When we first brought our chicken quartet home about a month ago, they did not want to leave the safety of the coop. They had been raised in close confines and it was obvious they felt more comfortable with four walls and a roof overhead.
Melvin, our Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster (front), with Mable (left), May (right), and Bess (in back), a Rhode Island Red
We built a run for them, but the flock was hesitant to leave the coop; I actually had to go inside and usher them out! They had good reason to be wary: two pairs of red-tailed hawks patrol our valley regularly and it didn’t take long for them to discover the new “carry-out” restaurant featuring fresh chicken!
Red-tailed hawk. Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service
Red-tails, sometimes called “chickenhawks,” prefer to prey on mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and smaller birds, but will attack full-grown chickens if they get hungry enough. First year hawks are especially likely to go after chickens in winter when other food is scarce. This is because young hawks are often relegated to the less desirable habitat, which means they are forced to take more risks in order to survive.
The red-tailed hawk is one of the largest members of the genus Buteo in North America, typically weighing from 1.5 to 3.5 pounds and measuring 18-26 inches in length, with a wingspan from 43 to 57 inches. When soaring or flapping its wings, it typically travels from 20 to 40 mph (64 km/h), but when diving may exceed 120 mph!
Red-tails are killing machines, relying on excellent eyesight and stealth to find their prey and their curved, sharp beak and strong talons (claws) to kill their victim. When spotting prey while in flight, they may dive straight down (at up to 120 mph) to snatch it with their sharp talons. They also watch for prey while sitting on a perch, such as a fence post, dead tree, or tree branch and once they see a potential meal, swoop down and kill it. Mated pairs commonly hunt together, chasing prey until one of them catches it.
Hearing the loud, raspy screams of the hawks patrolling our valley sealed the deal for the chickens – they fled to the safety of the coop! But some days, the wide-ranging hawks are busy hunting elsewhere and curiosity has pushed the flock to widen their circle of exploration beyond the safety of the coop.
A young rooster, Melvin is still trying to master the art of crowing, but is fulfilling his role as guardian of the flock and maintains a watchful eye over his girls. As you can see below, he is on the alert for signs of danger.
Each day, they venture a little farther from the coop.
Now that the flock has spent some time surveying their surroundings, they have found places to take cover should the hawks come in for a closer look. When they hear the distinctive cries of the hawk, they run under one of the vehicles or the crawlspace under the barn. Here, they are probably safe because the hawks are looking for easy victims and the mice, squirrels, and wild birds that are plentiful right now provide easier targets.
We want the flock to be able to free-range so they have access to the insects that will provide a high protein diet for them and give the eggs more flavor. Hopefully, the chickens will learn the lessons they have to learn to live with hawks. Right now, there is plenty of other food for the hawks; we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes this winter.