We have all at some stage lost precious poultry to predators.
There will always be ‘something out there’ after our beloved feathered friends. Whether it is ‘something’ looking for an easy meal or just for sport it is heart-breaking when we discover ‘something’ has attacked our chickens and left a scene of death and carnage. We all love our chooks and invest time and money in setting up our laying flocks so it makes good sense to be aware what predators are out there. Especially when we grow fond of our hens, name them and count them as family pets then the loss/es can be very hard to bear for everyone. Replacing laying hens cannot be done overnight so it is worth making sure your hen house and run are 100% predator proof and that pest traps are in place (and set!) to catch the culprits before they do any harm.
The first step to deterring predators is to identify them.
Each ‘killer’ has his method of entry, attack and kill, so if you wish to play detective then be observant and look for clues. Examine where, how, and when birds turn up dead, mutilated or missing and by a process of elimination work out which animal/bird could be your prime suspect.
HAWKS AND FALCONS
Hawks are usually the first on the prime suspect list and often take the blame for a missing chook. We continually hear stories about hawks taking not only silkies and bantams but also the larger heavy breeds like plymouth rocks. Light breed like silkies would make easy pickings for a quick hawk lunch due to their size and inability to see danger past their obscuring, fluffy topknots. When it comes to the heritage heavy breeds it is usually the younger progeny that become easy prey for predators. Please keep your precious silkies (and pekin bantams) happy and long-lived in secure, well covered pens. Deterring predators is always the best option.It is good to know that a hawk’s diet consists mainly of 'road kills', possums, rabbits, hares and hedgehogs and is not based entirely on picking off our beloved chooks. One point to consider is that if the hawks favour ‘road kill’ it is possible that your chook could have been the victim of another predator… and the hawk is just getting his share…don’t always presume he has done the deed.
The harrier hawk (kahu) is the graceful glider we see most days soaring slowly over our paddocks forever looking for something to eat. They soar seamlessly in wide circles with slow steady flight, remaining on the wing for hours without apparent fatigue. They always look as if they do not have a care in the world although they are frequently harried by other birds like the persistent spur-winged plovers and annoying magpies. The hawk once he has had a taste often comes back for more. Well I suppose you can liken it to us returning to the fridge when we are feeling peckish and after a snack! We recommend when setting up your chook area/run pay special attention to making it as predator proof as possible from the beginning. Soft bird netting similar to that used by the vineyards placed over the top of the chook run/s will work well and also help keep out sparrows and other ‘over the top’ visitors. Another option used to deter hawks is fishing line suspended over a chook run with flags, bags or compact discs dangling from it.…but for some of us this does not always look that flash!
When our place was just a bare paddock we witnessed a hawk brazenly swoop down and grab a half grown chicken and fly off with it. We can recollect the chicken screeching for dear life as it became airborne and sailed down the paddock. That was 9 years go. Since then we put up windbreaks, planted lots of trees, set up secure hen houses and runs with netting over the top for all our young birds and invested in guinea fowl and peafowl and have given the hawks/falcons little or no opportunity for any easy pickings. Touch wood we have not lost anything to Mr Hawk or Mr Falcon that we know off…the guineas raise a good alarm call and notify us of any intruders day and night in our yard. We also trained our kids to hawk clap…run outside and clap loudly when a hawk soars past the house. Novel idea! It works and the kids and us still do it! Another option if you live rural is to give your hens the companionship of a big, beautiful rooster. He will not only strut his stuff and look after his ladies by calling them over when he finds a tasty tit-bit but he will also do his best to keep a watchful eye and act as their guardian and protector. Nothing like having a man about the house! The harrier hawk might be the first bird that comes to mind as your number one chook thief but have you considered the NZ falcon – ruthless, fearless and a lethal killer. The New Zealand falcon is a supreme aerial hunter and almost always takes live prey on the wing. Mainly by watching from a vantage point and making a fast direct flying attack and either striking or grasping the prey with their feet which are equipped with sharp talons. After it catches a bird, it takes it to a plucking post, and kills its prey with a quick powerful bite to the neck. It then plucks the feathers and eats the entire bird. This fearless bird will attack and kill animals larger than itself including birds such as white-faced herons, kereru (wood pigeons), ducks and pheasants.
Mr Falcon fortunately had not shown too much interest in our chook area until we got some lovely, white fantail doves and then he suddenly appeared. Up close he is an awesome bird. Early one morning we witnessed him attack in mid-air, the dove survived only because it tumbled some 30 meters into a water trough below. The falcon swooped back to retrieve the dove but could not see it so he raced back to where we were standing in the chook area and tried again for another bird literally right in front of us. He was determined, ruthless and seemed to have no fear of humans. After a couple of close calls we put the doves in an aviary for some rest and recuperation and on letting them out about a month later Mr Falcon was back literally within hours. The doves now have their own large, permanent aviary and thank us daily! It is usually the young juvenile falcons that are literally starving to death that go for anything they can catch, unfortunately that includes domestic birds like our chickens but in the battle for survival you cant blame this supreme bird for the need to survive. We have been told recently of a predatory bird being very brazen and entering a hen house in pursuit of prey…we would think this would be a falcon as this fits its character. Falcons are known to create havoc in the farmyard amongst ducks, poultry, pigeons and turkeys, they are fearless of man and seek out both open and settled areas. It is important to be aware that both the endemic NZ falcon and the native Harrier hawk are classified as endangered and are now both protected species here in NZ.
DOGS AND CATS
It is surprising how many chooks are purchased to replace those lost to ‘death by dog’. The culprit is usually always someone else’s canine pet…the neighbour’s dog, a visiting dog or a stray dog. The scene is usually devastating: chickens or ducks found dead in the yard/coop, bodies scattered everywhere, usually maimed, wounded and without any missing parts. Dogs mostly kill for sport. When the bird stops moving, the dog loses interest, which is why you often find the victim of a canine attack near where it was killed. Correct housing of poultry is a good investment. A house with a dedicated run (1.8m high predator proof netting and preferably top netting) will give peace of mind when you are not at home that your chooks are safe. Dogs can also prowl underneath raised pens, biting at protruding feet, and pulling off legs. We have heard all sorts of horror stories. One was about a visiting terrier biting off the wings of some young guinea keets as they huddled to get away in the lowest part of an A frame. The dog tore off the wings as they stuck through the hexagonal chicken wire. We recommend small square wire mesh that keep out most predators, rats and most mice.
Cats, both feral and domestic, are killers on a phenomenal scale. They are natural borne hunters not only stalking prey by day but also specialising in nocturnal hunting. Where we live our experience is more with dumped, unwanted domestic cats and kittens. They set up home in our sheds and shrubbery and stalk around our chook area at night looking for easy prey. We know when we have a cat prowling: other than the obvious hungry kittens looking in the sliding doors on the deck (no kidding!) or half chewed rabbit carcases or when the birds are generally restless at night or more recently fresh paw prints in the morning frost around the scrap bucket(left outside overnight!) Cats will eat entire chicks and ducklings, but leave the wings and feathers of growing birds. If on a rare occasion a cat kills a mature chicken or duck, it will eat the meatier parts and leave the skin and feathers scattered around. Our biggest loss is usually with the partridge and pheasant that we lose due to them being startled by stalking cats and cats climbing on, up and over our flights.
FERRETS, WEASELS AND STOATS
Mustelid is the name for the family to which stoats, ferrets and weasels belong. They were introduced to New Zealand in the 1880s in an attempt to control the rabbit population which was threatening to get out of control. However their own numbers have increased dramatically and created a separate problem because they also prey on native birds, eggs and chicks. Mustalids also rob the nests of flighted birds and frequently cause havoc and death in our chook runs.
Like dogs; stoats/weasels and ferrets also kill for sport. If you find bloodied bodies surrounded by scattered feathers, you were likely visited by one of them. Fionna’s first experience of a stoat was when she happened to catch him finishing off the deed. He ran past the window with a limp guinea keet in his mouth. She gave chase, barefoot over gravel with a short piece of alkathene pipe. On cornering him, he refused to drop the dying keet so she hit him with the pipe again and again until he stopped moving. On returning to the ‘crime scene’ it was devastating: dead and dying bodies everywhere. The stoat had tunnelled under the coop and then killed, maimed and dragged out all the guinea keets. He killed nearly 13 that day only a few managed to escaped and hide in the grass. Fionna felt no remorse for killing the stoat after the senseless devastation she had witnessed. He was fast and lethal. She had only just hung up the washing (close to the coop) about half an hour earlier and the keets had been enjoying a dust bath in the morning sun. Stoats, and their cousins, the ferrets can attack larger chooks out free ranging – look for bite marks on the face of the bird, back of the neck or the rear end where the bird has tried to turn and escape from its predator. Birds bitten around the rear end, and have their intestines pulled out, have been attacked by a stoat or ferret.
The ferret is the largest of the three mustalids, adults measuring around 60cm from nose to tail. It has a creamy-coloured coat, with black tips to the fur. The stoat is smaller 34-40cm nose to tail. It is very thin, and about half the size of a rabbit. It has a chestnut-brown coat, which turns white in winter, a light-coloured belly, and a bushy, black-tipped tail. It is an extremely fierce fighter, killing its prey with a sharp bite behind the ear. To catch birds, it will first mesmerise them by circling around and around them and then it will pounce. Stoats will kill more than they need for food if they have the opportunity. They will also attack prey much larger than themselves. Both the ferret and stoat hunt mainly at night, and are a very good climbers, which means they can steal eggs and chicks and even kill sitting hens on nests. The weasel is much smaller, no more than 20cm from nose to tail with a thin, muscular body and small head. Weasels, although small, will attack prey much larger than themselves. They kill most of their prey underground, and are usually found where there are plenty of mice, in gardens and near buildings, rather than in open paddocks. All three have very elongated bodies and long tails allowing them to climb well and to hunt down burrows and warrens. We recently caught a weasil and in the processes of trapping him he managed to run up the inside of 2m metal pipe standing on its end. He was superfast and had sharp teeth! All have very good hearing and a strong sense of smell. And in our opinion all three need to be trapped – not only for the sake of our chooks but all the native wildlife out there. Set live capture traps baited with dead rabbit/rat/mouse or an egg. It is important to position traps along pathways where the animals tend to run…say alongside a hen house or shed. Keep trapping because if you catch one the rest of the family will surely be about too.
Rats and mice are a particularly insidious type of predator. They’re everywhere…and …well…breed like mice!! They invade any time of year, but get worse during autumn and winter when they move indoors seeking food and shelter. Rats eat eggs and chicks, and both rats and mice eat copious quantities of feed and spread disease. To add insult to injury, rodents also gnaw holes in housing, and burrow underneath, providing entry for other predators. Rats will carry off chicks and ducklings and leave older ones chewed up. They will bite or gnaw on the hocks of older birds. Ground and flighted birds in aviaries can make easy pickings for rats too. Rats tunnel in from the outside and often their presence goes unnoticed till bird numbers start to decline. Their tunnels are usually well hidden under the ground cover, flax plants or tussock. They kill their prey on the ground and drag it back into their tunnels to be stored or eaten. When building aviaries dig wire mesh about a foot into the ground and curving away from the aviary as this will act as a deterrent for digging predators. Also be smart how you feed out to your birds by using predator proof feeders.
Whether or not you find evidence, you can safely assume you have a rodent problem. Discourage rodents by eliminating their hide-outs: raise hen houses off the ground on blocks or posts, move movable coops daily, keep hen houses simple structures avoiding roofing papers and walls with cavities where rodents can hide and live. Reduce the amount of scraps you feed out and be sensible about where you position and what you put in your composting bins especially if near the chook area. Store feed in containers with tight lids and avoid or sweep up spills. Purchase a step-on feeder; here at Appletons we have some great vermin proof step-on feeders in stock. By smartly housing and feeding your birds you can get on top of the rat, mouse and sparrow populations and cut down on contamination and at the same time save yourself a fortune in feed. Open feeders and feed thrown on the ground will only increase rodent populations.
Lots of predators love eggs: remember an egg is a highly nutritious, portable meal! Dogs, cats, rats, hedgehogs, wekas, pukekos, possums, stoats, ferrets and weasels are all suspect when it comes to eggs disappearing. Rats and hedgehogs make off with the whole egg carefully rolling it away. Hedgehogs are also known to kill chooks sitting on nests. Hedgehogs carry disease and we recommend humanely dispatching them if found in your chook area. Best time to catch hedgehogs is when they are on the move at night. They are usually the ones sneaking about rolling duck eggs out from under the houses and leaving them half eaten for us to tread on the next morning. The rat will roll the egg to its larder the hedgehog will roll it a distance to eat it. We once discovered a rat’s treasure trove of duck eggs rolled very skilfully through a tiny gap and under a drum for later consumption. Weka
and pukeko are typical egg thieves returning daily to steal eggs from nest boxes usually making a hole in the egg and consuming its contents or making off with it. Pukeko and weka are also lethal when it comes to killing ducklings and young chickens. Recently we experienced this first hand. We first noticed mainly half eaten duck eggs lying around early one morning. They had been pulled out
from under the hen houses where our Muscovy ducks sit. Then one day following we found a dead, chewed duckling and three of our 9 week old brown shaver pullets dead outside their house. The shaver girls had been adventurous and jumped out the chook house window (We left it pen!) to have an early scratch around...except Mr Weka got them first. He killed all three - we reckon he was lethal and fast and it must have been quick using his powerful legs and strong big beak. All three had their heads bitten, eyes were gone and one had been de-fleshed on the neck and head. We set the live capture traps baited with the dead shaver pullets...and bingo ...he came back on dusk and we got him...caught in action. What an awesome bird the weka is up close. We love our native birds so relocated him to a forestry block a good distance away!
Keeping grass, weeds, and brush mowed and short around the hen house/s and yard and in the chook area goes a long way to deterring predators. Many four-legged creatures don't like to expose themselves to cross an open field. For free range poultry, moving the housing every couple of days confuses predators, or at least makes them suspicious. A house with a solid plywood floor is superior to portable housing with plastic skirting as predators can sneak in under the flaps.
INVEST IN A TRAP
If you have a problem with predators that comes back repeatedly, setting traps is best. We have live capture cage traps set 24/7 around our chook area. This is perfect trap to catch feral cats, ferrets, stoats, possums and rats. It is an ideal trap around pets and children. The mechanism is activated as the animal treads onto the plate to reach the bait, this releases the door and closes the trap.There is no way of the animal getting back out once the trap has been fired. Once baited and set this trap can be safely left with no risk of injury to children, birds or animals and when a target species is captured, the trap and animal can be handled with complete safety. If you use a live trap with the intent of releasing the predator in some far off location, be aware that many animals are territorial and eventually find their way back home. For some of our predators the best option is to humanely euthanise them…we will leave the options up to you! A selection of recommended traps can be found on our poultry supplies tab under traps on our website.
Hens with slice wounds along their backs get them after being repeatedly mated by sharp-clawed roosters. Back of head wounds on hens can also be caused by overzealous roosters. It is best practice to remove any injured birds and keep separate till the wounds have healed before placing back with rest of the flock. Especially hens with ripped backs (caused by mating) we recommend removing the hen for the rest of the season so her wounds can completely heal and skin thicken and she can moult and grown a new set of feathers. Sharp claws/spurs can be trimmed on roosters and jackets sewn for hens that are the rooster’s ‘favourites.’
Feather pecking and cannabalism
Injury and death can also be inflicted by chooks on other chooks. Feather pecking is not confined to poultry but is also common in pheasants, turkeys, partridges, parrots and a variety of other birds when these are kept commercially. The severity of feather pecking in poultry flocks can range from gentle feather pecking to an extreme and aggressive form recognised as cannibalism. A degree of feather pecking maybe considered a natural preening process and also part of the natural establishment of the pecking order, but under deprived conditions it results in considerable health and welfare problems.
Feather pecking is normally associated with back feathers, and may progress to the tail and the whole body. Excessive feather pecking may be a consequence of a nutritional deficiency or unsatisfactory housing conditions that result in bullying. Overcrowding of birds in particular can encourage feather pecking. Cannibalism may follow on from feather pecking especially if feed is deficient, but may also arise independently. Cannibalism has been observed as starting with the pecking of fresh wounds in the back or excretory channels of a hen by nearby birds. This action is observed by other birds, which react similarly. Such pecking does not appear to be aggressive in character but to be part of normal feeding behaviour. The attacked birds are usually silent and make little attempt to escape. Pecking often continues until part of the intestine is obtained. Death follows, usually within 10 minutes, but pecking of the corpse continues.
Removal of the pecked bird is urgent and the cause must be identified and rectified. A hen might simply have prolapsed and as the protruding red tissue attracts other chickens to peck they will eventually pull out her intestines. The same can happen with heavily moulting birds or young birds when growing new pin feathers. Other signs of cannibalism are missing toes and wounds around the top of the tail of growing chickens.
Squashed and suffocated birds
If you find dead birds that have been flattened, usually in the corner of a house or run , then some kind of predator has entered at night and frightened them and in trying to get away the birds have piled into a corner or against a wall and the ones on the bottom have suffocated. This sort of thing happens most commonly where larger number of young birds are housed or penned. Similarly, panicked ducks may stampede and trample one another. Shut pop-holes on dusk to avoid this unnecessary loss and with young birds place low perches to encourage them to perch rather than huddle.
Thank you Alison Holmes for the brilliant photos of the magestic NZ falcon and harrier hawk. Alison rehabilitates falcons and hawks that have been rescued or injured. Thanks Ali!
Gordon and Fionna Appleton
Appletons Hen Houses and Poultry Supplies
This newsletter was published 25th July 2012