Guest post by Sandi Hopper
I live out in the country. I’m talking “country” here as in the closest traffic light is 20 miles away and the electricity is almost as reliable as Christmas mail service. I can see the next door neighbor’s house only through binoculars and animal control has been defined to me by the local law as “if it’s not wearing a collar, it’s a coyote.”
All of our two-legged and four-legged livestock have the freedom to roam the farm within reason. They’re a comfort to us, happier themselves, and a delight for visitors. But that also makes predator control more challenging. This was a particularly rough summer for unwanted attention from the local wildlife. We have had a lot of traffic by hawks, dogs, coyotes, fox, raccoons, snakes, and even a bobcat.
I’ve arrived on my front porch in time to watch foxes run by three times in 45 minutes – from different directions! I’ve watched a hawk drop delicately, not swoop, down to the ground, walk around, and pretend to be just another chicken. Then it waited until the chickens’ backs were turned to make its move. I’ve had raccoons entice young turkeys (not real bright sticks, those turkeys) to come over to a chicken wire fence, then polish them off right there through the wire.
I have learned a couple of diversionary tactics to discourage these unwanted raiding parties. Most effective has been the obvious: inside at night for lights out. Even the ducks have been trained to come in at night. They can play on the pond or roam the pasture all day but they return to a lit building at dark to be closed in ’til morning.
The chickens, when first trained to return to their coops at night usually have to have at least one object lesson before conforming to the regimen. Any chicken found hiding or roosting outside after dark gets carried into their coop by the feet. They’re usually disoriented for a moment and lay on the floor, trying to focus on the bright light and the gathering circle of curious roommates.
Chickens don’t like to be humiliated by their peers and everyone present gets the message as the offender stands up, shakes off, and runs to a dark corner to sulk. By the second or third night, there are no more laggers.
Safe zones and avenues of escape are important tools for outsmarting country chicken chasers. Like the field fencing that has smaller openings at the bottom perfect for chickens but a little tight for mammals in a hurry. The chickens and ducks can scoot through that like little Marines, leaving their pursuers at least slowed down if not all wet from having to ford the creek between the pasture and the subject fence.
Feeding stations, when used outdoors, are always under cover of raised buildings or leafy trees and within reach of our house. Even our large lawn by the house is discreetly dotted with structures, bushes, arbors and such that make views of roaming chickens difficult from the hills around the farm or even from the sky.
For protection from snakes, we clear not only brush but large rocks from the edge of the pond and the popular parts of the creek banks so the chickens have a better chance of avoiding danger. The chickens choose the cleared spots to travel to water and the snakes tend to seek out rockier and less busy parts of the waterways to sun themselves.
My favorite means of protecting our poultry from marauders is by keeping the birds amidst and comfortable with our other larger animals. Predators depend on stealth and anonymity.
Fox will readily hunt by day but they’re not excited to mix with cows or goats. Our mule has an aversion to anything canine (except our own dogs) and will go after trespassers in a flash. And her pasture is between the chickens and the woods.
Speaking of dogs, our two labs enjoy the pond almost as much as our ducks. So when the ducks head over there, the dogs usually go with. What predator would chance getting in the middle of that? Our cats patrol the backyard and can often be seen dust bathing with the chickens.
Even the guineas have saved many chickens right from the mouths of foxes by emitting their shrill alarms. When they go off, house doors start slamming and birds of every size dive under bushes.
None of this is foolproof and we have had losses occasionally. But every loss has given us new information with which we can better protect the population. And everyone is so much happier with more freedom. Who knew?