Where game bird producers see their flight pens, brooder houses and other structures as profit centers, predators such as foxes, mink and other carnivores consider them handy sources of sustenance.
Unfortunately, the latter viewpoint can have a damaging impact on your bottom line.
It’s highly likely that your flock could fall victim to a variety of predator species, as their ranges overlap extensively. Knowing which one—or two, or three—is doing the damage is the first step in dealing with the situation. Fortunately, they often leave a visual “calling card” that you can use to narrow down the suspect list.
Weasels and mink, for example, are perhaps the tidiest killers. If you find dead birds that have been bitten through the skull, the back of the neck, in the throat or under the wing, it’s likely a weasel or mink is the culprit. They don’t stop with one bird, either; they may kill many in one night and place the uneaten carcasses in a neat pile.
Raccoons are spree killers, too, and are also noted for causing trauma to the head. Rather than making a killing bite or two, however, these masked bandits usually eat the heads off the bodies. If you see one or more bodies of birds along a fence—their heads pulled through and missing—think raccoon.
Skunks and opossums are clumsy killers. Rather than a bird’s carcass showing signs of a precision attack, it will appear to have been mauled. A skunk typically kills just one bird in a night, while an opossum often does a messy job of smashing eggs in the pen once it gains entrance.
Foxes, coyotes and domestic dogs are the birds’ deadly enemies in the canine kingdom. A fox typically kills one bird at a time and carries it away. If your flock begins to shrink, a fox is a likely suspect.
Coyotes typically carry off and eat all or most of the carcass. Although coyotes may be seen traveling in large groups, they usually hunt in pairs. Coyotes are primarily nocturnal (active at night) but often can been seen during daylight hours.
The size of the puncture wounds can sometimes help you determine which one of these canines is the killer, as can the animal’s tracks.
Domestic dogs—whether free-ranging feral dogs or pets allowed to run free in a neighborhood—can also be a big problem. And unlike wild predators, they often kill simply for the fun of it.
Not all dogs attack game birds or other poultry. In fact, some breeds make excellent guard dogs for a flock. Factors that contribute to the likelihood that a dog will attack a flock include the breed of the dog, the presence of other dogs, and the dog’s past experiences.
Some breeds have a greater tendency to chase prey than others. This inclination can be heightened by the presence of other dogs, often resulting in pack behavior. Also, if a dog has had success in the past at getting food by attacking a poultry flock, it is more likely to repeat the behavior.
Felines are likewise attracted to easy pickings. Domestic cats may kill adult game birds, particularly smaller species of birds, as well as chicks and juveniles. On the wild side, bobcats are the most common species of wild cat in the United States.
Bobcats are only about twice the size of a typical domestic cat. Like domestic cats, they see well in low light. Bobcats prefer to hunt during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk but will attack anytime. They can easily carry off a chicken or two from your flock. A bobcat may eat an entire bird in a single feeding or carry the carcass away. Bobcats prefer woodlands but will venture onto farms and into backyards in search of prey; pens adjacent to their natural habitat are especially at risk.
Snake predation can be hard to identify because snakes eat their prey whole. For example, a snake can eat an entire egg, so the only sign of intrusion is a missing egg. The aftermath of a snake’s egg-eating activity differs from that of raccoons and skunks, which typically leave shells behind after eating eggs.
Rat snakes are known to eat eggs and young chicks (those less than a month old). The size of the hole needed to access a flock depends on the size of snake. Also, a snake must be able not only to enter the enclosure but also to exit after swallowing its prey. Typically, snakes able to enter through gaps that are 1/4-inch in diameter or smaller do not cause predation damage.
Rats are ruthless killers and, like the weasel, often pile their victims in a corner. They usually kill by slitting the bird’s throat and are very slick at not disturbing the entire flock.
A rat will usually eat more from the carcass than a weasel, often pulling an adult bird partly into its burrow; young game birds and eggs disappear completely.
When you are dealing with large predators, exclusion from the area is the best form of control because even one visit from a fox, mink, raccoon or skunk can be very costly in terms of birds killed.
Enclosed flight pens, if properly constructed, should do the job. Choose some type of wire mesh for the sides, such as welded wire, hardware cloth or poultry netting. It’s worth noting that standard mesh sizes may not exclude slender predators such as weasels or snakes, and certainly not rats and mice. A least weasel, for example, can slip through mesh as small as 1/4-inch in diameter. In general, openings of less than an inch in diameter tend to work best.
When fencing off your flock, remember that many predators gladly go underground in their quest for a meal. Burying wire fencing 12 to 20 inches in the ground helps prevent such tunneling attacks. If your pen includes a water feature such as a section of creek, lake or pond, extending secure fencing below the surface reduces the risk of water-borne assaults by mink, otters, alligators and various snakes.
If you find it necessary to control any of these predators, the most selective method is to shoot them. Understanding which type of predator is causing the problem will help you outline your tactics.
Depending on the species, trapping with steel traps can also be effective if you can do so without endangering bird dogs or other non-target animals, and if the operator has the right traps and knows how to use them. In many cases, a live trap is easier for an inexperienced trapper to use, and is also much safer, since non-target animals that are caught accidentally can be released unharmed.
Rat and mouse control using poison baits can be difficult in a game bird operation because there is such an abundance of alternative, attractive feed. Traps offer a better solution in this case, but trapping can be slow, never-ending work.
Because their living and eating habits are so different, rats and mice are controlled by different techniques. A common error is to consider rats and mice as one problem and try to solve it with one control effort. This approach usually fails.
The successful trapping of rats or mice is more an art of “where” than of “how.” There are many good types of bait, and almost any food that you can place on the trap’s trigger will be effective.
Runway setting without bait is sometimes more effective, however. For both rat and mouse traps, an enlarged bait pan made from cardboard or light screen wire greatly improves results. It is important to set traps across the paths used by rats and mice—next to walls and between existing obstacles, or obstacles you place to create a pathway.
Two or more traps set close together work well where there are many rats and mice, or where there are trap-shy individuals. If you do set traps, use plenty of them. If the rodents travel overhead, you can fasten rat or mouse traps to pipes, walls or rafters.
Story reprinted from NAGA News, September/October 2016 Issue
Special thanks to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division