Coyotes are wiry, savvy and widespread across the American landscape. Once residents of the plains and deserts, these crafty canines have keenly adapted to modern infrastructure and are now found in nearly every state and city in North America. These scrappy omnivores will eat nearly anything—rodents, rabbits, snakes, small livestock, fruit, neighborhood garbage … and, of course, your chickens.
Coyotes are smaller than wolves and can be mistaken for domestic dogs, albeit on the skinny side. They’re very clever, as Native American folklore suggests, and they tend to form packs in the winter for easy hunting. However, it’s rather common to see individuals wandering and hunting solo or in pairs. Coyotes have a sharp sense of smell, great vision and can run up to 40 miles per hour.
Coyote Calling Card
Even if you live in a densely populated suburban neighborhood, don’t rule out a coyote in the event of an attack on your flock. Truth be told, it can be rather difficult to distinguish between a coyote attack, a fox attack or a wolf attack.
Your first clue, of course, will be which animals likely reside in your region of the country. If you notice some of the signs below following an attack, a coyote could be considered the culprit:
- missing chickens
- scattered feathers
- very few clues of an attack
- early morning attack (although coyotes may strike either day or night)
- weak, old, sick or slow birds taken first
- broken necks (Coyotes and other canines prefer to break the neck of the prey first, but they will grab any part of the chicken they can reach and make off with the whole bird.)
Your Flock’s Defenses
Coyotes are known for digging under fences as well as scaling over them. The best defense for outdoor runs and enclosures is to erect tall, strong fences and bury heavy-duty wire mesh at least 1 foot into the ground around the run’s perimeter. Hardware cloth, not chicken wire, is recommended for coyote protection.
If you prefer not to dig around the perimeter, you may instead choose to fan out the wire mesh (also about a length of 1 foot) in an apron around the base of the enclosure’s fencing. Electric net fencing (the kind with smaller openings, rather than three continuous strands) also works well to protect pastured birds from coyotes if used intermittently.
If used daily, a coyote may learn ways to get around the fencing, jump over it, or learn the times of day when it’s not “hot.”
The fox is the quintessential chicken killer. Sly, smart and savvy, foxes will assess an area before striking and will do so only after they know the coast is clear of humans and other guardians (such as guard dogs). Foxes prefer to make their moves in the early morning hours or evening, but they’ve been known to attack during the day as well.
There are four types of foxes found in North America: the red, gray, arctic and kit—with the red fox being most common. The four types vary slightly in appearance, locale and behavior. What they all have in common is their cunning: Foxes are incredibly bright and learn quickly. They pick up on patterns, such as when you’re at home and when you’re not.
This makes them challenging adversaries.
Luckily for most backyard chicken keepers, foxes rarely visit urban and suburban neighborhoods. Of course, there are always exceptions. If your home is situated near dense forest, sprawling land or if you have a large amount of property, it’s possible that a vixen will make her den nearby and discover your flock for what they are: easy pickings.
Foxes are rather territorial, too. So if you’ve confirmed that there are any residing nearby, they’ll likely be there for a while.
With red foxes populating every state except Florida, it’s better to be prepared for an attack rather than caught off guard. Foxes can climb but prefer to dig under fences or attack birds while they’re ranging.
They’ll bide their time, stalk the birds and strike when hens are far from safety. Red foxes can also swim, run up to 30 miles per hour and be excellent jumpers, capable of pouncing up to 15 feet in the air.
Foxes’ Calling Card
Foxes have partially retractable claws that allow them to quietly sneak up to prey and reveal their talons for a quick, efficient capture. Though this predator is part of the canine family, its hunting style is more akin to that of a cat. It stalks prey, makes its move by running quickly or pouncing, and then uses the sharp claws to pin down prey.
If a fox attacks a flock of chickens while they are free-ranging, it’ll likely grab only one, maybe two, at a time. If it gains access to a henhouse, the fox will kill and carry out as many as it can.
Suspect the fox if you see some of the following clues:
- one or two missing chickens
- chickens disappearing while free-ranging
- little or no blood
- missing bird(s) with no evidence other than some clumps of feathers
- missing bird(s) with no evidence at all
- attack occurs in the early morning or evening hours
- if the attack occurred in the coop, several birds missing and others injured
- injured survivors likely to have deep neck or back puncture wounds
Your Flock’s Defenses
Mow grass regularly and keep brush cut back to reduce the cover that foxes use while hunting. If your birds pasture some distance from your home or any other regularly occupied human dwelling, make use of tall fencing with a buried perimeter or enlist a guardian, such as a livestock guard dog, to protect your flock.
Electric fencing does little to deter foxes. They’ll either slip between the lines or jump over it.
If foxes frequent your area or you know there’s a den nearby, pull out all the stops. Bury hardware cloth perimeters around the coop and lock up your birds each night. Let your birds free-range with company only. Leave a chicken-friendly dog outside or be outside to watch them.
Remember, foxes are clever, and they’ll strike when your guard is down. Once they’ve had a taste of chicken, they’ll be back for more, again and again.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.