Elusive Chicken Killer: Possible Predators & Their Signs

It's never fun having to write about death, and unfortunately it is a dreaded, but integral part of the cycle - the balance if you will - where life exists. And sadly, the more abundance of livestock you decide to care for, the higher your chances are of those living things passing away or becoming prey. While I do accept that illness can happen, and predators still need to eat (I just wish they'd not eat my animals), I'm bothered most by the deaths that leave you scratching your head and a tad paranoid about how to prevent the unexplained from happening again.

As you might know, we brought an LGD puppy home a couple of months ago that had been raised around goats and chickens, and for the time that Sasha has been here, her only crimes committed have been devouring a few sets of flip flops, harmlessly chasing a couple of chickens, thinking the goats were other dogs to play with, and eating chicken feed from the feeders. But here recently, we have found ourselves praising her promising guardian skills more and more, as she has alerted us several times of potential threats - day and night. For the past two months, we've felt completely at ease leaving Sasha alone in the yard with our flock, and yesterday was no exception.

I had to go out of town several hours before Brandon would make it home from work, so I left Sasha in charge until he could get here. As usual, he arrived with no issues, and our flock was perfectly fine. Around 8 pm - not long before I made it in, and at least a couple of hours since he came home - B made his way to the chicken coops outside  to lock them up for the night, as has been our routine as long as we've owned chickens. Coming out onto the porch, he immediately noticed one of our bantams, Buttercup, lying in the front yard far from where the rest of the flock was, not moving with just a few feathers scattered about, and both of our dogs, Heidi and Sasha right there with her. Heidi, a new mom to 3.5 week old pups, had her mouth on Buttercup, but not in an aggressive way according to Brandon; more like when she tries to gently grab one of her lost puppies, and move it back to where it belongs. Buttercup was still warm, so whatever took place happened not long before he, and possibly the dogs, found her. She had a small hole in her chest/rib cage area that didn't resemble a dog bite, and she felt dry, which is odd if she were attacked by a dog. Before he went outside, Brandon didn't hear any barking, or squawking, and neither dog had any feathers or blood anywhere on them. It's like they looked guilty, and innocent all at the same time.


So, how do you try to prevent another loss when you don't even know what caused this one in the first place? Our mind's wheels began to spin frantically. We went ahead and tethered Sasha near the front porch, where she has access to food, water, and shelter - just in case she was the culprit. Despite being found trying to move the bird, we know hands down that Heidi didn't do this, and she was put back inside with her pups where she's been staying for a while now. Next, our discussion went straight to the fact that hawks are notorious in our area, but not likely to be one in this case considering it was nearly dark, and they hunt during the day. Our only other thought was maybe it was an owl. They are nocturnal hunters after all, and a known chicken predator. Double check. My suspicions grew more when Brandon mentioned that he and Sasha heard an owl a couple of nights ago, so we do know there's been at least one in the area recently. Check. Check. Check. Unfortunately, we can't know 100% since owls tend to leave chickens headless, but it is possible she was accidentally dropped from the pecan branches directly above where she was found. But - despite the fact that I don't want to think she did - it's also possible Sasha tried to play with her, and ultimately killed her. At this point, all we can do is speculate with the evidence we have, but something in my gut keeps trying to tell me it wasn't our livestock guardian. Regardless of whodunnit, the worst part is not knowing how to guard against this kind of thing from happening again. Sure, I'll buy some owl decoys from Tractor Supply, and keep Sasha tethered until we can create her a new living space down by the goats (which we've been meaning to do anyway, since that's her intended job), but what if it's neither of those things? All we can do is wait and see, and hope we don't lose another bird.

Have you lost livestock to an apparent predator, but didn't know exactly what kind? We'd appreciate hearing your experience, and the bases you tried to cover to keep something else like it from happening again. For those interested, I stumbled on this chart of predators, and how they typically attack poultry. Hopefully, you never need this, but I hope it helps if you ever do.


What Killed My Chicken?

Clue / Possible Predator

  • One or Two Birds Killed
  1. Entire chicken eaten on site / hawk
  2. Bites in breast or thigh, abdomen eaten; entire bird eaten on site / opossum
  3. Deep marks on head and neck, or head and neck eaten, maybe feathers around fence post /owl
  4. Entire chicken eaten or missing, maybe scattered feathers / coyote
  5. One bird gone, maybe scattered feathers / fox
  6. Chicks pulled into fence, wings and feet not eaten / domestic cat
  7. Chicks killed, abdomen eaten (but not muscles and skin), maybe lingering odor / skunk
  8. Head bitten off, claw marks on neck, back, and sides; body partially covered with litter / bobcat
  9. Bruises and bites on legs / rat
  10. Backs bitten, heads missing, necks and breasts torn, breasts and entrails eaten; bird pulled into fence and partially eaten; carcass found away from housing, maybe scattered feathers / raccoon
  • Several Birds Killed
  1. Birds mauled but not eaten; fence or building torn into; feet pulled through cage bottom and bitten off / dog
  2. Bodies neatly piled, killed by small bites on neck and body, back of head and neck eaten / mink
  3. Birds killed by small bites on neck and body, bruises on head and under wings, back of head and neck eaten, bodies neatly piled; faint skunk-like odor / weasel
  4. Rear end bitten, intestines pulled out / fisher, marten
  5. Chicks dead; faint lingering odor / skunk
  6. Heads and crops eaten / raccoon
  • One Bird Missing
  1. Feathers scattered or no clues / bobcat, cougar (aka catamount, mountain lion, panther, puma), fox, hawk, owl
  2. Fence or building torn into, feathers scattered / dog
  3. Small bird missing, lingering musky odor / mink
  • Several Birds Missing
  1. No clues / coyote, hawk, human
  2. Feathers scattered or no clues / fox
  3. Chicks missing, no clues / snake
  4. Small birds missing, bits of coarse fur at coop opening / raccoon
  5. Chicks or young birds missing / cat, rat
  • Eggs Missing
  1. No clues / human, rat, snake
  2. Empty shells in and around nests / dog, mink, opossum, raccoon
  3. Empty shells in nest or near housing / crow, jay
  4. No clues or empty shells in and around nests, maybe faint lingering odor / skunk

*Adapted from: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow