Who Killed Our Chickens?

Who Killed Our Chickens?

This past Friday, we went into our barn around 6:00 PM to tuck the critters in for the night. We live in the woods, so we lock up our goats and chickens in their stalls each night a little after dusk, and let them out again the next morning just after dawn.

When I went into the chicken stall, I noticed that there were only 6 hens and our rooster on their roost. We were missing 5 hens. It’s not unusual for one to occasionally get confused, and when we go searching, we usually find her roosting on the fence or in another section of the yard nearby. But five? Five missing was weird, and I immediately had that sinking feeling. I thought perhaps one of us left a gate open, and they had wandered off.

So we popped on some headlamps and went searching. After 10 minutes, I eventually found 3 small piles of feathers near the bottom of our pasture. The next day, after daybreak, I found 2 more. Something had gotten them. Those of you with animals know: it’s traumatic to lose one, let alone five. And it’s even worse not knowing what happened, so you can fix it.

We lost 2 hens last year when we were first starting out, and we *thought* they were taken by a nasty pair of ravens who we often see flying overhead. We thought they were the culprits because we caught one flying off with some chicken carcass in it’s beak as it flew overhead, and one of the hens was still on the ground, in a partially consumed state. Not pretty.

After that event, we created a covered run for the hens with goat fencing along the sides (to keep out the ever-loving goats) and bird netting overhead. But gradually, we got more and more complacent and started letting them free-roam in the pasture again during the day. Even though their covered run had plenty of space, it just seemed better for them to have the whole pasture. We love watching them scratch the dirt for bugs and worms.


So Whodunnit?

The mystery of what took them remains. We think there are a few possible culprits: coyote, cougar, bobcat, bear, or a some kind of bird of prey.  We have seen coyotes, hawks and owls near our property. We saw the blasted ravens with one of our chickens last year. We have heard of bear sightings, and often see bear scat when we run along the trails. We have not seen bobcat or cougar personally, but know of sightings in the area, and have seen some feline scat in the woods, as well.

We think it may be a cougar.

First, the entire pasture is surrounded by 5’ tall 2”x4” welded goat fencing. We carefully walked the perimeter, and there are no gaps under the fence, no sign of excavation or digging. No feathers near the fence itself. So whatever took them went over the fence or came from the air. We know that the cats can jump the fence, and we have heard it’s possible for a motivated coyote to climb one. A bear might also climb over the fence, but that seems less likely.

Second, the sheer number of chickens taken seems high for a coyote or bobcat, or even a hawk. We could see one or even two, but FIVE? That suggests a larger animal, or possibly a pack of animals.

Third, the pattern of feathers doesn’t suggest an airborne strike nor something that would drag the chicken back across the fence. There were only a small number of feathers in each of the areas where the chickens were (presumably) killed, and no carcasses, so they were definitely carried off and eaten elsewhere. There was no trail of feathers, who whatever took them must have carried them in their mouths versus dragging, so we ruled out weasels or raccoons.

Fourth, after walking through there woods surrounding our pasture, I found another, larger pile of feathers where one of the hens must’ve been devoured. I am guessing that perhaps the rest of the hens may have been buried somewhere in the same woods, something we hear happens with cats.

I wish we could narrow down the time. We believe it happened between 1PM and 4:30PM, because our chickens are good about heading into the coop at dusk, and where we found the feathers was as far as away as possible from the barn coop. But it’s technically possible that it was at dusk or even after dark. We presume hawks to be more likely in the day, and cats or owls at dusk.




Now What?

One bitten, twice shy. We simply think we can’t let the chickens free-range any longer, so we plan to expand their chicken run to double it’s size. That should equal an area of roughly 2400 square feet, but unfortunately it’s all gravel. I might look to install a few beds with dirt and plants for them to scratch in.
If it is a cougar, we also need to be a bit more worried about the goats. Our boys are full grown, over a hundred pounds, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they could be targeted. We have to be diligent about locking them in each night at dusk.


Suggested Reading

Here are a few articles I looked at when trying to figure out the quintuple poultry homicide.

  • http://www.backyardchickenelearning.com/how-to-tell-which-predator-is-killing-your-chickens/
  • https://countrysidenetwork.com/daily/poultry/chicken-coops-housing/what-killed-my-chicken/
  • http://ouroneacrefarm.com/poultry-predator-identification-a-guide-to-tracks-and-sign/
  • And if you’d like something to haunt your dreams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ABLQgst6pLA

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