What's Killing My Chickens?

The Poultry Predator Detective Manual


By Gail Damerow

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For backyard chicken keepers and large-scale farmers alike, the single greatest challenge is protecting poultry from predators. What’s Killing My Chickens? is the ultimate guide to identifying the culprit behind a coop intrusion and ensuring safety for the flock. Often, by the time an attack is discovered, the predator has already left the scene. Best-selling author and chicken expert Gail Damerow uses the style of a detective manual to teach readers how to follow clues such as tracks, trails, scat, and other signs to pinpoint the attacker. Profiles describe key habits of the possible predators — ranging from raptors to rodents, foxes to bullfrogs — and provide the best techniques for blocking their access to the coop and yard, including removing attractants, using poultry guardians and lighting, and installing the most effective type of fencing. This empowering book offers essential knowledge, and peace of mind, for every chicken keeper.



Many people deserve thanks for their hand in helping develop this book. Among them are those who took time from their busy lives to fill gaps in my knowledge: Rebecca Waters, the Wolverine Foundation; Jackie Marsden, Squirrel Refuge; Dr. Eric Yensen, professor emeritus, College of Idaho; Dr. Gail R. Michener, professor emeritus, University of Lethbridge; Jeff Beane, herpetologist, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences; Dr. James O. Farlow, crocodilian expert, Purdue University; and the ever patient Dr. Eugene S. Morton, professor emeritus, York University, who patiently responds to my constant barrage of bizarre bird questions.

Thanks go also to the poultry keepers who provided firsthand accounts of their own experiences with poultry predation: the late Bethany Caskey, my favorite illustrator; the Chicken Chick, Kathy Shea Mormino; Victoria Redhed Miller, author, Pure Poultry; Dave Holderread, Holderread Waterfowl Farm; James Stockton, Stockton Farms; Paul K. Boutiette, founder, eggcartons.com; Pamela Art, retired publisher/president, Storey Publishing; Diana Mitchell, Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiast; Celeste Tittle, Ham & Eggs Ranch; and Frieda McArdell, backyard pond builder extraordinaire.

A big thank-you goes to all the folks at Storey Publishing, particularly editor Deb Burns, who shepherds my manuscripts through the publishing process, and photo editor Mars Vilaubi, who tolerantly tutors me on how to take decent photographs.

And finally, thanks to my forbearing husband, Allan, who surely looks forward to enjoying dinner conversations that do not involve poultry predators.


On Becoming a Detective

PART ONE: The Offense

1. Scene of the Crime

Poultry Predation

Egg Predation

Blaming the Wrong Critter

2. Who Coulda (or Couldn'ta) Dunnit?

Range and Habitat

Seasonal Patterns

Daily Patterns

Predatory Cycles

3. Sleuthing for Clues

Eyewitness Evidence

Mammal Signs

Bird Signs

4. Foiling the Perps

Eliminate Points of Entry (best plan)

Discourage Predators (good idea)

Eliminate Predators (bad idea)

5. Fence Defenses

Fence Selection

Mesh Fences

Electric Fences

Secure Gates

6. The Poultry Perspective

Vision: Prey versus Predator

Reaction to Predators

PART TWO: The Suspects

Hawks and Eagles

Red-Tailed Hawk

Other Buteos





Great Horned Owl

More Owls

Raccoon Family


Coati and Ringtail

Dog Family

Red Fox

More Foxes


Gray Wolf

Domestic Dog

Weasel Family

Long-Tailed Weasel

More Weasels

More Mustelids

Cat Family


More Cats

Bear Family

Black Bear

More Bears



Striped Skunk

More Skunks


Ground Squirrels

More Rodents

Corvids and Gulls

American Crow

More Corvids


Reptiles and Amphibians

Rat Snakes

More Colubrids

American Bullfrog

Snapping Turtles

Alligators and Crocodiles





Metric Conversion

More Expert Chicken Advice from Gale Damerow

Share Your Experience!

On Becoming a Detective

My first flock of chickens came with a 1-acre (0.4 ha) ranchette in a rapidly suburbanizing area, where the chief threats were dogs, rats, and ever-tightening zoning regulations. For the past 35 years, however, my husband, Allan, and I have happily raised chickens and other poultry on a densely wooded Tennessee farm at the end of a gravel lane, where we feel privileged to occasionally spot a bobcat, coyote, raccoon, fox, skunk, or opossum (and, once, a bear!) wandering through our farm. Much of the time we wouldn't be aware of these potential predators passing within yards of our poultry yard — demonstrating no interest in our various flocks — if it weren't for the motion-sensitive cameras we use to monitor their comings and goings.

Shortly after we moved to this farm, the neighbors informed us that it is impossible to keep poultry here; sooner or later any flock we attempt to keep would fall victim to one of the many predators that lurk nearby. Undeterred, we immediately raised a flock of laying hens. Soon, ducks and geese were swimming in the pond behind our house, turkeys were parading around our barn, and guinea fowl were patrolling our orchard.

During the decades we've lived here, our various flocks have, for the most part, coexisted with the wildlife. The operative phrase is "for the most part," because every now and then one of those magnificent creatures that share our farm visits our poultry yard, resulting in an unhappy outcome for one or more of our domestic birds.

Allan and I console ourselves by reminding each other that wild animals have to eat, too. Just as we plant extra vegetables in our garden to have enough for ourselves after the rabbits, rodents, and songbirds take their share, we generally raise more chickens and other poultry than necessary to satisfy our personal need for eggs and meat.

But still, it's maddening to have a bobcat make off with one of our turkey hens. And it's difficult not to get upset when an owl kills a favorite rooster and leaves all but the head. What a waste.

Once we get over the initial shock of losing a bird, we set about trying to identify the perpetrator. Then we look for ways to deter it by improving our poultry yard security. Maybe the electric fence isn't working as well as it should be. Maybe our solar predator lights are no longer recharging. Maybe the chickens, or the predators, have scratched out a gap under a gate. Maybe we need to keep our birds confined indoors until later in the morning.

The way we see it, the wildlife was here first. We, along with our domestic poultry, are the intruders. Because we introduced poultry into this forest, it's our job to ensure that our birds are not more enticing and easier to obtain than the predators' normal and natural fare.

Too many poultry keepers get preoccupied with frustration killing. When I run across an online forum describing an attack by one or another predator, the discussion typically focuses on ways to kill or relocate the unfortunate creature. What a sad state of affairs when poultry keepers are more interested in the legalities of eliminating a predator than in learning better ways to protect their flocks.

The premise of this book is that a predator attack is the fault not of the predator, but of the poultry keeper. Those of us who undertake poultry keeping take upon ourselves the obligation to keep our birds safe from harm.

This book is, therefore, not about how to trap or kill predators that attack your poultry. Rather, it explains why killing or relocating predators is a decidedly bad idea that, ultimately, is only a temporary measure. This book will help you determine which predators are likely to appear in your area (and, just as important, which are not), give you insights into their behavior, and use the information to devise effective ways to keep your poultry safe. Along the way, I hope you will come to appreciate and enjoy the wildlife that share your little patch of earth.

How to Use This Predator Detective Guide

This book is organized into two parts. The first six chapters offer an overview of poultry predation, discussing the nature of predators, how to identify a predator that has taken an interest in your poultry, and steps you can take to protect your birds using practical, nonlethal solutions.

The remaining chapters profile individual predator species, describing such important details as their telltale signs, behavior patterns, and documented geographic range. After you use the guidelines in part 1 to determine what type of predator you most likely are dealing with, part 2 will help you narrow your choices based on where you live and the clues you find. Deterrent options suggested in these profiles are described more fully in chapters 4 (Controlling Predators) and 5 (Fence Defenses).

The appendix includes a predator worksheet. Consult the maps included with the predator profiles and use this worksheet to mark the predators that are likely to appear in your area. Realize, however, that individual animals can stray quite far from the known population range for their species. When you are faced with a predator problem, this worksheet will help you quickly focus on probable suspects.

Every poultry keeper experiences predation at one time or another. A variety of wildlife, especially those feeding young, take an interest in chickens and other poultry as quick and easy meals. The more we humans encroach on their habitat, the smarter these animals get, and the smarter they get, the smarter you have to be to outsmart them.

This book is here to show you the way.

Part OneThe Offense

1. Scene of the Crime

"There is nothing like firsthand evidence."

Sherlock Holmes

Everyone who keeps poultry sooner or later experiences that heart-stopping moment of realization that a predator has come to call. A typical first reaction is to rush in, assess the damage, and clean up the mess. But stopping to carefully survey the scene can give you valuable clues toward determining what type of predator was involved, and therefore what precautions you can take to prevent a future recurrence.

Although this initial survey can be extremely helpful in narrowing down the list of potential predators, it may not provide a conclusive identification. Further clues may be found in the form of tracks, scat, and other signs left at the scene, as described in the next chapter. In an active poultry yard, however, where such signs already may have been obliterated, your first best guide is to examine where, how, and when birds died or went missing.

Poultry Predation

Each predator species has a typical way of killing and consuming its prey. "Typical" is the operative word. Not all animals within a single species work in exactly the same way. Further, younger members of the species may work in a slightly different manner than the older, more experienced members. Still, certain clues can point you in the right direction. For starters, mammals and raptors leave different sets of signs.

When birds are missing from the poultry yard, among the important initial clues to note are how many are missing, their age and size, and any damage to the fence or coop that may indicate whether the predator walked or flew. When birds are left dead at the scene, again note the number of birds involved, their age and size, and the condition of the facilities, as well as the appearance of the remains. Photographing the remains will give you a visual record of which parts were left behind, as well as recording the day and time of your discovery.

Chicks Missing

When baby poultry go missing without a trace, the culprit is usually a snake, a rat, or a house cat. None of these predators is capable of carrying off a mature chicken but can disappear one or more chicks in no time flat. In general, when small birds are missing, suspect a smaller predator. Larger predators capable of carrying a mature chicken, or even a turkey or goose, are more likely to do so than bother with smaller, younger ones.

A snake will eat whole chicks, leaving no evidence behind, except maybe the snake itself. We once found a black rat snake in our homemade wood-and-wire brooder after it had gulped down a couple of chicks and then — having gotten too fat to slip back out through the wire — curled up under the heat lamp to sleep off the fine meal.

Rats, too, can disappear baby chicks without a trace. A rat will pull a baby chick down into its tunnel, but if the bird is partially grown it may get stuck at the entry. You may find the bird, having been pulled head first, with its feet sticking out of the tunnel opening.

Domestic and feral house cats can easily disappear baby birds. One year, I lost a batch of chicks to a feral cat that was feeding her kittens in a nearby vacant lot. Another year, I lost several goslings that were housed with their parents behind a chain-link fence. I couldn't fathom what was getting to them until I happened to see the little goslings pop through the fence to graze on the lawn, then have trouble squeezing their fattened bellies back through the fence. Nearby, intently watching the goslings, was the neighbor's cat.

I accidentally learned the best way to train a cat to leave chickens alone when my own new kitten followed me to the chicken yard. She took an interest in some baby chicks following a mother hen, whereupon the hen puffed up to twice her normal size and charged the kitten. For the rest of her life, that cat laid her ears back and skulked away whenever a chicken got close.

Other potential threats to baby poultry include ground squirrels, foxes, skunks, minks, and weasels. Among predatory birds, those that favor baby poultry include the smaller hawks — such as sharp-shinned and zone-tailed hawks — along with crows and ravens. Ducklings and goslings on open water are additionally susceptible to being nabbed by a snapping turtle, a large fish such as northern pike or largemouth bass, or a young alligator.

Don't Discount Herbivores

Numerous accounts have documented cattle, sheep, deer, and other normally herbivorous animals eating baby poultry or even eggs. Some researchers believe that once an herbivore accidentally gets a taste of chick or egg while grazing, it will deliberately seek more of the same. Others speculate that the unusual appetite may be triggered by a mineral deficiency, most notably calcium. In any case, if baby poultry or eggs go missing where cattle, sheep, or deer graze, don't overlook the possibility that an herbivore may have devoured them.

Grown Birds Missing

Mature poultry that disappear without a trace may have been carried off by a fox, coyote, dog, bobcat, eagle, owl, or hawk. Foxes and coyotes can disappear a large number of birds within a short time without leaving any signs, and they will hunt during the day when feeding young. A bobcat usually takes one bird at a time and may leave a trail of feathers. Domestic dogs are particularly careless about scattering feathers, along with injured and killed poultry.

Although a hawk rarely carries off a large chicken, a big hawk can snag a bantam, as well as a growing chicken or other type of poultry. An owl, too, may carry away a small bird, but it is more likely to leave a dead bird with just the head missing. Neither hawks nor owls are shy about marching right into the coop for a snack. One morning I opened the coop door to find a young owl snugged in among the roosting chickens. Another time I found a hawk inside the coop, wrestling with a sizable cockerel.

An eagle usually carries the bird away from the coop and then picks its bones clean, leaving nothing but a skeleton, sometimes not far outside the poultry yard. After missing one of our chickens, we once found this calling card in the middle of our hay field.


  • “Interspersed with compelling, often humorous, anecdotes from the author’s own close encounters and near misses with poultry predators, this book encourages responsibility and preparedness in protecting flocks from other animals that naturally find poultry attractive.” — Kathy Shea Mormino, The Chicken Chick®

    “Finally, a well-thought-out and balanced approach to protecting your flock from predators. Gail Damerow helps you ID the perps with detailed images, charts, and descriptions. Then she helps you outsmart them with specific strategies tailored to each species.” — Laurie Neverman, creator, Common Sense Home

    Gail Damerow might well be the Sherlock Holmes of the poultry world, and What’s Killing My Chickens? is a one-of-a-kind ‘detective manual’ that every chicken keeper needs to read. Through the author’s insights, flock owners can figure out what predators to watch for and how to guard against them.”
    — Roger Sipe, Group Editor, Hobby Farms and Chickens magazines and HobbyFarms.com

On Sale
Dec 10, 2019
Page Count
272 pages

Gail Damerow

About the Author

Gail Damerow has written extensively on raising chickens and other livestock, growing fruits and vegetables, and related rural know-how in more than a dozen books, including What’s Killing My Chickens? and the best-selling Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Encyclopedia, The Chicken Health Handbook, and Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks. Damerow is a contributor to Chickens and Hobby Farms magazines and a regular blogger for Cackle Hatchery. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, where they operate a family farm with poultry and dairy goats, a sizable garden, and a small orchard. Visit her online at gaildamerow.com.

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