How bird watching helps our chickens

We keep our chickens truly on range; they have a large fenced-in yard but are otherwise unrestricted during the day (we lock them in a secure shed at night). This gives them all the room they need, but doesn’t protect them from aerial predators, which can be a real problem (chicken is a much easier, and tastier, treat than most wild game). Many folks raising chickens on range end up using various forms of moveable enclosed pens, so that the chickens are on open ground but still protected (and restricted) within that pen. As avid birders, however, we’ve been able to observe and predict many aspects of hawk behavior, allowing us to manage our chickens more effectively on range while minimizing restrictions and losses on our farm.
For example, in our location, only certain types of hawks bother our birds. Summer resident populations of Red-shouldered Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks seem to ignore our birds; we’ve never knowingly lost a chicken to these hawks, though they’re present nearly every day and certainly capable of taking one. All the hawk losses we know of have come from Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, almost always during spring and fall migration as new and hungry hawks move through the area. Knowing the difference between these hawks, by sight and by call, helps us decide what to do with the chickens. A Red-shouldered circling directly overhead is no problem; hearing a Red-tailed scream, even far away, may have us heading for the chicken yard to chase them under cover. Interestingly, the chickens themselves seem to have learned this. The dominant rooster, who watches over the rest of the flock, will ignore a Red-shouldered’s call too, but will react strongly to a Red-tail.
Paying attention to migration patterns also helps. For example, we know that September is a peak time for migrating hawks, and we are always more alert for hawk behavior (and chicken noise) during that time. In past years, we’ve found that once a migrant announces its presence by taking a chicken, it will continue to hang around looking for another one (smart bird). Locking the chickens under cover for a few days will eventually convince the hawk that no more meals are to be had, and it moves on.
Toward that end, our main chicken shed has an enclosed run attached, made of old chain-link dog kennel panels that we’ve picked up here and there at auctions and garage sales. Though it’s hard to see in the photo above, this is covered by a mixture of cattle panels and other fencing, just enough to keep a hawk out. Most of the year, we just leave the doors open on this so the chickens can come and go as they please. During hawk season, we can shut the doors, giving the birds some room to move around while keeping the hawks out. It usually only takes a few days. This approach is ugly as sin, but effective and flexible; we can easily take it down or rearrange it as necessary, unlike a more permanent structure. We do intend to build a better and more permanent chicken house/run in a different location this winter, but this setup has worked very well for the first few years of experimenting with chicken management.
Another aspect of chicken protection involves raising young birds to maturity. We’ve had several batches brooded by good hens, and also started incubating our own this year. Younger/teenage chickens are by far the most likely to get nailed by a hawk. Like human teens, they think they know everything but have no clue, don’t listen to their wiser elders (like the roosters that tend to warn of hawks), and thus are vulnerable to threats the adults are better at avoiding. So we take extra care to protect, or restrict, any young birds we have around during migration season, because they’re far less likely to stick to cover and pay attention to what’s overhead.

Simply paying attention to bird behavior on the farm can pay real dividends. This past Friday, while working on market harvest on our main field, I heard an odd noise and glanced up to see what looked like a Cooper’s Hawk land in a tree over our pond. I investigated (having binoculars with me) and was able to get very close to this beautiful and often hard-to-observe bird. They have a subtle call, which I’ve learned to identify; it can be the best alert to their presence since they like to skim through woods and otherwise stay hidden. These guys are really neat birds, but absolute death on chickens (they also have a reputation for raiding bird feeders and picking off snacks in front of horrified suburbanites). Having noticed the farm’s first migrating hawk of the fall, I was able to go get Joanna and chase all the chickens in under cover, where they’ve been restricted the last few days (it was hanging around the field again on Sunday). Without close attention to bird patterns, we likely wouldn’t have known it was there until a chicken went missing.

Protecting our layers from hawks is particularly important this year, as we’ve begun expanding our flock through on-farm breeding. We purchased a basic incubator, and have hatched several rounds of eggs from our existing layers (a mix of Black Ameraucanas and Rhode Island Reds, with roosters of both breeds). These birds, like the young ones shown above, should give us a good batch of chicken meat for the winter (we haven’t had much in the past few years) as well as a larger supply of eggs so we can offer at least some to 2012 CSA members. Thus we’re happy to combine the enjoyable hobby of birding with the practical value of paying close attention to the farm’s wider ecosystem and applying such knowledge and observations to better farm management, such as only restricting our chickens when we really need to.

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