Predatory dangers for poultry free rangers
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.