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Chickens: problems and predators

Bullying, rats, parasites, predators, diseases… who’d be a chicken? Some books give so much space to lists of problems that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone bothers, but all that’s needed is experience and a little know-how.

Diseases

Chickens are usually fairly hardy beasts and you may go years without having a sick bird, but they are also prone to an impressive range of possible diseases – so many, in fact, that we’ve devoted a whole page to them.

fine cockerel with hens, imageFeather pecking (bullying)

For chickens kept in a run, you need to make sure that their environment is kept stimulating by including a few diversions. Bored chickens bully, and bullies pull feathers; don’t go there. Diversions can include wad of straw to scratch around in, a stump or crate to perch on, a CD hanging on a string (which fascinates some birds) or hanging a bundle of greens quite high up so that the birds can jump for a nip at the tasty leaves, and you can let the bundle down a little at a time as they eat the lower bits. Try something new every time they lose interest in your old tactics.

If feather pecking does start, watch the birds carefully to see if they are pecking each other, or pulling at their own feathers. If the damage is self-inflicted check the birds and house carefully for mites, but if the birds are picking on each other you need to provide more distractions or a larger run. You’ll also need to break the habit using anti-pecking spray, which is harmless but tastes horrible.

Rats

When you set up chicken housing you’re creating an ecological niche that rats will be keen to fill, and if you aren’t wary it won’t be long before they find it. When dealing with these versatile and tenacious creatures, remember the golden rule: if you can see one rat, there are ten more nearby.

There are things you can do to make it harder for rats to get established, however. One of these is to raise the house well clear of the ground, but after this the single most important thing that you can do is to keep the rats away from the feed. This means a hanging feeder suspended as high off the ground as possible (that’s determined by the size of your smallest bird) in an open area. Rats dislike open ground, since while they are out and about they are at risk from owls and other predators. Finally, make sure your feeder is put away at least half an hour before the birds turn in, to make sure that they peck up every last crumb.

Parasites

chicken flea, imageNobody likes having creepy crawlies on them, and chickens are no different. Not surprisingly, birds that are being fed on by mites, fleas, worms and the like don’t do as well as they would otherwise. They lay fewer eggs, gain weight more slowly (or even lose weight), and can become irritable and unhappy, scratching and biting at themselves. In the case of red spider mites, which are often missed by new chicken keepers, they may even refuse to go back to the henhouse at night.

For a list of the external nasties you may come across, visit animalloversweb.com. You can also see some good photos on Omlet.co.uk’s forum.

Then of course there are the nasties you can’t see – the internal worms, which you should treat for periodically, even though you don’t usually know if they’re present or not. As a rule of thumb, free ranging birds come into contact with wild songbirds and also each slugs and snails, so sooner or later they’re going to pick up worms. Happily poultrykeeper.com maintains an excellent page that explains all about the different worms and how to treat your birds, including natural remedies.

Predators

Humans aren’t the only species that find chickens tasty, and unless you’ve designed your coop and fencing carefully you may find your flock has been targeted by the local critters. Worse yet, if you’re not around when the attack happens you may not even know what you’re dealing with. Raising-chickens.org features a list of chicken predators and the telltale signs they leave behind. Being an American website they don’t feature badgers, but if you look for the entry on bears you’ll have some idea of what to expect. As the site says ‘The best defense is to not attract them to start with.’

If you know that you’re in the territory of a fox, some defences are more or less mandatory. You can reduce the likelihood of your flock being completely wiped out by raising your hen house on stilts, accessed using a rickety ladder that the fox will knock down. Daytime raids are another matter, and can only really be prevented by using serious fencing dug in at the bottom, or better yet an electric fence.

Other chicken articles

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9 Responses to “Chickens: problems and predators”

  1. Steve says:

    Is there an optimum height for raising chicken coops off the ground so that foxes can’t reach them?

    • Andy McKee says:

      Depends on how hungry the fox is and what sort of door the coop has! House design is the main way to keep foxes out, not height. If you have a vertically-sliding pophole cover that drops down into a slot between the wall and a length of batten, for example, ground level’s fine. You can use height though: HFW used small houses, with no doors, 8′ up with rickety rustic ladders for the birds to climb up. Mind you he gave up on the design, because you had to use a ladder to get the eggs.

  2. jen brodsky says:

    I have a 18 month old laying hen that has lost a majority of her feathers (almost overnight, is still eating and drinking but seems to be having some trouble walking and is reluctant to come out of the hen house. If it is mites, etc., what do you recommend to treat her and do I need to treat the other hen and the house?

    Thanks!

    Jen

    • Andy McKee says:

      Hi Jen, you really need to identify what you’re treating first, although if she’s reluctant to come out you can probably rule out red mites. Take a good look under her wings and around her vent – if there are fleas or lice, that’s where you’ll see them. You can find more information in our problems and predators article.

      Also check her feet, in case there’s a problem there you’ve not spotted.

  3. Barbara says:

    we have free range chickens fenced in a 2 acre plot we found one dead today feathers everywhere chest open could this have been a bird of prey? would say less than 10% of the bird was missing

    thanks
    Barbara

    • Andy McKee says:

      A bit difficult, as you haven’t said which country you’re in or what size of bird it was. If it’s the UK I’d say a sparrowhawk (for bantams) or maybe a buzzard (for larger birds) – dogs and foxes generally carry off a single bird during the day but might leave it if they were scared off.

      If it is a raptor attack, your options include providing cover (usually bushes) that the chickens can hide under; large plastic owl on a post in the chicken run; or netting over the top of the fenced area (not always practical). Some people also try CDs or strips of plasticised foil which flutter in the breeze; raptors are deadly, but not very bright.

  4. Barbara says:

    Thankyou very much for your quick response I live in Germany and the Hen was 1 year old so a bird of prey is the likely culprit
    may I congratulate you on your site I have bookmarked it and will use it as a reference point really helpful thankyou

  5. Christine Russell says:

    Hi Andy
    Long story short. I had two hens who were sisters, one got taken by a fox. The one that got taken was more social. The hen that was left changed her personality. she became suspicious and more distant. I found a bantum chicken in a park, and took it home, that was 6 months ago. The big red hen does not like her and does not like to share and is pecking chicken little. The bantum now lays eggs to and the big Hen does not like sharing the coop, where there are 2 nesting boxes. help

    • Mark Gatter says:

      Hi Christine,
      Tricky, tricky situation. Unfortunately there’s a reason behind the term ‘pecking order’, as your hens appear to be demonstrating. There’s really not much to do except keep them apart as this behaviour could result in serious injury or even death. It’s very unlikely that the bigger (and less sociable) bird is ever going to decide to share nicely.

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