Predators can’t be avoided, but coop doors can help.
If you’ve had chickens for very long, there’s a good possibility that you’ve lost at least one or two birds to a predator. Losing a favorite hen is never fun, and unfortunately sometimes the first sign of predator problems is when we lose that first bird.
While there is a long list of predators that would jump at the chance for a good chicken meal, there are a handful that you will be most likely to encounter in your chicken keeping adventures.
Raccoons are a common and widespread animal throughout North America. While they look cute and charming-in photographs-they will definitely make a meal of eggs, and will even prey on whole adult birds. They prefer to eat the heads, and often the crop and entrails, leaving the rest of the carcass behind.
A group of raccoons will often work together to harass birds through a fence, one spooking the birds and driving them into a corner, the other raccoon grabbing birds as they pile on one another.
Opossum are another animal that prey on chickens. Their preference is chicks and eggs, but under the right circumstances will also attack adult birds, especially if they can slip into the coop and get a bird while it is sleeping. Like the raccoon, the opossum prefers the internal organs over the actual meat, but opossum are also scavengers, and will sometimes eat the entire carcass. An opossum will generally only attack a single bird at a time.
Foxes will carry off poultry, and if they are able to take more than one bird, they will cache some by burying the carcass for a later meal. I once found a duck buried with its head sticking out of the ground…still alive. (Yes, we named it Lucky.) It had minor injuries which we were able to treat, but most birds attacked by foxes are not so fortunate.
Birds of prey will also take out chickens. While there is not taxonomically a bird of prey specifically called a “chicken hawk”, there are three species of hawk that have been often lumped under that colloquial name.
Coopers hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks both prey on birds. While their normal diet is wild birds, they have been known to go after chickens, and bantams are especially vulnerable. The third of the “chicken hawk” species, the Red-tailed hawk, prefers to prey on small mammals and reptiles, but when those are scarce, a Red-tail will happily take out a chicken.
Securing Your Coop
Creating a secure coop area that includes a fenced and covered run is the most surefire way to keep predators at bay. But if you like having your chickens be able to roam freely to take advantage of foraging for insects, and eating seeds and grasses, you’ll have to make a few accommodations to give them a secure place to come home to. Keeping the area around your chicken yard can help deter predators. Don’t have your compost pile too close, so as not to invite raccoons and opossums, and keep brush cleared away to minimize places for predators to hide.
Chickens like to go into their coop at night to roost, and unfortunately the above mentioned predators are more than happy to enter through the front door. Including birds of prey. Coopers hawks are incredibly agile fliers, and have been known to fly in through an open door, even a small one just intended for chickens. Yep, I’ve seen that one too. Fortunately, the chickens were out of the coop at the time, and there was a large enough human door to be able to open and allow the hawk to go on about its merry way. It’s a federal offense to trap or harass a bird of prey, so hands off!
Shutting and securing the coop door when the birds are back in for the night is the best way to keep chickens safe at night. Unfortunately, this means someone has to go out after dark and close and latch the door.
If going out at night, in the cold, or in the pouring rain isn’t your idea of fun, or if you have a job that keeps you away from the farm at night, good news! There are several automatic coop doors available that can do the job for you.
Some of these automatic doors work off a timer. These can be the simplest and possibly least expensive option, but a power outage will mean you need to reset the timer, and might also mean that the door may not close, leaving your chickens vulnerable. Timers will also need adjusted as day length grows longer or shorter, to avoid keeping birds in longer than necessary, or having the door open too long. Other doors work from a photo cell, which will trigger the door to open or close based on the amount of visible daylight.
With either version, make sure the door fits tight in the frame. Clever predators can push their way in through a poorly fitting door, even if it’s closed, and if they can get a grip on a guillotine door, they can lift it up enough to squeeze through. Raccoons are notoriously nimble fingered, and are clever enough work simple latches. A strong latch with a carabineer clip should stop them. But for additional security, a small padlock can provide that extra level. (Just make sure you put the key someplace where you won’t forget it, or slip it into a pocket and not be able to find it.)
Of course, automatic doors do not mean you can get out of visiting your chicken coop on a daily basis. Your birds still need fresh food and water, and you’ll want to gather those wonderful eggs. But in the constant struggle to keep your birds safe from a predator, an automatic door can give you a little peace of mind. No matter what option you choose, your chickens will appreciate your efforts on their behalf!
We’d like to thank Brinsea for sponsoring this article.