The Curious Incident of the Chickens In the Night-Time

I used to count the feet.

At sundown all the chickens march into the chicken coop and hop onto the roost to put themselves to bed. I go out a little bit later with a flashlight to close the door of the chicken coop so that nothing would get at them at night. Every night I open the door and look in and count the feet to make sure that all the chickens were in there. Twenty feet; ten chickens.

And then one night I counted eighteen feet. I turned from the coop into the chicken yard with my flashlight: no chicken sleeping on top of the coop. No chicken hiding in the bushes next to the coop. No chicken wandering about in the dark looking confused, having forgotten to actually go to bed.

The light caught a bit of movement toward the back of my chicken yard. I turned the flashlight on the back fence and two glowing neon eyes stared back at me out of the darkness. Chickens do not have eyes facing forward. I took a step back, and then a step forward.

And the bobcat stopped chewing on my chicken, climbed right up the fence, jumped into the bushes and ran away.

This was only the start.

Bobcat crop

I live just outside a town called Los Gatos (the cats), originally named for the large number of bobcats in the area. We have an especially large population of bobcats that make our property home because most of our land is uncleared and we don’t own dogs. We see bobcats on the lawn, on the driveway, in the fields, and in the bushes. Bobcats are fun to watch because they behave just like very large house cats; they sleep in the sun, they wrestle like kittens, they bat pine cones around for fun. They have big tufty ears and spotty bellies. Given how cute they are it’s hard to remember that bobcats are not house cats; they are wild, and they hunt to eat.

By keeping chickens, I was putting bobcat food on a buffet and ringing the “free food” bell.

I thought that the chickens were safe. Although I had lost the occasional chicken to predators in the past, I had beefed up my chicken yard security, and it had been two years since I had lost a chicken. When the bobcat took the first bird I was momentarily struck stupid. But…I have a seven foot fence. I have a secure coop. How could this have happened? The rule I neglected to fully grasp is that a chicken yard is safe right up until the moment it isn’t, the predators have all the time in the world to look for a way in, and they will wait until the one night you forget to shut the door or the one time you have your back turned. And a fence now matter how tall is ineffective against a smart cat who can climb.

While I was wasting time dumbly trying to understand what had gone wrong two more chickens vanished, one after the other, and there was just a pile of feathers on the ground where they had been. One pile of black feathers. One pile of grey feathers. Like ashes left behind after a fire.

I put up a hot wire, a strand of electrical fencing, just short of the top of the fence. I covered the back corner of the fence with netting, where I thought the bobcat was coming in. I put the chickens to bed well before dark and let them out when the sun was well up. But all of this seemed ineffective; every few days I lost more chickens.

One afternoon in the middle of the day three chickens vanished, including my favourite, an enormous white orpington I had hatched from an egg. The white orpington had been my guard chicken, the mean one who would confront bobcats and coyotes standing just outside the fence and raise a ruckus that had all the other chickens running for the safety of the coop. My guard chicken was not mean enough. I found a big pile of white feathers and nothing else.

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I seemed like I was fighting a losing battle; my yard was just not safe, and it was only a matter of time before the bobcats got all the chickens. I needed to do something and fast if I wanted to keep any chickens at all.

But I was too slow. Only a few days later I went out to the coop at dusk and there were no feet to count. I found more piles of feathers and two dead chickens. So that’s it, I thought, as I trudged back into the house, depressed. I’ve lost. It’s over. The bobcats had taken all of my chickens, wiped me out, in less than a week.

The next morning as I was looking out the kitchen window I saw movement in the chicken yard. Curiously, I went out into the garden, and froze in the middle of the path. There were three bobcats in the chicken yard — one large parent and two smaller half-grown bobcat kittens. They had come back for the last of the dead chickens.

“Eric!” I rushed back into the house. “Bobcats! In the yard!” Eric came out of the house to help; I turned on the garden hose. We had talked on and off about what to do if we ever actually caught the bobcats in the act. We didn’t want to shoot the bobcats and had joked that maybe turning the hose on them would scare them away. This was our last chance.

Eric cornered the larger parent bobcat in the back of the yard, but it went up and over the fence before he could get it. The two smaller cats were not as smart, and both of them got stuck in the narrow space behind the new coop and the fence. I turned the hose on “jet” and unleashed a stream of water. Wet, and frightened, one cat managed to climb the fence and escape, but I cornered the remaining one with the hose. It climbed the fence but then stayed perched on the top, growling at me as I dosed it in the face over and over again, hoping it wouldn’t decide to lunge at me over the fence in a panic.

The cat seemed to be stuck there on top of the fence, miserable, angry, soaked. I turned off the hose. Why hadn’t it hopped over? Why was it just sitting there?

“Turn off the hot wire,” I called to Eric, who had been chasing bobcats on the outside of the fence. Once the power was cut the cat finally dropped off the top of the fence into the bushes. The fence had been zapping the terrified animal at the same time I was hosing it down.

I haven’t seen any bobcats by the chicken yard for a long time now, but I suspect that is more because there are no chickens left to eat rather than because of our ninja bobcat-frightening skills.

The plan now is to rebuild the chicken yard with a stronger fence and with a roof on it. The yard will become an impenetrable chicken fortress against any known predator in the area. Given my current rate of progress on the new chicken coop this should only take four or five years, tops!

6 thoughts on “The Curious Incident of the Chickens In the Night-Time

  1. I wonder what changed, you’d had chickens for a couple of years before this happened, right? Like, did they wake up one day and realize they could climb the fence, or did one of their other sources of food disappear?

    Could you put barbed wire on the top of the fence, facing outward on an angle like you see at prisons?

  2. Some recent articles in Mother Earth News dealt with raising chickens, but I lent my issues to a friend who raises chickens. I remember one idea that I liked for their cage was small, with a roof, and one edge was mounted on wheels, so when the birds ate all of the bugs in one part of the yard, it could easily be moved to another part of the yard.
    This evening, I pulled out your “teach yourself Web Publishing with HTML 3.0” book published in 1996. I’m trying to explain to a friend how to make a web page, and it is not easy to explain. I learned from your book. You were a great writer!! I thought I would look you up and see what you are doing these days. Good luck with your next batch of peeps. I don’t currently have a web site; perhaps I need to work on that.

  3. I got my new issue of Mother Earth News in the mail yesterday, the April/May issue, and there is anothr article on building a Portable, Predator-Proof Chicken Coop Plan. Type into your browser and it takes you to an article online, not the same one in this month’s magazine, but a June/July 2011 article by Cherly Long. The recent artcle is by Robin Mather. Good luck with them, if you try them.

  4. Hello! So, I live in Mill Valley (up on Mount Tam) and have lost 3 chickens to predation this summer. Two early in the summer after I had become way to careless with locking my hens up at night. They seemed to be “safe”…the entrance to their coop is inside a run with 6′ fencing around it, and then, one day, after I found feathers of one chicken and half of another, it wasn’t “safe” anymore. So locking them up at night, every night became my new religion. This past week, we took a family vacation, house boating on Lake Shasta and my mom offered to take care of my hens and my dog while we were gone. Anyway, I came home to one less chicken. While I tried to figure out what had gotten in and how I heard my hens start yelling out in their yard. It was a sunny afternoon, maybe 4:30. When I walked outside to see what the fuss was about. I could not believe what I saw. A large bobcat right outside their run watching them so intently that it did not even notice me until I yelled at it. I think I said something lame like “Hey, get out of here!” In hindsight I wish I had waited to see how it was accessing my hens but I guess that might have ended with me having to rescue my hens from the bobcat’s attack. I’ve left my girls locked up today, they have a smaller more secure run attached to their coop that they can use for some exercise. But I am going to have to completely rethink their larger run. So far I’ve been lucky I guess. I have a juvenile red tail hawk that spends a good part of every day hanging out just watching my chickens but I think he’s too small to take them, either that or he’s praying on the many other birds and bunnies that come to share my chickens food and water. There are also mountain lions, owls, racoons… well I’m sure you have all the same critters in your area. It’s basically every single predator you can imagine other than bears and minks. I’m going to add a roof or fencing over the top of their larger run and I guess I’ll electrify the fence. Sigh. It’ll be a chicken Taj Mahal in my backyard when I’m done. Ha! I enjoyed reading your post. I definitely need to come up with a plan that does not involve me yelling lame threats at this bobcat if it comes around again.

  5. I live in Marin County, Fairfax, and I’ve had bobcats munch a good handful of chickens. Last summer they ate my new group of 5 month old chickens…that’s right…just when I was going to get some eggs from the noobies (I would’ve been happier they took the old birds…). One bobcat came and grabbed a hen in the middle of the day, while I was in the doorway of the garage on the other side of yard, hit and run in about 10 seconds, jumped fence with bird in mouth and back into the woods. I was surprised how fast and bold it was. Pure bred predator.

    So basically my hens don’t see the open sky much anymore in the last 12 months. Live in their chicken penitentiary. Their coop/small run is very secure. Haven’t lost any birds since. Welded wire all around, including accross entire floor (buried) and tin roof. No problems in there. We only let them out if we are gardening immediately next to coop, or if running lots of noisy power tools. Even if we go inside for lunch we’ll put them back in (hint: strategically wait to dump your food leftovers for this task). We just assume a bobcat could come anytime day or night.

    Anyhow, now I’m planning to cover the entire large run 20’x40′ as a fence is useless to keep out a bobcat. I was thinking chicken wire, but I’m sure they could pounce and shred that. I saw 25’x50′ avail as notted netting, but thats probably easy to slash too. So maybe 2X4 welded wire and joining 6′ widths with cable. It will be a major effort but I suppose worth it. However, i’m not looking forward to the “prison yard” look and feel it will have, let alone hanging out in there.

    I’d be curious if anyone has good experience on what works overhead to keep out bobcats.

  6. We converted a chain link dog run (protected from all sides, inherited with the house) into a run (coop inside) and covered the lower half with quarter inch hardware cloth. The girls never went out – between hawks, owls, bobcats and more I didn’t want to risk it. But a perch installed on the upper part had only chain link and one night a raccoon reached in and nabbed one of our girls who loved to sleep out. This is a pretty tough area for the bucolic idea of free ranging chickens, I think. The chain link works well on top to keep the larger predators out (so far, as you noted), but the blue jays are very bad about stealing food. They slip in and out of the chin link with ease. I hope you finish your dream coop soon!

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