While chickens are a natural addition to many farms and homesteads due to their versatility and small size, they are unfortunately among the most predator-prone of all livestock. Free-range chickens are particularly at risk.
In many cases, when a predator visits your backyard flock, you will not see the culprit. Instead, you will have to examine the scene of the crime like a detective, searching for clues as to what happened.
Here are the predators that Kansans will be most likely to battle, along with signs to look for and tips for thwarting the intruder.
Hawks present the biggest threat in the colder months. Resident winter hawks, such as the red-tailed, pose the biggest threat, although hawks can also be an issue during migration season. Red-tailed hawks will observe the flock from a high perch for several days before deciding to attack. Smaller chickens are frequently targeted first. Hawks, of course, swoop in from above to take their prey, hitting it at high speeds. Falcons will dispatch a chicken with a blow from a clenched fist. Large hawks can kill a chicken while sitting on the ground, but they rarely do so and indeed may be at a distinct disadvantage if there is a protective rooster in the flock. A single hawk will usually take only one chicken a day, never more than two.
A hawk may carry a chicken for a short distance, but never far. There will usually be a pile of feathers at the site of the impact, and another at the place where the hawk ate its prey. The feathers are usually not scattered around unless the wind is blowing strongly. How much of the carcass will remain depends on whether the hawk was interrupted while eating. A hawk will usually start eating at the neck or breast area and work its way back, tearing the meat from the bones. The neck may be broken, but otherwise the skeleton will be left intact. While some chicken keepers report that hawks invariably consume the head, personal experience suggests that the red-tailed hawk, at least, almost never does.
Hawks are among the hardest predators to prevent. Smaller flock owners frequently opt to house their chickens in a fully enclosed coop and run, only allowing them to forage when someone is present to watch over the flock. Flocks kept within a reasonably small area of poultry netting can be protected with a network of clear fishing line strung above the pen; when the hawk tries to swoop in on its prey, it will unexpectedly hit the fishing line and be deterred from further attempts. Large flocks can be protected by livestock guardian dogs. Flocks of any size will be safer if moved frequently, as this disruption makes hawks warier.
Owls, most notably the great horned owl, only cause issues if the chickens are outdoors at night, and they rarely attack full-grown chickens. They may either carry their prey off to an elevated perch or eat it on the spot, particularly if the chicken is fairly large. Despite their reputation for regurgitating owl pellets, owls feasting on fresh chicken do not indiscriminately swallow everything, but pluck their prey first. Like hawks, owls are satisfied with only one chicken at a time, two at most.
An owl attack may leave very little trace. If a chicken was outdoors at night and has disappeared without a trace, an owl is a possibility. A small pile of feathers may be left behind, and more may be found at the base of a fence post or another suitable perch. Closer examination of the feathers may reveal shattered quill ends. Should the owl decide to eat its catch on the spot, it will usually leave the majority of the carcass, eating only the head and sometimes a wing. Should an owl be unsuccessful in an attack, the survivor will likely be scalped.
A surefire way to prevent owl attacks is to lock chickens indoors at night.