From chickens providing bug control to acting as natural garbage disposals, there's a lot to like about backyard hens. But, as Marye noted in her excellent account of building a chicken tractor, one major drawback of keeping backyard chickens is that they are constantly preyed upon by foxes, raccoons, hawks and just about anything else that moves. Everything loves chicken.
While we still let ours roam free during the day, we've lost our fair share to neighborhood wildlife. Here's what we've learned along the way about keeping chickens safe:
Tips for Protecting Chickens from Predators
Build a Solid Coop: All but one of our chicken losses were at night, when the chickens were roosting in their coop - they were basically down to design flaws in our early DIY coops. So make sure you have solid walls and doors for the roosting area (with a little bit of ventilation), if possible raise the roosting area off the ground, (yes, chickens can climb a ladder), and build a run around that roosting area that includes chicken wire on all sides - including the ground. We also pile logs and rocks around the coop to make it harder to burrow under (pictured). One final important note: only ever use chicken wire with a 1'' mesh or narrower - we've had a raccoon (we think) literally reach in and rip off a chicken's leg, and another simply pried open the mesh and climbed inside...
Never Forget to Lock them Up: Set an alarm, leave notes, whatever you have to do - but make sure you always lock your chickens up at night. If helps if you build a coop with a run, so if you are going to be home late, you just leave them in the run for the day.
Pee Around the Coop: I have no idea if this works, but I heard that peeing around the coop leaves a scent (it definitely does!) that should warn critters to stay away. We'll see. (I also read somewhere that setting a stereo playing AC/DC really loud around the coop and triggering it with a motion detector scares animals off...)
Communicate with Chicken Sitters and Helpers: We've lost one chicken because I miscommunicated when we were leaving town. The coop was left open overnight, and sure enough, the next morning we had a call saying "we thought you had four..."
Stay Alert: Chickens are noisy creatures - often clucking and squawking over nothing. But with a little practice you'll lean what noises are simply the ladies fighting over a bug or a lizard, and what noises mean there is something dark and evil approaching. (OK, predators aren't really dark and evil, but once you've lost a few chooks it can feel that way...) We've chased off more than a few raccoons, hawks and foxes.
On a final note, if you are going to let your chickens roam free you should be aware that you probably will lose one every now and then. While finding a half eaten chicken is not the most pleasant of experiences, I've come to accept it as part of the trade off that we (and the chickens) face when we allow them to live unfettered. And in the end, everything's gotta eat.
Need proof that it's possible to balance being green and still be a supportive partner and parent? See how Ed Begley, Jr. does it on Planet Green TV's Living with Ed.