Tiny Predators Take Toll on Chickens

Some things are certain about racoons. They seem to live everywhere, are always hungry, and their favorite meal is a tasty chicken.

Few animals are as adept at raiding a coop as a hungry raccoon.  Outstanding climbers, they can clamber up siding to reach a window or hole in the side of the building. Their forepaws are almost as nimble as human hands and enable the hungry predators to open simple clasps and enter a pophole or even coop door. Added to that is their amazing ability to squeeze through small holes and gaps. It’s no wonder that chicken keepers take precautions to keep them out of their coop.

Unfortunately, many people who keep their flock safe from raccoons, dogs, cats, foxes, opossums, weasels, and mink, ignore the tiny predators that suck blood from their hens. Mosquitoes, gnats, and flies easily buzz through hardware cloth or heavy-duty wire mesh used to exclude hungry mammals. They enter by the thousands to steal blood meals and torment the flock.

Chickens are extremely vulnerable to biting insects. Although thick feathers provide some protection, fleshy combs and wattles are inviting blood-rich targets. Most mosquitoes and gnats aren’t usually active during the day and wait until twilight and evening to hunt for dinner. Biting flies often work the day shift and welcome the chance to bite chickens. Sometimes a foraging hen will turn the table and snatch a fly from the air and turn it into a protein rich treat.  But when fly numbers are high chickens are vulnerable to their bites.

During daylight hours chickens are amazingly alert but once they flap up to the roost and nod off for the evening, they enter a near comatose state. When sleeping they can’t protect themselves from either biting insects or toothy mammals.  After dark they especially need the help of their owner.

When gnats and mosquitoes make it unbearable for humans to sit outside on an otherwise pleasant evening it’s likely they’re drawing blood from vulnerable chickens that are equally uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are ways to make it challenging for both insects and mammalian predators to enter the coop. When owner keep them out, the flock will enjoy a good night’s sleep.

REDUCING THE MOSQUITO POPULATION

Reducing the local mosquito population is a good place to start. Success makes life more pleasant for people and hens.

One stage of the mosquito life cycle makes them vulnerable. As aquatic insects they must have standing water to breed. Fertile females lay eggs in tiny rafts on stagnant water. These hatch into larvae within one to two days. Larvae feed on nutrients in the water and eventually pupate and emerge as adults. The time from egg to adult depends on the temperature but can be as short as a week. Male mosquitoes are content to spend their lives feeding on nectar and mating, but females need a protein rich blood meal to produce eggs. They are the aggressive biters.

The key to reducing a local mosquito population is to eliminate standing water they need to breed. That’s not always easy to do but it’s the first step a homeowner should take to control skeeters. They don’t need much water to produce thousands of mosquito babies. Rain filled toys, tin cans, and even a bird bath can breed them by the thousands. Here are some tips for reducing mosquito breeding sites:

  • Tidy up the yard. Remove toys, tools, cans or anything else that can hold even a small amount of rainwater.
  • Check and clean rain gutters. Sometimes a wad of old leaves blocks a gutter, causing a standing pool of water. One gutter can produce thousands of mosquitoes.
  • Change chicken drinking water often. Buckets and waterers for chickens, dogs, or other animals can quickly become mosquito breeders. So can a bird bath. At least every two days dump out the old water and replace it.
  • Encourage mosquito predators. Birds, bats, fish, frogs, toads, and even some insects, like dragonflies, eat mosquitoes. Yards with a diversity of vegetation encourage mosquito predators.
  • Stock decorative backyard pools with a few goldfish to snack on larvae.

KEEPING THEM OUT OF THE COOP

The coop is the last line of defense chickens have against biting insects. Many flock owners are diligent about covering windows with strong wire that repels racoons. Yet they forget about fine mesh netting that allows biting bugs easy entry. The same type of mosquito netting that keeps bugs out of houses works just as well on coop windows. There is a problem.

Metal or nylon insect screening will hardly slow down a raccoon, so windows need two layers of mesh. Heavy duty hardware cloth or other strong wire mesh on the outside of the window deters raccoons and makes it impossible for them to tear the mosquito netting that’s installed on the inside of the window. The double system allows cool summer breezes to enter while keeping both big and tiny predators outside. Screens allow chickens to snooze in peace.

Insect screening tends to collect the abundant dust created by chickens. Over time, the screen will nearly plug up with dust and not allow much light or air to pass through.

They need to be cleaned a couple of times a year. An easy way is to remove the insect screen in the fall after the end of the bug season and spray it with a jet of water from a hose. Once dry, they can be stored for the winter. Permanently installed screens can be cleaned in place by using a cordless vacuum cleaner with the hose set on the blower mode. Simply blow the dust out of the screen.  A leaf blower might also work but sometimes the force of air is so strong it might tear the screen. Be sure to wear ear protection to block the high-pitched sound.

Nearly all flock owners are aware that furry nocturnal predators love to raid a coop after dark. They take precautions to keep them out. Remember too that you can help your flock be comfortable and work to reduce insects that love to feast on chicken blood.   Wise flock owners protect their birds from both kinds of predators.