The Great Chicken Caper

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

It's 2 a.m. and George awakens to a noise in the chicken house - for the third night in a row. He jumps out of bed, slips on his clothes and quickly makes his way through the dark house. He grabs a flashlight and his .22 caliber rifle and rushes out the back door. The fully loaded ammunition clip for the rifle is already in his trousers pocket. He prepared well.

Last spring he bought three dozen baby chickens. Now, as the leaves on the sugar maple in the back yard turn crimson red, the chickens are fully mature and vigorous. Their numbers, reduced during the summer by Sunday dinners of fried chicken, were being further reduced by a late-night predator.

At the chicken house, George tastes the dust and hears the panic inside. He slides the ammunition clip into the rifle and chambers a shell. He quickly releases the latch on the chicken house door and jumps inside, closing the door behind him.

George's flashlight beam barely penetrates the thick dust and floating feathers. As he shines the light around the room, he makes out the vague image of a raccoon standing over a dead chicken.

George places the flashlight against the forearm of the rifle and raises it to fire, but the raccoon disappears. George's eyes burn from the dust as he swings the rifle and light inside the small chicken house, searching for the bandit.

He spots the raccoon running to the left against the outside walls, a full 2 feet above the floor. It reminds George of a trick motorcycle rider he saw at the state fair.

Blam! Blam! The .22 caliber bullets slam into the chicken house walls. The crack of the rifle inside the confined area is painfully loud.

All the chickens are on the move, flogging their protector as they fly around the room, hitting the walls and ceiling. Feathers suspend in the air; phantom chickens appear and disappear like ghosts in the thick dust.

George's light reflects off a storm of feathers but he gets a glimpse of the raccoon, still moving to the left.

Blam! Blam! More splinters.

The raccoon stops near the door. Blam! Blam! Blam!

The chicken house door slams open, and a thick cloud of dust, feathers and flying chickens boil out into the cool night air. A great pressure is released. George trips and sprawls on the ground outside the chicken house door. His flashlight is broken and his face scratched by flying chickens, but at least he can breathe.

George raises up on his elbows and watches the chickens disappear into the moonless night. It reminds him of the opening of the Olympic games when the doves are released. The chickens will return in the morning but egg production will be off for a couple of days.

George sneezes and coughs his way back to bed.

Dawn's early light reveals two fatalities in the chicken house; one chicken partly eaten and another chicken that appears to have been shot. The raccoon is nowhere in sight - but it will return.

Similar scenarios are all too common. Our fondness for the taste of poultry is shared by wild animals. Virtually every predator large enough to kill poultry will do so with aggravating regularity. In the Midwest, major predators on poultry include raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels, mink, opossums, bobcats, Norway rats, hawks and owls. If it's big enough to catch and kill poultry, it will.

Even Ol' Shep, that faithful canine companion, may be guilty of high crimes and treason. Dogs are especially damaging to poultry because they enjoy the spirit of the chase. Once they catch and kill a chicken, the chase continues, one chicken after another. The problem is compounded if other neighborhood dogs join the fray, which they often do.

Domestic poultry no longer have the keen skills of their wild ancestors. They can run or fly, of course, but if the attack occurs at night inside a closed building, what's a leghorn to do? Released to the wild and left to their own survival instincts, domestic poultry would soon disappear. Protected and pampered, they cannot compete in the hard game of daily survival, fashioned by thousands of years of eat-or-be-eaten.

There is no malice here. The predator is not intent on making a meal of someone's personal property - the concept of personal property is lost on a hungry predator hustling a meal to stay alive. Domestic poultry often provides that meal, and they're "easy pickins."

Protect your prize pullets by practicing good animal husbandry. Use a solid building to protect poultry at night, and have a well fenced exercise area for day use.

Predators in search of a tasty meal may try to enter the poultry house, but denied entry, they will not hang around and starve. They're not exactly rocket scientists, but predators know enough to move on in response to an empty stomach. Still, the tempting odor of a nearby meal cannot be totally ignored, so they may pay an occasional visit in search of an easy target. If no food is available, the predator will move on to happier hunting grounds.

Problems start the first time the predator gains entry to the poultry house. A meal of even the oldest rooster will light a fire in a predator that never burns out - a fire that guides him back to that same chicken house time and again. The loss of a few egg-laying chickens will not put the family farm in jeopardy, although it's not something to be celebrated. But the nightly loss of a hundred chicks or turkey poults to a marauding raccoon can quickly ruin a major economic investment. One predator, unchecked, can threaten the kids' college tuition, or the interest payment on the bank loan.

Should a predator down a fatted hen, it is important to take immediate steps to either prevent a second successful visit or to remove the predator. The following tips may help reduce additional loss by predators:

Patch Holes

Place a bright light inside the poultry house at night and look from the outside for possible predator entry holes. An empty stomach with an attitude can squeeze through a small hole, so closely examine all potential openings. Predators often get in around the door of the poultry house, so make sure the door fits tight. Hinges should be strong enough to support the door's weight. If the door is sagging, replace or add hinges. Replace broken or rotten boards. Nail sheet metal or boards over holes or large cracks.

Wire

A predator digging under the walls of a building with a dirt floor can be discouraged by a small-mesh wire laid along the ground at the base of the building and nailed about a foot up on the building wall. Be sure to stake the wire to the ground or cover it with something heavy to keep the predator from moving it aside.

Electric Fencing

An electric fence is a handy tool for discouraging predators. Prefabricated electric fences can be rolled out and made operational in a matter of minutes. Home-built electric fences take longer to construct but are cheap to build and maintain. A single electrified wire placed 8 inches from the building and 8 inches above the ground will discourage even the most hungry and persistent predator.

For more protection, add more strands of electrified wire approximately 8 inches apart. It usually takes only one encounter with an electric fence to send a predator the size of a black bear rolling backwards and retreating, full gait, into the night.

Dogs

Place the family dog and dog house near the poultry house, assuming, of course, that Ol' Shep is trustworthy. If necessary, put Ol' Shep on a chain at night to make certain he is within reach of the poultry house if a predator visits.

Light

An outdoor night-light is helpful; the dawn-to-dusk type that comes on automatically is best. The light with an on-off switch works fine too, provided someone remembers to turn it on every evening and off every morning. Still, some predators may become accustomed to the light or be hungry enough to ignore the light.

Traps

If discouraging those pesky critters doesn't work, try capturing them with cage traps or foot-hold traps.

Cage traps will catch most small predators, such as raccoons and opossums, but are ineffective against coyotes. Still, cage traps are useful tools, especially in conjunction with other deterrents, and it's easy to release family pets that wander into these.

Take care when using foot-hold traps if family pets are allowed to roam at night. Ol' Shep can be released from a foot-hold trap with little more than a bruised foot, but that does not achieve the objective of removing the marauding predator. Foot-hold traps must either be covered or removed during the daylight hours to prevent trapping non-target animals.

Close the Door

Finally, the best method of protecting poultry against late-night predators, regardless of how good you are at animal husbandry, must be mentioned: close the poultry house door at night after the chickens are inside. This simple advice is easy to forget and often results in a late-night dash to the poultry house - a trip that has been the undoing of many people.

Witness a friend named Joe who lived in a small Missouri town. Joe was awakened one summer night by a disturbance in the chicken house. He immediately realized his mistake - he had forgotten to close the chicken house door when he finished working in the garden that evening.

Joe rushed out the back door, bare-chested and bare-footed, and grabbed a shovel leaning against the back of the house. The new-mowed lawn was saturated with summer dew. Joe high-stepped toward the chicken house with great stealth and cunningness; a full moon filled the summer sky. Without warning, Joe felt pain in his right foot, heard a clap of thunder and saw a sudden shower of stars.

When Joe didn't return to bed, his wife went looking for him. With the aid of a flashlight she easily followed his path across the wet lawn. She found her man lying flat on his back at the edge of consciousness. Joe's right foot showed two puncture wounds resembling the bite of a large venomous snake, and a world-class knot was emerging on his forehead. In his dash to the chicken house, Joe had stepped on a garden rake lying tines up in the back yard.

Joe hobbled around town for the next few days, explaining to anyone who would listen how someone else left the rake in the back yard - but nobody believed him.

The best offense, as Joe would now tell you, is a good defense. Construct and maintain a solid poultry house and exercise pen and remember to close the door at night, so that you and your poultry can sleep tight.

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