What a wonderful surprise I’ve discovered! Less than a mile from my property are several bald eagles overwintering. I can’t imagine that this is their first winter here, but then again I don’t know how I’ve missed them for the past ten years… With the trees now bear of leaves, their large shape and distinguishing white head make them easy to spot.
The bald eagle has quite the regal presence in the landscape… Not only is this majestic bird the national emblem of the United States, they are considered near the top of the food chain in the bird world. Bald eagles don’t receive too many threats and they’ll readily steal the prey another bird has hunted and captured. Their diet consists mostly of fish, but these birds can (and will) eat a wide variety of foods depending on what’s available (birds, reptiles, amphibians, carcasses).
Their preferred habitat is near large bodies of water, staying away from heavily developed areas. The eagles near my property are usually seen perched on the trees overlooking a spring-fed pond or the near-by James River. Though I have seen them flying over my property, I haven’t noticed them hanging around the 3 acre pond in my backyard (perhaps because it’s surround by houses, dogs and trees).
Here’s my dilemma… I’ve chosen to allow my flock to free-range and I am well aware of the risks that poses. I know that I’ll eventually lose a hen to a predator; whether it’s a stray dog, raccoon, fox or an attack from above. I’ve heard many stories of a chicken keeper losing a chick or full grown bird to a hawk or owl, but I hadn’t heard of any attacks from eagles.–So I did a little researching (or hunting) of my own. First I poured through the forums of BackyardChickens.com–looking through the comments and stories shared from fellow chicken keepers throughout the world. I figured if an eagle was a formidable predator of a flock it would be documented on this site. I did read of a few sad incidences where chickens, ducks and geese were attacked and killed by bald eagles, but there were not nearly the amount of attacks that I thought I would find. One photo and comment from this site caught my attention and I contacted the chicken keeper (Kathy) and asked her permission to share her photo and experience with our Community…
I have lots of eagles around me. In fact, I was watching 2 of them yesterday floating on high. I never fail to get a thrill watching them. I don’t know that I’ve lost any birds to them. Hawks yes, eagles…I just don’t know. Only time I’ve ever seen them close was when I threw a dead raccoon out back, and there was an eagle with the vultures. In fact, I’ve driven up to a stop sign, and seen an eagle on the ground eating roadkill. We have a lot of them around me, most are year round residents. I’m near a very large lake (Orange Lake, Florida) that has a lot of eagles, so they probably would rather fish than get chicken. My flock does free range, but they have a lot of cover. They have a barn and a shed they can all run in, and there are several large live oaks they can get under. My chickens are pretty savvy when it comes to overhead predators, and I have a lot of resident crows that sound the alarm when a hawk shows up. I haven’t seen any eagles on the ground near my birds, but it’s not very wide open, so I don’t think it’s comfortable for them. -Kathy
Next I called upon the Community Chickens facebook followers to share their experiences and thoughts on this subject. Here are the questions I asked and a few of the over 60 comments I received!
I have several bald eagles overwintering near my property. My flock free-ranges during the day and I know that an eagle is capable of making a meal out of one of my hens, but my questions are: Have any of you ever witnessed a bald eagle attacking a chicken? What measures do you take to protect your flock from overhead predators?
In addition to the numerous eagle sightings and even a few attacks, there were several more comments sharing the fact that hawks are a flocks’ major threat from above. Hawks (and owls) are year-round residents of the United States and their diet consists mainly of small birds–including chickens. Bald eagles would prefer to dine on fish or carrion, but as the Community shared above: if a fish isn’t available, a meal of a hen is not out of the question…
The Community also shared ways to protect the flock from avian predators: covering the run with netting or chicken wire; having ample natural places for free-ranging hens to take cover (trees, shrubs, coops, sheds); a guard dog or a protective rooster.
A few facebook followers even noticed that I had missed an additional eagle in my photo!
And my favorite comment!
In the final phase of my bald eagle research, I went to the experts…
I contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and asked their opinion. (See below):
Thanks for the question. Bald Eagles are extremely opportunistic–they are both hunters and scavengers, and will take a wide variety of food in whatever form or habitat they can find it. Because they are better at hunting in aquatic environments than on land, domestic chickens do not seem to be a common target. In fact the Birds of North America Online (THE go-to source for North American bird info) has no mention of domestic fowl in the Food Habits section for Bald Eagle: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/506/articles/foodhabits
I’ve copied the most relevant info below (BNA is a subscription service):
To capture live prey, soars overhead to visually locate the item, then suddenly stoops and attempts to capture such items with 1 or both feet. Repeatedly stoops on waterfowl on the water but often with poor success. Most prey taken to a nearby perch site for consumption, although small items may be consumed on the wing. In areas with high concentrations of Bald Eagles, successful foragers are often chased. In such cases, successful foragers select perches away from the foraging area for less conspicuous consumption of prey. Items taken as carrion that are too large to carry off are eaten on site, such as salmon carcasses on gravel bars, duck and goose carcasses, deer, and occasionally domestic livestock (cows, sheep, pigs). Very few documented cases of predation on live livestock; Bald Eagles implicated in cases attributable to Golden Eagles (Phillips and Blom 1988, DellaSala et al. 1989, Marr et al. 1995).
There would be more cause for concern with Golden Eagles. That said, it is certainly possible that a Bald Eagle would try to take a free range chicken, particularly if there are population pressures on the more reliable food sources. It is worth monitoring the situation, and please stay in touch!
Public Information Specialist
I want to thank Backyard Chickens, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and our Community for sharing their experiences, knowledge and advice! Continue to share your eagle (or hawk) sightings, stories and solutions to attacks in a comment below…