We recently encountered a new problem with egg production; the answer should have been obvious. We’ll blame it on how busy we’ve been, but we were (embarrassingly) slow to figure out what was going on, in spite of a number of very clear clues. At least we’ve learned something, and this is a problem that should fairly easy to troubleshoot in future. Read on to solve the mystery.
Over the last few weeks, we noticed a trend that once a week or so, the egg yield would plummet. Chickens do this sometimes naturally, especially when heat-stressed, so we didn’t think much of it at first. Then it got a little more regular, maybe a couple days a week with low egg yields. Recently we checked on several hens we had brooding eggs, and found there were eggs missing compared to what we’d placed under them. Then a newly-hatched chick vanished overnight, along with its unhatched mates. Now we knew we had either a rat or a snake (or maybe a weasel?) around, as these can get through almost any opening and our shed is constructed to keep out coons and coyotes, not snakes and rats (it’d have to be impractically airtight). But how to identify, find, or trap the suspect? We were leaning rat, assuming that we’d have seen a good-sized snake around by now if it was eating eggs and lying around digesting afterwards, assuming the cold-blooded snake would be active during the day, while a rat would be more active at night.
The last straw was the next morning, when Eric found one of our brooding hens dead, the rest of her eggs missing, just a day before they were due to hatch. At first we assumed that meant rat, but when Eric picked up the bird he found no damage whatsoever, other than the head looking very puffy. Odd. We thought maybe it was a coincidence since birds do (very rarely) die on their own; maybe she choked on something, which would explain the puffy face. A rat would certainly have done visible damage.
We decided to clean out the bedding, which was getting deep, hoping that we would find further evidence of the culprit. Joanna started this task mid-morning and got part way through by the heat of the day, but didn’t have a definite solution by lunch. She saw no sign of any rodents (even mice), unusual for the chicken house with its open grain feeders. This is the point in the detective novel where you’re annoyed that the author is making the main character too stupid to put together all the obvious clues.
That evening, Joanna finished cleaning bedding out of the chicken house for a compost pile, and solved the mystery. She’d found a huge black rat snake nestled in the bedding under the nest boxes; our culprit identified at last. Now we had the obvious answer: rat snakes love eggs, and because they’re constrictors, the mystery hen death made sense too. It was too big to eat, but must been defensive of her eggs (or possibly a new chick) and been constricted for her troubles, hence the puffy face but no other damage. Or maybe the snake just got greedy, who knows? It also explains the occasional low egg yields: Snakes feed intermittently, not daily. And the absence of signs of rodents: The snake was probably eating those, too, a great thing if it hadn’t gone all food snob on us and moved on to free-range eggs.
Here’s our chicken-house raider in all its glory, the biggest snake we’ve ever seen on the farm. That hook you see Eric using to handle it is, ironically, a chicken-catching hook (the crook at the end slips around a wary bird’s leg) that works wonderfully for controlling large snakes. Eric loves snakes, loves handling them, think they’re fascinating animals, but was not happy with this particular individual. Rat snakes are great predators of prolific pests like voles and mice, but we were bitterly amused by this passage from Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri:
Black rat snakes help reduce damage to crops and stored grain by mice and rats; they are a valuable, natural rodent control. This service far outweighs the occasional theft of a few hen’s eggs or baby chickens.
In this case, it wasn’t “occasional”, this snake had clearly figured out the ever-renewed buffet line and had eaten at least $40 worth of eggs and killed a valuable young hen. This entry also explained another mistaken assumption on our part:
During spring, early summer, and autumn, black rat snakes are active during the day; in hot weather they become nocturnal.
That explains that. So after enjoying studying it for a few minutes, feeling how the muscles moved within the thick body (and wondering briefly what egg-fed snake would taste like, rattlesnake’s supposed to taste like chicken) Eric placed it in a trash can and drove it off to a distant conservation area to start a new life away from our chickens, with a brief stop to show it to some neighbor kids we knew would love it. It’s a shame to lose such a good pest predator, but with a taste for free-range eggs and knowledge of their location it’s not going back to voles. (Note to snakes: If we find you in our bedroom, we’ll move you to our vegetable field, where there are plenty of voles to munch. If you take up residence in the chicken house, you’re going farther away.)
Chickens (and eggs) are certainly the most predator-prone aspect of this farm. Hawks, especially in migration season, love an easy meal (though we actually haven’t lost one that way this year). Though our birds range widely during the day, we’re quite strict about making sure they’re indoors and closed up by dark when predators like racoons come out. Our first year raising chickens, we lost 12 in one night to either a coon or a mink, which got into our not-secure-enough housing and had a buffet. This year, Happy Hollow Farm reports predator problems with their chickens, too. It’s just a reality of raising chickens and eggs in a more natural setting, and one of the reasons we charge the price we do: a farm that respects both the chickens’, and the predators’, right to exist is inevitably going to cost more than one that doesn’t. We were glad to have the chance to experience a mature rat snake up close, and glad to move it along now that it’s acquired a bad habit.