A couple of weeks ago, as I opened the door to my duck shelter, my Pekins rushed to exit with significantly more urgency than usual. After the duck exodus nearly knocked me over, I saw why. A trail of blood led to one of my beautiful white ducks laying dead on a nest of broken, empty egg shells.
At the risk of sounding cliché, my heart sank and I felt a little woozy as I comprehended the carnage. Yet, as a caretaker of livestock, I knew exactly what I had to do. I squatted down and took in the details of my duck's death with an investigator's eye.
The Scene of the Crime
My duck's throat had been ripped open. Her beak had been gnawed. Otherwise, her crop was full, brains intact, and intestines untouched. The blood trail that led me to her body was squished into the straw all around the duck shelter.
My victim had a ready-to-lay egg still bound inside her body. The broken eggshells beneath her were almost completely cleaned of yolks and whites and broken in small pieces. Yet, they were splattered with blood that wasn't smeared. No signs of struggle or scat (predator poop) were present in the vicinity.
Investigating a Predator Attack
As livestock owners, when losses happen, we sometimes have to become investigators to find the answers we need so we can better secure our animals. We have to switch our brains from that initial state of shock and horror and begin acting like detached detectives.
It's not an easy transition to make. Yet the scene I just described was rife with details that could help me figure out whodunnit and how to prevent it from happening again.
Assess the Damage
First, the fact that the eggs were empty and blood splattered (not smeared) meant the predator likely ate the eggs before getting my duck. The minimal damage to my duck's body confirms this too. A hungry predator would have at least eaten part of my duck like the brains, intestines, or the contents of her crop.
Look for Subtle Clues
The way the blood was spread seemed to indicate my other ducks had walked through a pool of blood and spread it around on their feet. That meant the predator had not drunk the blood and probably hadn't move the body after death.
Since duck bills are incredibly sensitive and my duck's body didn't show signs of struggle, it seemed likely that the beak gnawing had happened postpartum. (Thank goodness!) Maybe the perpetrator confused the beak with the yellow of a yolk? Or maybe they needed calcium since beaks are made of bones beneath those shiny sheaths of keratin protein.
Figure Out the Time Frame of Attack
The fact that there were so many broken egg shells, and my dead duck had not yet laid hers, suggested the event happened in daylight. Ducks lay in the morning and like chickens, they wait in line for the favorite nest. Likely, my poor girl had been late in the layer line.
Imagine What Happened
Based on the details available to me, a story evolved. The event in question had started as a simple robbery. Sadly, my poor unlucky duck, sauntered in at the wrong moment, interrupting the intruder in the act. The robber, fearful of being apprehended (or injured) attacked first, silencing my dear duck with a swift swipe at her throat and sealed her lips forever by eating her beak.
That scenario, though unpleasant, seemed plausible. Yet it didn't answer the most pressing questions.
- Who was the robber turned murderer?
- What was their point of entry?
- Would the killer return?
Once you assess the scene with an investigators eye, you can use predator identification guides to match up kill-styles. You may have to look at a few different guides to find clues that match up. Conservation sites for wildlife also offer a lot of insight into potential poultry predator behavior.
Things like time of kill, type of wounds, the location of the body, and the number of deaths can narrow down the likely perpetrator quickly. Your knowledge of the types of poultry predators around your area can also help narrow the list of possible culprits.
As to “whodunnit” in my case, the nature of the wounds and timing of the murder didn't quite fit with the common poultry predator clues. Yet, I knew that we had raccoons, weasels, possums, owls, and hawks around our area.
I ruled out weasels quickly. Weasel's are serial killers and would have left more dead ducks behind. Owls and hawks were also ruled out since they aren't egg eaters. That left a raccoon or possum as a possible culprit.
Normally those two omnivores are nocturnal. Yet in fall, all bets are off. Raccoons hibernate in late winter, so in fall they must feast every chance they get to put on sufficient hibernation fat stores. Possums also do more scavenging by day in fall because they aren't so cold-hardy and prefer to spend the coldest hours holed up.
Finding the Point of Entry
The next step in the investigation after narrowing down the prospective list of perpetrators is to figure out how the culprit breached your secure shelter. As I started looking at every gap of space in my shelter critically, I found the opening.
A roofing nail had popped out. As a result, a 3 inch long, by 1-inch tall space opened up in my rafters. When I pushed on the roof panel, the space became bigger. It wasn't a large opening. But for a young raccoon or possum, it would create enough room to get in.
As I considered this point of entry along with the other facts, my intuition began tingling. Given the fact that raccoons are fattening up for winter, a possum seemed more likely given the opening size. Also, possums are eggshell eaters and need high calcium, particularly in winter.
Possums are also conflict-averse and more likely to strike and run than a raccoon when cornered. I doubted a raccoon would have gone to all that trouble and then not bothered to eat parts of any of my ducks.
If my hunch was right, that a possum had been my killer, then I knew one more thing for certain.
Would the Killer Return?
Possums have excellent memories. Even though they may walk a few miles to scavenge and hunt for food, they often return to locations where they had success before. This meant that if a possum had been my killer, I should expect a repeat visit and soon!
In fact, most predators come back to locations where they had good fortune finding food. Depending on the kind of poultry predator and how broad their hunting range, it can take days, weeks, months, or even a year for them to find their way back.
Generally though, if you've had a predator attack, your chances of it happening again soon go way up. That means your next step is to step up your poultry predator protection!
Once a predator has found a food source in your livestock shelters, they will be more likely to test the limits of your security going forward. That means you should correct the defect identified in your post-predator investigative work. However, you'll also want to do a full inspection of your coop to ensure that no other potential points of entry are present.
Depending on the persistence level of your poultry predators, consider one or all of the following tips to secure your livestock going forward.
Tip 1: Fix Problems
Scour every square inch of your coop or shelter to find possible points of entry. Pull on doors and windows. Push on boards. Check for rot, or digging around your baseboards. Add hardware cloth, wood framing, and concrete blocks as necessary to better secure your spaces.
Tip 2: Remove Temptation
If you happen to keep livestock feed, compost piles, or other potential edibles around your livestock areas, move those as far away from your secure spaces as you can get them. Your livestock is temptation enough. You definitely don't want to keep any other food options as extra temptation after an attack.
Tip 3: Add Deterrents
If this isn't your first attack, then consider other deterrents such as installing movement sensing lights or sounds. Or maybe add an electric wire fence around your perimeter for additional safety.
Tip 4: Bring in the Big Dog(s)
Tip 5: Use Cameras
Put up wildlife cameras to track poultry predator behavior. Sometimes simple things like a tree branch hanging over your coop can make access easier. Seeing how and when predators put pressure on your livestock can help you make a plan for preventing future attacks.
Tip 6: Trap and Transport
Consider trapping persistent predators and relocating them (in accordance with applicable laws). Contact your local animal control for advice and information on how to do this.
Tip 7: Do Use Decoys
Deter poultry predators using decoys such as putting coyote pee around the perimeter of your runs to deter smaller predators. Use an owl decoy to discourage hawks.
Tip 8: Change It Up
For persistent problems, you may need to move your coop or shelter to a new location. Relocating your shelter closer to your house or out of predators' normal paths can help.
Tip 9: New Construction
Upgrade your shelter entirely using concrete or stone foundations, hardware cloth, hardwood, or steel construction. Particularly for large predators, like beers and mountain lions, sometimes you have to build a virtual bug out shelter to keep your livestock safe.
Tip 10: Get Guinea Fowl
Use guinea fowl to sound the alarm when predators are near. Their noise alone sends some predators packing. (Or, they become the target, thereby saving your other livestock.)
Tip 11: Go Hunting
In severe cases, if legal, you may need to hunt persistent poultry predators when trapping and transporting are not possible.
Predators Happen to Good Livestock Keepers
Given all the work and effort we go to in order to keep our livestock safe on our homesteads, there's bound to be that icky feeling of violation that comes after a predator invades our secure spaces and endangers the animals in our care. Yet, the truth is predators happen even to the best livestock keepers.
It's almost inevitable that when you keep livestock for any period of time, predator pressure will increase. Chances are at some point you'll have to up your game to continue to keep your livestock safe.
Different times of year may also increase the amount of pressure and the likelihood of attack. Molting chickens, for example, appear a lot smaller and more accessible to a hawk than a fluffy, fully feathered chicken. Hibernation periods and food shortages in surrounding areas may also impact predator pressure.
When you keep livestock, expect some losses. Poultry predators are an important part of the larger food life web and sometimes sacrifices are inevitable. If you learn from your experiences and become a better livestock keeper as a result, then even painful losses can lead to better livestock management long-term.