It’s summertime, and the living is queasy because of those relentless raptors in the sky, the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.
I used to step outside on a summer morning and revel in the tranquility of our semi-rural neighborhood. You might hear a blue jay’s hoarse cry or a mockingbird run through its repertoire, but otherwise it seemed so quiet that you could hear the trees breathe if you paid close attention.
Then we got chickens. And I learned to tune in to the cry of a hawk. And now that’s all I hear. Because currently, from dawn to the last moments of dusk, our property is patrolled by a trio of hungry hawks.
In April we saw the hawks pairing off and there were quiet weeks in May while they attended to their babies, but by the second week of June or so, they were back in action, with mama or daddy hawk showing a young one how to hunt down my chickens!
Last week I learned that the predators I have assumed to be red-tailed hawks are actually red-shouldered hawks, thanks to my dog-walker Lee, who knows her hawks. She explained that bands across the tail indicate the red-shouldered hawk, which thrives along the California coast. I think we have both species in our area, but our immediate threat displays the hunting behavior of the red-shouldered variety, which, according to Wikipedia, “…typically wait on a perch and swoop down on prey. When in clearings, they sometimes fly low to surprise prey…”
Our little flock of hens are avid free-rangers, which makes for many stressful moments throughout the day. Indeed, as I have been typing this post, I’ve had to go outside to check on the girls three times as the piercing cry of the hawk comes closer and closer. Here’s what it sounds like:
Last week one of the hawks swooped down so suddenly that by the time I could get out to the chicken yard it was already gone and instead of six chickens, I saw only five plus a small pile of feathers on the ground where Pippa should have been! Surely there would have been more noise if the hawk had gotten Pippa, I thought, but I searched and searched and could not find her. Finally, after a few heart-stopping minutes, I discovered her, frozen in fear, but well-hidden beneath the bales of pine shavings we store on a workbench near the coop.
The hawks behave with impunity, as if they know they are federally protected. Kill a hawk without a permit, and you will pay a hefty fine. It is not illegal to scare a hawk away, but they don’t scare all that easily. When I’ve found them lurking in our oaks, they’ll wait until I get fairly close before nonchalantly flapping away.
The only fail-safe way to guard chickens from hawks is to keep them securely penned or in the coop. But, of course, that’s no fun for them. The CE and I go round and round about what level of risk is acceptable: quality of life or life vs. death? Some people recommend stringing aviary netting as I discussed in a previous post, others claim that nylon fishing line or hanging shiny CD’s to frighten the hawks will do the trick. I’ve also heard that getting a dog to guard your flock is the way to go. We’ve got the dogs, but I don’t think guarding chickens or anything else is in their DNA.
If you’re lucky enough to live where you can have a rooster to guard your flock, that’s a first line of defense. Otherwise, providing ample cover for the chickens and hoping they’re smart enough to use it is key. Our girls do seem to know how to scramble when death with wings swoops down, but one false move or a straggler like Luna whose Silkie pom pom obstructs her vision, could spell tragedy in the Chicken Kingdom. For the moment, we rely on vigilance – who knew that my job description would ultimately become Human Shield for Hens?