Preda­tory dan­gers for poul­try free rangers

The Hamburg Area Item - - Sports - By Tom Ta­tum

Chicken hawk! The term evokes a large winged preda­tor, usu­ally a bu­teo, most likely a red­tailed or red- shoul­dered hawk, in­tent on ter­ror­iz­ing free- rang­ing poul­try. But as my di­min­ished flock re­cently learned, that’s not al­ways the case – ac­cip­iters like goshawks, cooper’s hawk, and even the rel­a­tively diminu­tive sharp- shinned hawk also threaten free- rang­ing chick­ens.

I was re­minded of this last week when a cooper’s hawk picked off one of my hens just a few feet from our front deck. The hen, a large black aus­tralorp, was full grown and had been a re­li­able layer of brown eggs over the past few years. Aus­tralorp hens will tip the scales at 6.5 pounds. A ma­ture cooper’s hawk weighs in at 25 ounces, max, ( about the size of a crow) which means that the hen prob­a­bly out­weighed it by a good five pounds.

For the most part th­ese hawks prey on smaller song­birds and ro­dents. You wouldn’t think they’d at­tempt to bring down a chicken four times their size, but they’re fear­less op­por­tunists and when a free- range chicken is there for the tak­ing ( un­der the right cir­cum­stances) they’ll more than likely be up to the chal­lenge. And while my chicken may not have been “easy pick­ins’” for this bird of prey, the hen was ul­ti­mately no match for its deadly talons. Of course, given the weight dif­fer­en­tial, there was no way this hawk was about to carry its prize away.

When I ar­rived on the scene, the cooper’s was crouched over its kill while snack­ing on the hen’s head and neck. The other eight chick­ens that sur­vived the at­tack hud­dled dis­tress­fully un­der the front porch just a few yards away. When I ap­proached the avian crime scene, the hawk grudg­ingly flew off a short dis­tance be­fore perch­ing in a nearby tree, its sharp eyes still cov­etously trained on my ill- fated aus­tralorp.

I picked up the hen’s still- warm car­cass and car­ried it away from the house to the edge of the wood­lot that bor­ders our front yard, yet still within sight of our liv­ing room win­dows. I fig­ured I might as well let this cir­cle- of- life drama play out to the end while ob­serv­ing Mother Na­ture at work. Within a few min­utes, the hawk re­turned to its kill de­spite the fact that I had just trans­ported the dead hen at least forty yards away. As it re­sumed feast­ing on its din­ner, the cooper’s, in typ­i­cal hawk- like fash­ion, man­tled its prey, a prac­tice where the hawk crouches over its kill and spreads its wings to cre­ate a shield that hides it from other preda­tors.

A few hours passed as the hawk con- tin­ued to con­sume my poor chicken. It’s been es­ti­mated that a cooper’s hawk can eat an amount of food equiv­a­lent to 12 per­cent of its body weight in one day, so this hawk had a lot of din­ing to do. Over the next three days the hawk re­turned a few times each day to nib­ble away at the frozen car­cass. Once or twice it was joined by a sec­ond hawk, most likely its mate, to share the fruits of its preda­tory la­bor. By the end of the week a black vul­ture showed up to clean up what­ever chicken scraps re­mained.

For the most part, birds of prey haven’t re­ally both­ered my free- rangers all that much over the years. Through­out much of the year, th­ese chick­ens for­age un­der the cover of un­der­brush and un­der­story which helps shield them from hawk at­tacks. Also, when the weather is milder, plenty of other prey species, specif­i­cally ro­dents like mice and voles, rep­re­sent the bulk of the hawk’s diet and are gen­er­ally eas­ier to find and catch, which puts far less preda­tory pres­sure on free- rang­ing poul­try.

But over the past weeks two el­e­ments con­spired to make my chick­ens more vul­ner­a­ble to hawk at­tacks. One was the snow and deep freeze which made much of that de­li­cious ro­dent buf­fet in­ac­ces­si­ble to prey­ing hawks. The other was the bar­ren win­ter land­scape which pro­vided no un­der­story shel­ter to shield the for­ag­ing free rangers from ae­rial at­tacks.

Of course, los­ing one of their com­rades in such a vi­o­lent man­ner proved a trau­matic event for the rest of the flock. That evening they were re­luc­tant to aban­don the shel­ter of the porch or the refuge they found in the garage. They were not in­clined to risk ex­po­sure by nav­i­gat­ing the open space back to the coop, some­thing they would nor­mally do be­fore dark­ness fell. But this evening, rat­tled by the hawk at­tack, they held tight be­neath the porch and in the garage un­til I man­aged to shep­herd them all back into the coop/ pen com­plex.

A few weeks ago, one of my leghorn hens daw­dled in re­turn­ing to the coop. Stay­ing out af­ter dark, she was in­ad­ver­tently shut out. I found what was left of her the next morn­ing just be­hind the coop. The ev­i­dence sug­gested she had been the vic­tim of another bird of prey, one that pa­trols the night skies un­der cover of dark­ness: the owl. The fact that only the hen’s head and neck had been de­voured pointed to the cul­prit likely be­ing a great horned owl or a barred owl. Had it been a fox or rac­coon, the un­lucky leghorn’s body would have doubt­less been car­ried off. Such earth­bound preda­tors like rac­coons, foxes, opos­sums, skunks, and even coy­otes also lurk about in the dark­ness, all look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to breech the coop’s poul­try wire and make off with a chicken din­ner,

So, with more harsh win­ter weather in the fore­cast and in­suf­fi­cient cover to pro­tect them, my flock will re­main con­fined to the coop un­til fur­ther no­tice. It was time to cut my losses. Any re­sump­tion of their free- rang­ing for­ag­ing will have to wait un­til spring.

EA­GLE CAM UP AND RUN­NING» Speak­ing of birds of prey, you’ll find the Penn­syl­va­nia Game Com­mis­sion’s Ea­gle Cam is back on­line, of­fer­ing view­ers world­wide 24- 7 ac­cess to live video and au­dio cap­tured at a bald- ea­gle nest in Hanover, Pa. Once again this year, the Ea­gle Cam fea­tures two cam­eras, each equipped with a mi­cro­phone, placed 75 feet high in a tree ad­ja­cent to Codorus State Park. Ea­gles have nested at the tree for more than a decade, and have suc­cess­fully fledged young there many times. To view the Ea­gle Cam, go to the Game Com­mis­sion’s web­site, www. pgc. pa. gov and click on the Hanover Bald Ea­gle Live Stream link in the Quick Clicks sec­tion of the home­page.


Cooper’s hawks can pose a threat to free range poul­try.

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