I have been trying to write this post for two weeks, but incident after incident means that I have had to keep adding to our tale of sadness. What I am about to share is a true story. It’s long. It’s detailed. But I like to talk and share stories, so here is our tale of rats, raccoons, and chickens.
Let me start at the beginning. We have been living here for nearly 11 months now, and our purchase of this property included chickens. We had 16 chickens and chicks total near the start (several chicks hatched immediately after we moved in), but we lost several in those first few months to the likes of an aggressive rooster, clumsy kids, and a pesky cat. Yes, a cat. There was a stray cat hanging around our yard, and it thought that some of those smaller chicks were chew toys. I’ve heard that a cat won’t eat a chicken, but this one did. By fall, we had 10 chickens, 8 hens, a young rooster, and an older, louder rooster. Winter came and went without issue, and in spring, we traded the two roosters for two hens and a new rooster (to prevent inbreeding) which brought our total up to 11 birds.
We had decided to let the rooster do his duty, and help us hatch more of our own chickens, but he was still young, and not quite there. We got a second rooster, and this one was brave enough to do his business. The kids started naming our birds, and we were having some success in our chickening endeavor. So, with the warm weather, the chickens were spending the days outside and returning to the coop at night. We got lazy about locking up the coop, and for several months had no issue with this.
The Masked Bandit (AKA The Raccoon)
But summer brings out everyone and their brother. Especially predators of chickens (i.e. raccoons). So at the beginning of July, just after we got our meat chicks, our first round of tragedy struck. In one night, we lost two laying hens and one of our roosters. Okay, so maybe “tragedy” and “drama” are not quite the right words, but we lost some of our birds, and I was bummed. A family of 7 eats a lot of eggs, so I was definitely disappointed. So we lock up the coop for the next few nights, but then we went away for the evening… I knew I needed to lock up the coop when I got home, but I was putting kids to bed and completely forgot. Four more birds gone (the other rooster and three hens). It was frustrating to say the least, but we still had 5 egg layers, and one of them was a momma with a little black chick following her around, so I knew we just needed to do better. Plus, we now had our meat birds, and they were all doing great. (We thought we had 30, but after multiple attempts to count them, we found out it was 31.)
You would think we would have known better at this point. We even saw a raccoon prowling around, so we knew what had been snatching up chickens. So lock up that coop, keep the birds safe at night, no big deal. Well, with it being summer, it isn’t always easy to shut the coop up at night. Chickens will stay out until it begins to get dark, and when they don’t want to go into the coop until 8:30 and you typically go to bed before that, well, it gets to be a bit problematic. One night I wanted to lock the coop up so I could go to bed early, but the chickens weren’t ready to go in, and wrangling them wasn’t working. I meant to ask Scott to put them away when he got back home (he had been gone for a few hours), but I forgot. Lo and behold, the next morning we had lost all five hens. That darned raccoon was just killing for sport. There were shredded birds throughout the chicken run. Aside from seeing the raccoon prowling around, the fact that we lost so many birds and that they were torn apart and thrown everywhere are tell tale signs of a coon.
That little black chick survived though…it ran around for days, dodging us, hiding to stay safe, but it was doing well. Finally Scott was able to shut it up in the coop, and we felt better knowing that the raccoon wasn’t going to be able to get it. Later that evening, we decided to move the meat chicks into the main coop with the black chick since they were getting a little too big for the brooder box. We couldn’t find the black chick when we went into the coop, but we knew it was really good at hiding and thought maybe we were just overlooking it.
The next morning Scott went out to check on the chicks and he found an animal (he couldn’t identify it) in the coop…seven chicks were dead, three badly injured. The animal scurried into the ceiling of the coop, and Scott was left to clean up the dead chicks and put the three injured ones out of their misery. We put the chicks back into the brooder box until we could solve the problem of whatever it was from getting into the coop.
So it was off to Menards to buy mesh fencing to put up on the coop ceiling. The ceiling is made up of joists filled with hay (for insulation), and held in place with sort of a lat board system; easy enough for a small-ish animal to hide up their. Well, since Scott has about a million and one projects to do already, it was up to me to install this fencing on the ceiling. Talk about getting the heebee jeebees! All I could think the whole time was “God, please don’t let that animal jump down on my head/face while I am working on this!” Thank the Lord there weren’t any incidents. Ceiling problem fixed, we put the chickens back into the main coop.
I still felt nervous, but it seemed to be okay. A few days went by without incident. We were down to just 21 meat chicks, and I was more that just a little stressed about everything that had happened. I went to clean the coop and feed the chicks. When I was putting their waterer back into the brooder, they all came flocking to get a drink, and I unknowingly squashed one of the chicks. Thankfully it recovered fully in a matter of a few hours, but I still felt terrible.
Then on Saturday as I was going into the coop to check on the chickens, I saw a rat staring out of the coop window, just as calm as can be. I felt a little nervous about the rat being in there, but they eat eggs, not chickens, right?? Wrong! Apparently, they will eat chickens, or at least chicks. Three more chicks were missing. By the time I got into the coop, the rat had disappeared. So I tell Scott the sad news. His response was, maybe we just keep looking for places the animals are getting in, loose a few more chickens in the process, but in the end have a bullet-proof coop. I didn’t love the idea of loosing more chicks, but it made sense.
I went back out to the coop to check on the chickens again, when I see a huge rat run down the wall and into a corner of the coop. Meanwhile Scott is getting ready to attend a friend’s wedding. I went to tell him I saw the rat again and knew where it was hiding, so he ran to get one of his guns. (I wish I would have gotten a picture of him in his dress clothes, marching into the chicken coop with his gun over his shoulder. It was really cute! I love him :)) Three shots later, he calls me into the coop. The rat was not quite dead, but definitely on it’s deathbed. Scott tells me, “I really have to go, I’m going to be late! I need you to get the rat out of here.” I was disgusted and terrified, “What do you want me to do with it?!” “Put it in a bucket with a lid or something, I’ll get rid of it tomorrow,” he says.
Trying to get over my fear of this nearly dead animal, I grabbed a bucket, scooped the rat into it, and put the lid on. The rat was moving around a little bit and I was just about ready to have a heart attack. It’s tail was stuck out of the lid and there was no way I was about to touch that or risk having the rat jump out…so gross! So I flipped the bucket upside down and placed a cinder block on top so the rat couldn’t get out. It jumped around for awhile, but finally died. If you think we are cruel for shooting a rat (or trapping it in a bucket to die)…just get some chickens and see if you still feel the same way. With the gaps in the coop closed up, I felt much better about the safety of the chicks.
Chicken Tractor and Future Precautions
About a week prior to the rat fiasco, we had talked to our farmer friend about buying 9 more chickens from him (8 egg layers and a rooster), but we needed to build our chickshaw so we could move the meat birds outside. We opted to build a chicken tractor instead, and on Monday we FINALLY moved the meat birds outside! I am happy to say that they are all doing well, and seem to be enjoying scratching around for bugs. The chicken tractor doesn’t guarantee their safety, but they should be secure in there…so we are praying that they all last until it’s time to butcher!
I think tonight we will finally be getting the new chickens after about a week of delays. And as terrible as all of these losses made me feel, I feel reassured knowing that even the best chicken farmers loose birds to predators. They know their stuff, they diligently protect their flocks, but things happen. Maybe they go a long time without incident, but a good farmer knows that they can’t always prevent loss from happening.
Lessons learned? Lock your birds up at night! If you have a hard time remembering, set an alarm and leave yourself notes! Keep a watchful eye. Look for gaps in your coop, make it secure. If you see a potential hole, reinforce it so that it won’t get bigger with the work of a hungry predator. In our situation, securing the chicken run is not exactly something we can do. There are fruit trees in the run and it is a huge area to try to reinforce. So for our purposes, the best we can do is to prune some trees back a little more, set a live trap or two, and keep the run as “manicured” as possible (clean up some of the fruit from the trees, keep the grass short…).
We learned that rats can and will eat chicks, and though they won’t likely kill a big chicken, they might still taunt one. Also, all rats are not hideously ugly like they make them out to be in the cartoons, they are actually kind of cute. But don’t tell the rats that I said that. They still freak me out, and I don’t want them hanging around here!
Don’t forget to leave your comments! What have you learned about chicken predators from your own experience? Have you had any similar experiences with rats, raccoons, and chickens?