IPM…How To Prevent Your Chickens From Becoming Hawk Food

Livestock 360 will be coming out next week and we have decided to dedicate the entire edition to Integrated Pest Management. In this issue we will review the different types of controls through real world examples.  The goal of these exercises is to get your mind working in sync with the theories and practices of IPM in order to be more effective in your battle with pests.  Below is excerpt from this issue dealing with chicken predation.

Mechanical and physical controls kill a pest directly, block pests out, or make the environment unsuitable for it. Traps for rodents are examples of mechanical control. Physical controls include mulches for weed management, steam sterilization of the soil for disease management, or barriers such as screens to keep birds or insects out.

There is nothing worse than losing an animal.  It is especially difficult when that animal is killed by a predator while under your watch.  Summer is the time of year when our laying flocks are out on pasture and feasting on the mid-summer bounty of bugs, plants, and whatever else then can get their beaks on.  Spending all this time eating and laying, it is no wonder that the chickens are easy prey to death from above.  Aerial predators such as hawks and eagles are difficult to deter, and because they are an organism capable of learning, they are especially difficult to control once they get a taste for your plump tasty flock.

IPM directs us to identify the pest, quantify its damage, and set a treatment threshold.  For example, let’s say that through observation we have identified the animal preying on our chickens is a Northern goshawk, and because of the persistent nature of the species, we have set the treatment threshold at one dead bird.

Now that we have met our threshold it is time to decide on our treatment.  Goshawks are protected by the migratory bird species act and it is illegal to utilize lethal force to control them, therefore we must do our best to design deterrents that do not harm the predators.  The most obvious and effective strategy would be mechanical.  We could design a covered run using poultry netting to protect our flock while they are out foraging in the daytime.  The protected run is very effective but can be expensive to purchase and set up, and will not work in deterring predators in a free range system.

Other mechanical strategies include setting up pallets or boxes where the chickens can hide if they are alerted to the presence of a predator.  These boxes can be moved with the chickens as needed so they work well in pasture systems.  Some folks have had success with utilizing hanging compact disks, or stringing fishing line around to deter the hawks.  This may work for a while but the birds will become habitualized to these strategies, decreasing their effectiveness as time goes on.

Chemical treatment of pests are not an option because they could harm these protected birds so we are left to explore biological strategies for control.  Most of us do not have roosters in our flocks but keeping a few in your flock can help in the fight against avian predators.  Roosters are natural watch guards and if you observe their behavior you will see that they scan their surroundings for signs of predators.  When a predator is discovered, the rooster will emit a predator-specific call that will send the flock ducking for cover or to head back into the shelter.  There have even been cases of roosters fighting off predators.

The other biological strategy you can utilize is to breed for hardiness and avoidance behavior.  Basically, any birds in your flock surviving to winter possess the genetic know how to avoid the predators and those that did not make it were deficient in this area.  If you retain these birds from your flock and breed them with your best roosters you will work to promote these traits in your flock.  This process is nothing new and is the reason that heritage breeds tend to be hardier and far better at avoiding predation than production animals.

These mechanical and biological control strategies can be effective in halting predation by aerial predators but as with the other modalities of control there is one other natural strategy.  Predators are beings that hunt native prey animals.  Whenever we have a predator-to-prey ratio that is out of balance there will be difficulties.  If we do our best to understand the natural prey and its preferred habitat, we can steward these specific areas and hopefully increase the prey population on our property.  This has the advantage of providing the predators with more of their natural prey and hopefully keep their stomachs full of these critters instead of the ones you are raising for profit.  In the case of the goshawk, we have come to understand that these birds prey upon a variety of other birds, amphibians, and mammals.   If we were to allow a few patches of the farm to form small thickets, this would provide shelter and habitat for native rabbits that may encourage our hawk population to feed on the native bounty as opposed to our livestock.

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