Saturday, December 29, 2007

Blakeman on redtails vs. chickens

Pale Male at his Turtle Pond roo0st -- 11/17/07
Photo by Bruce Yolton - http://www/
A few days ago Karen, a reader in Brisbane CA who has "a piece of property with a huge swathe of open land and a lagoon beyond," and who spends many hours "sitting peacefully in the garden watching and listening to all of the spectacular birds that inhabit this area. In particular ... the ever magnificent Red Tailed Hawks"
made a fateful decision: to raise her own hens for eggs. She writes:

"We did a little research and chose the very hardy Rhode Island Reds (Huey, Louie and Dewey, the three wise hens). I have raised them from 3 day old chicks and they lay the most delicious eggs, fertilize my fruit trees and make wonderful full time gardeners - no weeds! They run free during the day over a fenced 1/4 acre and are locked in at night. "

You probably know what's coming. Karen continues:

"Unfortunately the Hawks have discovered them and believe it or not they have survived two attacks, the last one was only a fluke that I managed to get out in time to scare of the grand-dame Red Tail (she must have had at least a four - five foot wing span), who was efficiently plucking my dear girl..Vet bills and a partially plucked chicken with many stitches later, we placed netting over our garden as a deterrent.

"As much as I love all of the creatures, I do not want my chickens to become a tasty lunch for our hawks. So, with the netting and now my two border collies on constant patrol during most daylight hours, do you think I have created a good enough deterrent ? I would be most grateful for any advice that you could offer on the subject."

Well, I sent the letter along to John Blakeman. Here's his response:

This is the classic "chicken hawk" problem, one that in former times caused Red-tails, and by association, most other hawks, too, to be vilified and castigated as unworthy pests that should be destroyed. Laws now prevent such persecutions, and public perceptions of Red-tails and other raptors are far more positive and supportive. Efforts such as "Red-tails in Love" are usefully contributory.

But the biological reality is that free-roaming hens within a Red-tail's territory are likely, albeit periodically incidental targets. Let's face it. A Rhode Island Red can't fly very well, nor defend itself. It's big and an inviting target. To the hawk, which never sees any truly wild animal behave in the manner of chickens, a strutting or weed-plucking hen appears to be disabled and an easy target.

Therefore, if a Red-tail is nearby -- and today, with their populations at record levels, they often are -- appropriate measures must be taken to protect these layers of tasty eggs. Keeping them under netting is probably the safest thing that can be done. If the sky is open over the hens, a local Red-tail may attack. They are opportunistic predators and a chicken strutting around on the ground is a tasty target.

I doubt that the border collies will be a sufficient deterrence. At some point, the dogs will be looking or roaming elsewhere and the chickens, although only for a moment, will be vulnerable. The hawks will figure out the roaming patterns of the dogs and the hens and in time will learn when an attack could be successful.

I'm afraid that there isn't much that can be done to thoroughly protect the chickens other then to keep them enclosed under netting or screening. That would make them no longer free-ranging, thereby reducing the quantity of insects and weed seeds they ingest each day, and also thereby reducing the natural tastiness of the eggs they lay.

Sorry, but both state and federal laws now protect the hawks. In years past, they would have just been shot from the sky, making the local vicinity safe for free-ranging chickens. The only alternative I can think of is to create a large, bottomless, screened cage-like structure in which the chickens are placed. The structure is then pulled around the pasture several times a day, allowing the birds to forage quasi-naturally and safe from both hawks and other earth-bound predators such as coyotes, foxes, and the like.


John A. Blakeman