Pastured poultry have few natural defenses. That’s why Food Animal Concerns Trust recently hosted “Predator Protection for Poultry” as a webinar. Animal expert Jan Dohner, author of “The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators” and “Livestock Guardians: Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd,” presented.
Dohner said that many attendees might have just a small, family flock, but could “venture into commercial production with direct sales or farmers markets.”
She said that to effectively protect their flocks, farmers need to first assess potential threats to poultry, which include chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, guineafowl, quail, squab, peafowl and swans.
Though some of those are considered exotic, Dohner said many of the same principles apply.
“Predation is normal, but can be enormously upsetting, an economic loss to the farm,” Dohner said. “There can be loss of valuable genetics and it can be emotionally upsetting if it’s gruesome. Be aware of threats and be proactive about prevention techniques.”
Assessing potential threats could include consulting range maps, but farmers should keep in mind that, according to Dohner, nearly all predators’ range is extending.
“We’re also seeing more loners going outside their expected range,” she said. “They could be forerunners of larger numbers we’ll see.”
She advises checking the National Agricultural Statistic Service, state Department of Natural Resources, university Extension services and local news.
“Talk with neighbors,” Dohner said. “You need to constantly be aware of what (predators) people are seeing. It could be a way you’ll become aware of a problem.”
Seasonal changes can also affect predator movement, such as a harsh winter or drought. Dohner said that keeping a log of the predators you see and when you see them can help in subsequent years, as can erecting trail cameras along fence lines or near buildings.
The next step is identifying predator damage. Predator behavior can leave behind clues of what type of unwelcome creature is visiting your farm. For instance, coyote and fox often carry their prey away.
Possible predators in the Northeast can also include weasel, mink, fisher, badger, raccoon, skunk, opossum, bobcat, lynx, birds of prey, domestic or feral cats and dogs, bear, wolf, snapping turtles and snakes. The larger predators tend to threaten poultry less; however, the smaller poultry predators may be prey for larger predators, so poultry may indirectly attract them.
Dohner said that factors affecting risk include terrain, predator attractions, husbandry practices and seasonal changes.
“Once you know the physical ranges of predators you should consider, think about factors that affect your specific farm,” Dohner said. “Do you have heavily wooded areas, rough or open pastures, or pastures a distance from human residence and activity? Is there a lot of cover? Think about specific predator attraction. Is it a place predators would want to come hunt? Do you have other vulnerable animals? Water, especially in arid areas, food, garbage, shelter, and your own husbandry practices.”
For instance, free range animals or those on farms where the farmer travels a great deal remain more prone to predators than others.
Since most attacks occur at night, dusk through dawn, Dohner advises farmers to bring their fowl in at night. But farmers should also remember that “cloudy, rainy weather may embolden them to hunt during the day because it’s darker,” Dohner said.
Younger, less experienced predators may also hunt during less optimal daytime hours.
Dohner said that after a predator attack, farmers should study the area like a crime scene investigation.
“Maybe it’s a domestic animal versus a wild one,” Dohner said. “Take your observations sooner than later. Photos are always better than memory. Take photos with a small ruler, with tracks and bite marks and the whole scene. Investigate the entire area. Musky smells identify some type of predators.”
Sometimes, the evidence is damaged by other birds. Dohner said that sometimes chickens will pick at another dead chicken that was killed by a predator or died of other causes.
“If the feather base is smooth and clean, the bird was plucked soon after kill,” Dohner said. “Beak marks may be found on the shafts. If feathers have small amounts of tissue attached at the base, they were pulled from a dead bird already cold.”
Bruising may indicate the animal was bitten after death. If there’s no bleeding, the bird likely died of natural causes.
In order of effectiveness, Dohner listed techniques to keep predators out: exclusion fencing, secure housing, livestock guardian dogs, llamas, elimination of attractants, reduction of rodents, good husbandry, lighting and fright techniques.
“It’s best to use several techniques,” she said. “Fright techniques are the least productive but usually the first method people suggest to you.”
Unlike drift fencing, meant to keep livestock in, exclusion fencing keeps predators out. Features such as tightly spaced mesh, electric top and scare wires, multi-strand electric and hardware cloth keep predators out. Drift fencing’s spaces are too large. While chicken wire sounds like it should be perfect for keeping birds safe, it’s much to flimsy for the job. But other types of drift fencing may be retrofitted with measures that can help better protect flocks.
“Many of us use drift fencing with our farms because predation was not the problem 50 years ago that it is today,” Dohner said.
She said that wire spacing should be about two to three inches apart near the bottom and about four to six inches apart near the top. Electrifying the top wire may help prevent predators from jumping over the fence.
An apron buried 12 to 18 inches and extending 18 to 24 inches outward can protect a coop, building or fencing.
Specialized fencing can include features such as a solid barrier, an overhang and apron, but usually, that’s much more expensive.
The shelter — or lack of shelter — also makes a big difference in keeping poultry safe. Dohner listed in order of effectiveness coops, runs, tractors, yarded, pastured and free range.
“We have to know that pasturing is the most dangerous way to raise poultry,” Dohner said. “You may need a combination of those methods for different ages of birds, time of year and value of the birds.
Coops should be covered on all sides and with tight fitting doors and windows. Raising them off the ground helps deter rats and snakes. For raccoons, a simple latch offers little deterrent. For costly birds, padlocks could be necessary to keep human predators out.
Electric fencing as a coop perimeter may help, too.
To cover larger poultry runs and tubes, wire, monofilament lines or netting could keep hawks or other large birds out.
Less secure chicken yards or chicken tractors may be fine during the day, but Dohner advises putting the chickens in a safe coop at night.
In addition, it’s important to reduce the places where predators might hide, perch or hunt.
“Make the area less attractive to predators,” Dohner said.
To mitigate the dangers of pastured poultry, Dohner advises keeping livestock guardian dogs enclosed with them, along with returning them to the coop from dusk to dawn.
“Keep roosters who will alert threats,” Dohner said.
Mixed species grazing may also help, as larger animals will discourage smaller predators. Livestock guardian animals could include a llama or donkey.
Even other birds may help deter smaller predators, such as geese, which can be very territorial if one is raised with chicks so they bond.
While fright measures may work initially, “animals habituate to these in a short period of time,” Dohner said. “It’s best if you use motion sensing light or it’s otherwise responsive. Scarecrows and effigies are better if they respond. Music or talk radio is surprisingly good, especially if they have lower sounds. If lighting is on all the time, it can attract roaming dogs and owls.”
Good husbandry measures include closely monitoring birds, removing dead or ill animals, protecting nestlings and hazing predators.