Updated: Jun 18
I set out early in my homesteading adventure, determined to raise poultry out on open pasture. I have lost a couple of hundred birds over two decades, perfecting effective strategies to control and eliminate predator loss. You need to know that there isn't a single silver bullet that will stop all predators on your farm, and keeping poultry in crowded pens that create unhealthy environments isn't the answer either. Predators come in many shapes and sizes, so you need to have a multi-pronged defense and understand the cunning ways of sly predators.
If you want your birds to roam free on pasture in the sun, pick bugs, take dust baths in the dirt and eat grass (poultry are tremendous grass feeders if given the opportunity when feeders aren't overflowing with bag feed), this is what I do that works on our farm in Kansas. You can apply all of these tactics no matter where you live and bend many of the principles to work for you.
Starting With Your Flock
Poultry have somewhat of an instinctive sense of danger. Wave a towel or a broom over a flock, and they will all scatter in fear. This deeply embedded ancient memory passed down through the generations of danger and death from aerial predators or ground attacks. Unfortunately, in modern times, most hatchery birds are raised in pens decade after decade and are losing their natural survival instincts to watch, run, and hide from predators.
Suppose you have a flock that has suffered loss from predators; hatching your own eggs will start to return the survival instincts and can be very beneficial. Birds are not as stupid as some people might think. They do learn from watching others or seeing things that happen to fellow flock mates. They all understand pecking order and that the ultimate pecking order comes in the form of death. Never, ever catch your poultry and slaughter them where they can see. They will have an innate fear of you forever, even if you still bring food.
Geese and turkeys are excellent additions to chicken flocks as geese can sometimes run off aerial predators or make enough noise to detour them. Turkeys always watch the sky and sound out a high-pitched pipping alarm to alert flock members to send them running for shelter.
A mixed flock needs to be raised together as chicks. Adding adult birds into an established community is no different from a new guy at work who dresses differently from everyone else and has new ideas about how the place will run. It is human and animal nature to want to stick with the same and comfortable group, so a judgment process occurs until the new guy finds or fights for his place in the group. Young poultry, like children, never seem to mind a new kid in the group up to a certain age. Starting your mixed flock of poultry together from hatch is essential. It also prevents foot-pecking and leg-pulling between chickens and waterfowl.
Millenia of poultry's ancestors hiding under trees and brush for survival is why they will try to hide in darker or shady places instead of a coop first. After all, chickens can't see in the dark, so they assume the predators can't see them, and they feel safe if they can't see what is scaring them. This instinct is why you find predator-killed birds under shade trees, brush or log piles, and near standing structures where there is shade. Unfortunately, most predators see better in the shade or at night.
Poultry needs a well-lit coop but shady enough to be cool in the summertime that is easy to enter and exit during the day. A pop-hole design is cute and seems somewhat functional to detour some predators, but it has its problems. When a predator is in the yard, chickens start screaming and scatter to distract the predator as they try to escape. The problem with pop-hole doors is that multiple birds can not reach safety all at once. Poultry wants to run and hide in the easiest place to go to first because they don't think ahead in a panic, so they tend to run to corners and shady areas. Figuring out a ramp and pop-hole with other birds trying to do the same is basically setting a buffet table for a predator. A coop design that allows birds to reach a shady place and roost up high where predators can't reach is what I use that has worked for years. This chicken tractor is moved every few months in winter or every few weeks in the summer, and it never requires cleaning: no more back-breaking shoveling and no more foot problems.
Frightened birds will often try to jump into the pop-hole door knocking themselves and flock-mates away from safety. A poorly lit coop also doesn't give a bird's eyes time to adjust to get away from a pop-hole door fast enough for other birds to enter. They enter the coop and stand there, blocking the door for others. It's the same as taking off sunglasses on a bright day. You can't see for a few moments until your eyes adjust. Bird's eyes work the same way.
In Kansas, owls and hawks aren't a significant threat in winter. Most of our species migrate a little more south or live on rabbits, mice, moles, songbirds, doves, and voles that are easier targets. We position the coop to spill the north wind with one side, tarp the side closest to the north to stop the wind from moving through. I leave access at the tarped corners and flip the wind block sides down. Draft or light breeze through a coop is important because it removes moisture. Moisture build-up is what kills birds in the cold. It dampens the down, and it can't hold heat which chills the bird to death. A chilled bird will not perch to rest or to sleep. They remain on the floor, often the coldest, the dampest, and dangerous for predator attacks. As long as our electric fence is working in winter, I don't worry about predator attacks.
I do not supply heat or bedding. It encourages the birds to roost up. This makes them rest on their toes to keep their feet warm. I keep a good number of birds on hand to produce enough warmth while roosting in the coop to keep it above freezing if they sit close together. The deep bedding system underneath does supply a minimal amount of heat and ground insulation in the winter months. During the last two polar vortexes with wind chills twenty below zero, I never lost a bird. However, I do supplement our feeding plan to keep the poultry running hot. That is another article. Check out my blog for more helpful poultry tips.
Chicken wire is a false sense of security. When we moved into our first homestead, I found the previous owner's rabbit cages had the woven wire floors ripped open in the corners by raccoons to snag their rabbits. I knew then that the much thinner chicken wire wouldn't be a match for determined raccoons, ravenous coyotes, hungry foxes, or neighboring dogs looking for a good time.
I have tried every heavy-gauge woven-wire fence known to man only to find sly foxes can climb the corner posts, possums can bend and squeeze through the woven wire, and raccoons and badgers can dig under nearly any fence. Hot-wire running at the bottom of the fence works in conjunction with a middle and top wire on a grounded fence, but the fence needs to be tended weekly in the rainy seasons to keep the grass from grounding it out.
The only thing that holds true for me is electric poultry netting. It is the most predator-proof fencing available. I sleep well at night worry-free of coyote packs, raccoons, foxes, possums, armadillos that destroy pasture, squirrels, rats that steal eggs, and even some large snakes. Beekeepers use this electric netting to keep bears, including grizzlies, out of apiaries where hives are, and there is no reason it wouldn't work for mountain lions, wolverines, or wolves. Once you get it erected and working properly, the only thing to still combat is aerial predators.
Poultry netting's only downfall is heavy ice and snow that can down the fence or ground it out, but when used year after year, predators stop testing it, and poultry won't cross it even if it is down. I have had my poultry fence uncharged for weeks when in the cloudy, rainy, or snowy seasons to protect the battery, without poultry escaping or predators getting in.
I use this same netting around my garden to keep out bean-chugging deer, lettuce-chowing rabbits, corn-eating raccoons, melon-eating possums, and tomato stealing squirrels. Additionally, I do not worry about escaped goats or cows in my garden. I haven't lost a single tomato or young seedling in years!
Electric fence isn't that hard to figure out and worth the investment that pays for itself in the things you stop losing. It is good for years and promotes pasture rotation which is good for the livestock and the environment.
I use a 30-mile solar charger on our poultry pasture. A high-power charger is necessary because each strand, except the bottom one, is hot. The bottom strand is not energized to keep the fence from grounding out. Nothing can dig under the fence because it will eventually hit its head or back on the fence and repel the predator.
Corners of a fenced field or pen are easy grabs for something as slow as a possum as chickens pile up, looking for an easy escape route to safety. Hot-wire fence will electrify birds and a potential predator at the same time if they hit the hot-wire together. It shocks the bird but also changes a predator's mind. A poultry fence should be erected without corners to encourage poultry to run back to the coop for safety. If you keep poultry in a pen with corners, build a funnel system that herds your birds into the coop door with fence pieces or boards. This will also help you if you need to round up birds into the coop or do it nightly. An entry in the middle of a wall is a complex concept for birds to grasp. So is a ramp; most birds will choose to fly up to the door.
Understanding Aerial Predators
Aerial predators are smart enough to know humans are a danger, and most of the time, make sure they are never seen. I had had some hawks that knew the sound of my UTV and would fly away when they heard it coming. Often, they will only focus on eating the chicken's head to get in and out of a pasture ninja-style. Bird brains consist of nothing but calcium and cholesterol, a gold mine of nutrition for a starving predator. Chicken heads are fast to eat due to the excessive amount of blood vessels. They will eat the brain as the bird bleeds out, making the fast meal easy to swallow, leaving only a clean, mostly bloodless, decapitated bird behind. If a predator has a little longer, the thigh is next as the skin near the anus is easiest to tear. Once the predator is full, it flys away, leaving the carcass to be devoured by curious flockmates that show up to investigate later. This can lead to flock cannibalism in crowded pens as they start to identify each other as a tasty protein source.
Inflatable snakes hanging on fishing twine work better than rubber snakes. They move in the slightest breeze in erratic directions. Rubber snakes don't work because they don't move enough. Snakes hunt by sitting perfectly still so their prey can't see it, just like a rubber snake does when put out. It is the moving snake they fear. All birds have a fear of large snakes because they feed on eggs and baby chicks.
Inflatable snakes hung on low test fishing lines will also keep hawks, barn owls, sparrows, and barn-swallows out of outbuildings. They only need to be replaced every other year and dusted off occasionally.
Snakes hanging in or near coop doors will keep crows, ravens, and hawks away. They will also repel squirrels and some rats due to the movement. Snakes can be used on a pole out in the pasture, but they need to be moved occasionally. Step-in hot-wire posts are cheap and easy to move around. I use these snakes in the garden to keep crows from stealing my beans and corn after it sprouts, and it works without fail.
Teddy Bears or Stuffed Animals
Teddy bears and stuffed animals that look realistic work short-term if moved daily; you can find old stuffed animals at thrift stores. I have used them in emergency situations many times. Small stuffed rocking ponies will work if you buy a wig and replace the yarn mane with realistic hair. You can also swap out eyes for some more realistic ones available on Amazon. It's not super cheap, but the better the decoy, the better protection you have. Large realistic eyes are essential, along with longer fur. Short plushie animals don't have hair that moves in the wind and will only work for a short period. I also used an old Sherpa wool rug thrown over a 55-gallon drum laid on its side. Aerial predators don't know what it is and didn't feel safe around it. They don't know if it is a sheep, goat, or possibly a big round sleeping dog.
I had poor luck with livestock guard dogs, even with the diligence of eight months of training under constant supervision. I know they work for many farms, but it didn't work for me, and I tried a few times with different breeds, some supposedly trained, costing over the 1,000 dollar mark. I run a tight farm, and livestock dogs like to wander off, eat when they want, and have a mind of their own. I also didn't like the look of a dog covered in burrs sweating in the summer heat, and getting sores under its coat. It's also an extra chore to provide for them in the winter when they need more food and shelter. I also like to sleep at night in peace. Barking dogs that disturb your sleep disrupt the productivity of workflow the next day. Without proper sleep, the farm head loses compassion, feels frustrated, and doesn't have the energy to do what needs to be done for the day.
Very few pups are raised in real working farm environments or are raised with a flock of people instead of animals. They wind up killing poultry, disturbing birthing animals looking for afterbirth to eat or chewing on goat horns. They also require a monthly feed bill, additional vet bills, and they make LARGE dog poop that poultry loves to dig through, looking for corn bits, worms, and bugs. I don't mind chickens digging through goat or cow dung, but I can't deal with eating chicken that I know has been eating bits of dog poop looking for snacks.
I use a coyote decoy with a deer hide thrown over it for a more realistic look for a micro-fraction of LGD cost, and it has its own unique aroma after the uncured deer hide has aged six months that predators can smell. Decoys don't poop or require vet visits. I do have to move it daily, and I do without fail when I gather eggs. While out hunting deer, I have seen this decoy repel owls that have come in and made a swoop around the corner of the coop only to eye the coyote decoy, turn tail, leaving my flock alone. This, by far, has been my best line of defense. If you can't get a deer hide, drape, tie, glue, or clip some faux fur available at Walmart by the yard over parts of the decoy.
Blow Up Dolls
Well... sometimes you gotta do what you can afford. Novelty blow-up dolls are cheap and very realistic scarecrows that really do work. In the past, I have made multiple scarecrows out of stuffed old clothes, milk-jug heads, and straw hair to have them all fail miserably because they just don't look real enough or have enough movement. Inflatable dolls need have to have a natural colored wig added, or they don't work. Predators easily identify hair and fur as a natural threat.
The inflatable doll moves in the wind while hanging from a tree from some thick fencing wire. The year I started doing this, we had a family of falcons coming in and carrying off the chicks on our lunch breaks. I was losing four of these full-size chicks a day until I put the doll out. Not everyone can use these that live in places where neighbors might be offended or curious children play. These dolls deflate easily in the cold and get puncture holes from wind movement, so they aren't a permanent tool that works unless you buy them by the case. If you get one, be sure to order a patch kit. Again, don't forget the wig and clothes or it won't work!
Mannequins used to be priced in the several hundred dollar range, but after COVID shut down retail stores and retail marketing started pinching pennies, mannequin prices fell drastically. I paid the same price for the coyote decoy as I did for the mannequin. Again, I had to purchase a wig, but it didn't cost me a thing to dress her. I just use all of the incorrect-sized clothing that I have ordered over the years. She is convincing enough to fool me at times.
She is bulky to move daily, but with a few holes drilled or a few bricks in the plate that she stands on and some bent rebar stepped into the soil, she is Kansas windproof, although the wind has blown her arms off a few times. She used to fall apart on me, but she holds up for a full day's work after a bit of gorilla glue and gorilla tape. I deal with the arms falling off occasionally because I like to adjust them and put different objects in her hands. A plastic shopping bag is about the scariest thing in the world to most critters, and it moves in the slightest breeze.
It takes time and effort to move her and change her stance or clothes, but the effort is small compared to the frustration of a predator taking the food right out of your mouth. Mannequins can also keep crows and ravens from pulling up your corn and bean sprouts in the garden. If you are using mannequins for coyotes and deer, they need to stink like humans; they are more scent-oriented than sight. Coyotes and deer don't understand fashion, so gym clothes, work shirts, and day-old socks can simply be clipped to the mannequin's clothes using a hair clip or a chip-clip instead of actually dressing them. Human scent articles need to be changed every other day as the sun's UV rays are disinfecting. Songbirds and wild turkeys are not disturbed by mannequins; both visit our brooder house pasture daily to see the chicks and pick leftover feed out of the grass.
Owls can and will hunt during the day. I lost eighteen heritage turkey poults in one week to an owl that would come in and kill several chicks a day. The owl would stuff the dead chicks underneath the small shelters I had provided for them to hide so it could come back and eat them at night or use them to feed their young. This would happen in a short period of twenty-five minutes while I was inside having lunch.
Owl decoys will only work on young, immature owls that don't want to invade established adult owl hunting ground, fearing a fight. The year I lost so many baby turkey chicks, I had my decoy owl sitting on the pole in the same corner where the owl killed several times a day. It didn't care and wasn't detoured in any way. Rats, mice, and squirrels aren't frightened of the owl decoy if it doesn't move to a new perch daily. Mine has the ear tips chewed off and a hole in the feet area from when I attempted to use it to keep pack rats from chewing the pull-start handle off my water pump down by the pond. I still keep it around to ward of juvenile birds of prey that may be developing bad ideas.
Aerial predators want to come in and assess the situation for their safety before dive-bombing into a fenced-in area to stay long enough to have an entire meal. They will seek a high location to perch and study the layout, dive zones, poultry movement, human visits, and nighttime habits for days before making a move on its prey.
Once you have your electric fence established, you can make a perch for your wanna-be dining guests with shocking results. Aerial predators like to perch in areas where they can take flight without their wingtips touching anything. They can damage their flight feathers or make noise, alerting prey that they are coming. Poles are their favorite perches as they can hop off and silently glide in for a kill.
It is illegal to shoot, trap or harm predator birds. The government protects them, and killing them comes with huge fines unless you get a special permit from your local wildlife department after a farm assessment. They will come out and investigate the situation to see if you have done all things possible in your power before issuing a permit. This is a safe and effective method, no different from a hawk or owl trying to fly through your electric poultry netting. Just as the electric fence is used for all kinds of predators to shock them out of your pastures, you can do the same with an elevated perch at your pasture's edge. This method is safer than bird netting over poultry pastures because there is nothing to get caught or tangled in, injuring a bird.
Perches have to be tall enough that the aerial predator can easily perch and swoop down into your pasture. Two-inch PVC pipes with a thin board zip-tied to the top and slid over a T-post work very well. Flag poles with a plastic platform attached to the top and small trimmed trees affixed to T-posts work too. Short poles with any obstructions in the "swoop-in zone" will not work.
Using cable holders, make a stretch of two bare wires at least 4 inches apart. Cable holders keep the wire from grounding out on moisture in the wood, which weakens the zap. The space between the bare wires protects small songbirds from getting shocked. I used electrician tape to cover the screws in the cable holders also to prevent grounding to the wood. Attach an insulated wire to each bare wire on the cable holders and run the two insulated wires down the pole. Attach one insulated wire to the electric fence and ground the other wire. I used the T-post as my electrical ground. If you aren't using a T-post, a rebar ground rod will work. This completes the circuit at the top of the pole when both bare wires are touched by large bird feet. Your pole must be solid and not wiggle in the wind.
An aerial predator only comes in with one goal in mind: hunt your pasture and eat. As soon as the bird perches, it gets zapped for just thinking about dining in your field. It instantly knows that this isn't a safe place to hunt or eat and will not return for a second attempt due to the extremely negative response. The shock will not harm the bird as my fence is shock-safe for baby chicks and baby ducklings only a week old. I use several of these PVC poles, especially near wooded areas. They work on hawks, falcons, ow