vent
Weasels and their relatives, and opossums, may attack the vent region, pulling out the intestines. Some birds can be found walking around, dragging their intestines. Another cause of wounds to the vent or cloaca can be the result of cannibalism from other chickens in the flock. Rectal prolapse after egg passage may attract pecking to the bright red exposed tissue.
Birds found dead with other injuries
Poultry 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 the ones below.
Birds killed by weasels are found bloody with the internal organs missing or partially consumed. Occasionally, weasels kill birds without eating them. Birds are typically killed with a bite(s) to the base of the skull, severing the spinal cord. Skunks and opossums may kill adult birds messily, with damaged bodies remaining. Raccoons attack birds’ head, breast, and crop and may consume the entrails.
Cats, both feral and domestic, will prey on chicks, often removing them with no signs of damage or debris present. It would be unusual for a cat to prey on an adult chicken unless it was wounded or injured. Dogs may prey on both adult chickens or chicks depending on breed or temperament. Livestock guard dogs have been used successfully to protect both coops and free-range flocks from predators if trained to this task.
Prevention of Predation
The primary way to prevent predation is to fortify the coop against predators. This should be the goal of all poultry keepers. Sturdy fencing, overhead protection from wild birds and birds of prey plus addressing any holes or entry points will dramatically decrease the chance of a predator affecting the flock, as well as provide excellent biosecurity. Trapping or hunting of predators may be an option depending on local rules and regulations. Additional options are listed below:
- Motion sensor lights and sound equipment—these are short-term solutions that can be used during the interim until other options (i.e., trapping, exclusion) can be implemented to protect flocks.
- Remove/secure all food attractants—garbage, pet food, livestock feed, fallen fruit from trees, and other available foods can serve as an attractant to many predators. Once there, predators may seek out other sources of food, such as poultry.
- Seek assistance from wildlife professionals.
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. Cat photo by Pixabay.
Original authors: 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. (Originally published in 2005.)