I often hear horror stories involving a raccoon or a dog entering a chicken coop and massacring all the birds. Too many well-meaning chicken keepers set up their chickens in unsafe coops without realizing it. It’s traumatic for all involved but it is preventable. Chickens are prey animals and as their guardians we are responsible for their safety. Who is roaming in your yard? Raccoons, hawks, dogs, foxes, bobcats...? It’s important to know what kind of predators are in your area, so you can protect your birds accordingly. You don’t protect a coop the same way against a weasel and a mountain lion. Observe who is visiting your yard during the day and at night. A camera with night vision can become handy for this. Talk to your neighbor chicken keepers and learn from their experience. Below is a great summary of the main predators from the Animal Place's Chicken Care booklet.
Let’s start with the hen house. It should be an unassailable fort where the chickens can sleep on both ears. Because of their poor night vision, night is the time when they are the most vulnerable. The walls, floor, and roof need to be sturdy enough to not allow any critter to break, chew, claw, or dig through. Bring all the chickens in the hen house before dusk and close all the doors and windows. If the windows need to remain open for proper air circulation, protect with hardware cloth (not regular window screen that only prevents insects to come in) attached with screws and washers instead of staples. When making your coop predator proof, you might as well make it rodent proof. Hungry rats can kill baby chicks and injure chickens in their sleep. Squirrels, rats, and mice also love chicken feed which can prove costly, but worse, they may bring diseases to your flock. To keep them out of the coop, the meshing of the hardware cloth should be half an inch or smaller. Lock all openings including the nest box lid with latches requiring multiple steps to open. Raccoons can easily open simple latches such as a hook and eye latch and basic handles. Here are a few examples of predator proof latches:
During daytime, the chickens should be able to roam outdoor safely. Protect the run from all sides. Using chicken wire or soft netting is not enough. Chicken wire is good for keeping chickens in, but not predators and rodents out. Raccoons can easily pass their arm through and catch a chicken. Rodents and other critters would have no problem chewing through nets. Use the same hardware cloth as the one used to secure the hen house (½” max meshing). If the bottom of the run is on the soil then ensure nobody can dig in. One option is to put hardware cloth under the whole floor area, fix it to the frame, and add one foot of soil on top so the chickens don’t walk or scratch on it. The second option is to dig a trench of about 1 foot deep and 2 foot wide at the exterior perimeter of the coop, and install the hardware cloth down and out. It will deter any digger. If you are dealing with big predators like coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions, you will need to install electrified wires all around the coop and possibly barbed wire. If you are “free ranging” your flock, you can make their yard safer by providing plenty of cover: trees, bushes, tables, netting to reduce aerial attacks. Having a rooster or a guard animal (dog, llama...) will also help as they will be on the lookout and sound the alarm when they see danger. But don’t fool yourself, letting your chickens roaming outside their run is not predator proof. I let only mine in the yard when I am in the yard myself, and even that wasn’t enough to deter a hawk to come down on one of my girls. But because I was outside, I could intervene and immediately bring my hen to the vet for sutures and save her life. Finally, deterrents such as motion-sensor lights or decoy owls don’t really work. Predators are really too smart to let those stop them.