Connecticut’s state motto: "He who is transplanted still sustains." This is so fitting! We moved in November of 2013 from a rural/suburban New England town to our current residence in Connecticut, and have been fighting ever since to sustain our dwindling flock of chickens. While we had run-ins with predators at our old haunt---including raccoons, hawks and coyote---it all seemed within reason and under control. We would react to the issue, tighten up watch, limit free ranging for a while, and then peace would return to the poultry realms of our backyard.
However, when we moved, the ground was already frozen, preventing us from digging down and properly installing a fenced-in pen. No worries, I figured, we can free range some before the local wildlife figures it out. But I had no idea of the wild kingdom beyond my backyard. Our new property abuts a nature preserve that runs down to a sizable lake, and while we were settling in and enjoying the views the predators were scoping out our flock. They pegged our birds before we even finished unpacking our boxes. We have since expended gargantuan efforts to ensure our birds’ safety, but it is and will likely continue to be an endless game of cat and mouse. Still, we’re fighting the good fight and do what we can to keep the girls protected. Based on our experience, I've listed some measures you can take to limit losses due to predation, and to keep your flock healthy, happy, and laying.
Predator pee and 7 more ways to keep your flock safe
1. Build (or buy) a tight coop. Make sure the latches are secure, requiring agility and multiple steps to manipulate. Raccoons are remarkably dexterous and they, along with many other hungry critters, are phenomenally persistent. When you think about it, their primary objective, full-time job and full-blown passion is to get into your coop. If there is a weakness, they will exploit it, so make sure your coop is solid. And don't underestimate squeezability: weasels will slink through holes just 2" wide! If you have holes in your coop, cover the hole with 1/4" or 1/2" hardware cloth.
2. Bury your run wire. Our enclosure, 8 ft. fencing buried approximately 4 in. deep, keeps out the lurkers, diggers and climbers, including foxes, coyotes, and other ground predators. (It also keeps out pests that might be attracted to eggs or feed, such as skunks or other small rodents.) Ideally the fence would be buried 12 in. and concreted in, but we haven’t undertaken that effort---a backbreaking one given the rocky, rooty soil we contend with here in New England. To counteract the effects of erosion and digging, we've lined the base of the fence with rocks. We used 4 ft. T-posts and extended the height by lashing to them stakes of oak; we used wire-ties to secure the oak posts and wire to affix the fencing. We have a mixed medium fencing solution: the bottom 4 ft. is 2 in. x 3 in. coated welded wire and the top 4 ft. is chicken wire. While chicken wire is not hefty enough to keep stronger nocturnal predators like raccoons out , it does serve to keep the chickens in. Activity in our yard coupled with other precautionary measures we've taken have kept predator invasions to a minimum during the day, when the girls are out in the run clucking around.
3. Limit free ranging. Many people can free range their flock with no problems, but unfortunately, this doesn't work in our particular situation. We can only let our hens roam when we are outside with them. This is far from the ideal I had envisioned: chickens clucking and cackling around the yard, eating ticks and grubs; living the good life of free range birds. But I’ve had to give up on all that (for now) because it caused the untimely death of too many-a bird in her prime. "Live free or die," noble as it is, is not the motto of our chickens (just the state of New Hampshire---who knew?). They have a good-sized pen, I hang cabbage for them to peck at, and we do what we can to get them out to range several times a week. I keep scratch on hand to lure them back to their pen when necessary. We recently got a phenomenal Border-Collie puppy whom I’m hoping to train to stay with the flock when they’re out ranging; I will report back on our progress.
4. Cover your run. We used bird netting to cover the pen and protect the girls from avian predators. We were really reluctant to do this because it is a pain to maintain, but a grown hawk can make a meal of a full-sized hen, and we were getting hit hard and often. A hawk kill is always the messiest and grizzliest (apart from raccoons... they are really demonic). Speaking of…
5. Lock 'em up at night. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal hunters, and we had issues with them when we were late in closing up the coop. We installed an automatic door that opens and closes at set times. While not necessary to ensure the safety of a flock, we've found that it provides peace of mind and eliminates human error – it’s difficult to consistently close the coop after the girls return to it and before night-fall. It’s a tight window, especially when you have young kids to tend to, dinnertime is hectic, etc. And there are added benefits. We LOVE not having to run home if we’re having dinner out or with friends, and it has reopened the possibility of overnight trips for us. A WIN-WIN if running power to your coop is an option. Alternatively, there are now battery-powered and solar-powered doors on the market. This effort was also part of our “self-sustaining coop” initiative. We didn't want to rely on the good graces of neighbors (being new to the neighborhood and all) if we wanted to go out to dinner. I will write more on our progress towards that end soon.
6. Eliminate food AND water outside of the coop. We keep all feed and water inside---even before our move we found outside food and water attracted predators and pests. Ugh!
7. Provide hiding spots. Our run has a good deal of natural cover. Last time we found a hawk in the pen (before we covered it with aviary netting) several girls were shrouded by the snarly, brambly branches of a bush. You can use wood and sticks to create protective areas if they don’t occur naturally.
8. Mark it with predator pee. We hang vials of predator pee (the wolf variety) around the perimeter of the run and routinely refresh them. This is an excellent, easy and affordable precautionary measure to take. It does not deter raptors, and when frozen doesn't deter anything at all, but it seems to scare off coyote, foxes, coons, and all manner of ground-critters so long as temps stay above freezing. And in case you're wondering - though it seems the chickens should be made uneasy by the scent, they do not seem bothered in the slightest. Try it if you haven't already - your hens will thank you.
I know all these measures sound like a lot---and we didn't undertake them all at once. In fact, at first all we had was a coop and a 4-foot fence. We took each measure in response to an attack, or several. Many times I've felt beaten down, ready to wave my white flag and slink back to the pale, tasteless "organic free-range" variety of eggs they hustle at the grocery store. But at this point my husband says we cannot retreat in battle---he is determined to defeat the local wildlife in this war over dinner.
I know I’ll need a growing arsenal of tricks up my sleeve to keep the pillagers out, the girls safe, and the eggs rolling in. The My Pet Chicken Handbook is a great resource for this. I wish I'd had it before my move. Even though I've had chickens for years, I could have saved many of my hens if I'd understood all the risks of the flock management style I originally envisioned for my new location. How many of you, like me, have changed the way you've managed your flock compared to what you did when you first got chickens---and why? Was it due to a move? A new coop? Predator issues you didn't anticipate? Please share in the comments!