Skip to content

Poultry versus Predator

It started six days ago. It was the beginning of a week-long cold snap. I went to the barn and hen house at sunrise to take food and warm water to the ducks, chickens and turkeys. Everything was fine in both buildings.

Steve came inside in rush late in the morning. The kitchen door swung open and slammed the door handle into the side of the refrigerator. Something was wrong. “Hey Rob, when was the last time you checked on the chickens?” I told him. Three of the four silkies were dead and had been eaten. I really liked those birds, all hens. They were going to set on ring neck pheasant eggs for me this spring. I had plans. They served several purposes.

I first suspected a bobcat. There wasn’t much left to the carcasses to give me clues.  A raccoon was a possibility. A warm spell had just ended and though early, they could be out for mating season. Raccoons rip head, leg or wing off while the bird is alive, and it’s a bloody mess. These wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere. I ruled that out. Skunks mate in winter but I didn’t think that was it. Skunks clean the meat off down to the bone, including the neck, neatly picked clean.

Did you think raccoons and skunks hibernated in fall and didn’t wake up til spring? They don’t. Even bears are awake in winter, in what’s called torpor. Sows are awake to give birth and raise cubs in the den. They give birth in Maine in January.

I was concerned about the kills being made in daylight. I’d been in the barn four hours earlier and everything was fine. Bobcat? They hunt during the day. I had another bobcat, a predator I don’t often have to deal with. I kept the barn doors closed until much later in the morning, let the dogs out on patrol one at a time to stretch out the time they could cover in the -25* wind chill, and checked on the birds several times during the day.

Tuesday morning, out early, birds watered and fed, I went back to the house. When it warmed up I took water to the barn to let the ducks have a bath. If they can’t bathe to stay clean they have a hard time staying warm. In this cold, it’s better for them to have a quick dip, shake off the water, preen and be clean and warm. I put a DuraFlex feed pan on top of some hay, filled it and let the ducks have their bath. It was Ava’s turn to guard the birds so she went out when I went back to the house.

About an hour later, Ava, panting hard and barking, came to the house to get me.I pulled on my boots, grabbed my coat and ran to the barn. Silence. That’s never good. The nervous ducks always quack when I enter the barn. The chickens weren’t clucking. All dead? My stomach turned. Had I lost all of these birds in a short time while Ava was outside? No barking? Nothing made sense.

I don’t know what happened but I assume she surprised the predator in the barn and chased it away. Three ducks were dead. One was was partially eaten and what remained of it had been hidden under a little hay. Two more were in a corner in the hay. One was missing its head, the other whole. Both had wounds to the neck. It was suggested online that it might be a weasel. I looked at the carcasses again. There weren’t the telltale bobcat scratches down their backs that are made when a cat swipes at its prey. Weasels kill their prey by biting the neck. Clearly it wasn’t an ermine (stout). An ermine that weighs two to six ounces doesn’t eat four pounds of duck or three pounds of chicken in one feeding. Fisher? Yes, probably a fisher. The bite marks on the necks, big enough to gorge on that much meat and brave enough to show up during the day; it made sense. I didn’t know if fishers killed more than they’d eat at once or if they bury food for later. I know now that they don’t.

Runner ducks killed by a predator.
Sweetie, Chocolate and Drake.

I caught the three surviving chickens and three surviving ducks, crated them and moved them to the hen house. Introducing three terrified ducks to turkeys and chickens is tough. It’s hard on chickens, especially traumatized birds, but worse on the already nervous ducks. Two of the three ducks had scratches on their necks but if they died now, it would be from shock, not injury.

duck killed by predator
Note wounds at the bottom of the duck’s neck. It’s hard to see with its winter coat.

The chickens did alright. Buff and an orpington had a sparring match. Ava tried to keep them apart but they were hell-bent on fighting. Ava tugged at the orpington’s leg a few times without results. She became frustrated by the birds after 10 minutes, grabbed the orpington by the leg, dragged her out of the hen house and deposited her on a snowbank. End of fight. Five days later, the chicken is probably still wondering what happened. The ducks spent the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday in the crate. They started eating and drinking Wednesday afternoon, a good sign they’d survive.

The energy bar I gave the barn chickens was partially eaten Thursday. The predator was back.

(This has gotten long. I’ll continue tomorrow.)

Published inOutdoors