Predators: Part 1, the Mystery of Headless Poultry

Where chickens roam outdoors, there are predators.

With the rising popularity of backyard poultry, how about a mini-series on predators?

Today’s predator was the first “mystery predator” on our farm.  We saw nothing.  We heard nothing.  He first visited our broiler flock, and would take out 3 – 4 birds a night while they were small.  At first, only piles of feathers, and maybe some feet, were left.

Then, as the birds got bigger, more body parts were left behind.  Keep in mind these birds were enclosed in a functional electric fence, and the body parts were always inside of the fence.

After three weeks, we only had 80 broilers left out of a flock of 125.  We worked overtime building large salatin-style pens in order to keep the broilers closed in at night.

The predator decided to hit up the laying flock instead, and it’s then the pattern became clear:  This predator came at night, took out one full sized hen, and usually only ate the head.  He would sometimes eat a bit more than the head, but the head was always eaten first.

We eventually camped out at night (and built more secure housing that the hens couldn’t escape at night) to find out who was eating the chickens!  The answer:  A great horned owl.

I’ve read some sources that claim great horned owls don’t really eat chicken.  I respectfully disagree.

We now own a couple of Nite-Gard predator lights, and get out quickly after sunset to shut the birds in.  If hens find a way out of their houses at night, or early in the morning before sunrise, great horned owls will frequently find them, and eat the head off of one chicken.

Backyard poultry owners take note:  Great horned owls are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Act.   You can’t remove them without a special nuisance permit from your regional wildlife office.  These permits cost about 90$ per year when I investigated the matter.

Every time I bury another headless chicken, I ask myself, “Why haven’t I gotten that permit yet??”

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