Keeping Ahead of Predators During Harsh Winter

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Robin Follette Maine Correspondent

Predators are giving us a hard time this winter; harder than normal. This generally means the predator of the day is having a hard time having successful hunts that provide enough food to keep it alive and healthy.

I feel for them. Nobody wants the wildlife to starve to death; that’s a cruel death. Feasting on my poultry is a simple solution for the predator, but doesn’t usually turn out well for anyone or anything involved.

The weather was brutally cold in late January. The wind chill dropped to -45 degrees F one morning and was frequently -20F to -30F. Single-digit daytime temperatures were harsh.

I made extra trips with water during the day and gave the poultry high-energy treats to help them stay warm. I checked on the birds, then housed in the barn and hen house, at 6 a.m. Jan. 26 and all was well. A few hours later, Steve came from the barn to tell me three of the chickens were dead. All that was left of my chickens were head, wings and legs.

Whatever killed and ate the birds did it during daylight without the dogs noticing. I must have had the dogs in the house to eat their breakfast when the predator appeared.

We searched inside and outside the barn and into the woods for tracks and found none, other than from our dogs. The snow was crusty and the predator was most likely small. The dogs couldn’t find a scent trail but looked overhead into the rafters and barked a lot. Steve found old, empty egg shells, but nothing else. We suspect a raccoon stole the eggs last summer and took them there to eat out of the dogs’ reach.

I described how I thought the birds were killed to friends. We came up with plenty of ideas on what the predator might be, but no solid answer.

We closed the barn up tight at night, locked the ducks and remaining chickens in pet carriers to keep them safer (and warmer), and thought we were ahead of the game. The birds were not allowed outside unless a dog was outside at all times.

I put them up for the night early and let them outdoors late in the morning a few days later on Jan. 28. In the short time it took Scooter and Ava to chase crows away from the hen house and check out something in the woods, three ducks were killed inside the barn. I had my answer this time. Most of one duck had been eaten; two had been killed and buried in fresh hay. A bobcat will bury food and come back to the kill to eat again later.

We seldom have problems with the bobcats. We’d had to kill only one since moving here in 1997. It was starving to death and desperate. This one was likely starving or a young cat that hadn’t mastered hunting yet.

The snow hasn’t been deep enough to hinder hunting, and there are more than enough wild turkeys in the area to keep good hunters fat and sassy.

I packed up the survivors and moved them to the hen house. Introducing ducks and chickens to a flock of ducks and a rafter of turkeys, in the middle of winter and with the newcomers already traumatized, is tricky. It didn’t go smoothly, but we managed.

I discovered a broken board in the door to the rabbitry. The rabbitry is attached to the barn. The predator probably squeezed in through the broken board and went through a window to the barn.

I looked out the window over the kitchen sink as warm water filled a jug to be taken to the birds late in the day. “Bobcat in the backyard,” I yelled to Steve.

It was sitting in the backyard, staring intently at the poultry in their pen only 50 feet away. Its stubby tail twitched. The birds were too busy pecking at cracked corn to notice the cat. She was creeping up on the birds when Steve shot her. She died instantly.

The game warden said this young cat falls into the “problem cat” category because she’s young and inexperienced. She weighed only 11 pounds, the same size as one of our house cats.

There are snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, red squirrel and Eastern wild turkey tracks in the snow in the woods, so I know there’s a good food supply. She lacked the skills to catch wild prey.

I’m very careful about the birds’ safety, don’t let them out without their guardian dogs, and lock them up at night. I don’t open the door until well after sunrise and close it well before sunset. I walk through the 12-by-18-foot building and look everywhere, including nest boxes, for a hidden predator.

I let the dogs out at 4:30 a.m. Saturday. They run around the barn even though the birds haven’t been in there for more than a month, then run to the hen house.

The “bark of death” started before I could pour my coffee. They scratched frantically at the hen house door but, of course, couldn’t get in.

By the time I pulled my coat on over my pajamas and crammed my feet into my boots and got outside, the dogs were barking in the woods. We couldn’t find anything with a flashlight in the dark. The snow is crusty and even I could walk on top without breaking through. Whatever it was this time, it made an easy escape.

I’ve lost another hen, this time a full-grown Buff Orpington. I found her headless body on the floor in the back corner. It was my fault. I didn’t tightly close the little door from the hen house into the pen. Something climbed over the chicken wire fencing, into the pen and up the ramp into the hen house.

I’m now trying to figure out what the predator is this time. I have a game cam on a fence post, the birds are not allowed outside the pen at all, and the dogs are outside except to sleep at night.

Trying to keep ahead of hungry predators in late winter with a solid blanket of a snow on the ground has been tricky this year.

Robin Follette and her husband, Steve, operate Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge, Maine.

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