Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Predators on the Farm; Part 1 - Poultry

When we think of predator/prey relationships, it may be of wild animals, not domestic ones. But on farms, lines can be crossed and domestic livestock and poultry can be preferred targets for some predators. On islands especially, ecological imbalances can be acutely felt when predator numbers explode.
Poultry, such as chickens, turkeys and ducks are common targets. Allowing poultry to free-range may seem to be humane, but they can be easy pickings for eagles, hawks, ravens, mink, racoons, owls and even dogs. Young chicks can be eaten by cats, and sometimes rats. At one time all chickens were kept this way and their outdoor diets of grass, worms, grubs and mice (yes, chickens are predators too) were supplemented with grains and household scraps. Many people would keep just a few chickens close by, and the chickens would see that it was safer to hang out where the people lived. After nutritional requirements for chickens were scientifically established, and a complete commercial diet available, chickens were able to be kept indoors for their own protection. From this, the next step was a caged system that allowed for easy collection of clean eggs. Chickens are nibblers by nature, so feed is kept in front of them at all times, and water. A long day light triggers laying, like the onset of spring, so light systems are used to keep the hens laying. Breeding programs were developed for chickens so they would lay eggs year round. Chickens lost their freedom, but were protected from predators.
Nowadays, many people feel that chickens should be allowed to have access to the outdoors so they can enjoy their natural behaviours that they can't enjoy in a cage, like dust bathing and scratching the ground for insects and seeds. However, unless the farmer is willing to take a big loss due to predators, they must have fencing and housing that prevent predator entry, even from the sky. Quite a task, especially in the Gulf Islands where all the predators listed above now reside. We may not have “foxes in the hen house” here, but we seem to have everything else.
Raccoon, from Wikimedia
According to Todd Golumbia, an ecologist with the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, there are plans to look at the role of medium-sized, or mesopredators, like raccoons on several small islands. In the Gulf Islands, the story can be quite complicated since raccoons are on some islands and not on others. In some instances this can be related to island size and suitability of habitat but there is evidence of human-initiated introductions of raccoons to islands. Raccoons that are captured in town are often relocated, sometimes to the Gulf Islands. Species like raccoons are not viewed strictly as an introduced species, since they are native to this region. All the large predators historically present on the islands are now gone so a species like raccoons are more numerous than in the past. In this instance, they often "explode" in numbers and become hyper-abundant leading to negative effects in the environment as smaller, more vulnerable prey species decline or even become extinct, especially on islands. They can be voracious predators and are particularly hard on nesting birds.
Historical records, and long time residents of the Gulf Islands, have said that raccoons were never on North Pender Island, so we had a large population of grouse, quail and other ground nesting birds. Former BC Premier Simon Fraser Tolmie had worked as a Dominion Livestock Inspector early in his career. After one of his visits to the Menzies dairy farm on Pender Island in the early 1900's, he wrote that he loved to come to the island to see and hear the many grouse that lived here. Since the raccoons came to North Pender just a few years ago, I have not heard a grouse in our woods, nor seen a family of quail cross my path.
We had every imaginable predator attack our chickens this year, so that there are only five wiser and cautious pullets that are counted every morning. They haven't even begun laying yet!! All our egg layers were killed, so there were no eggs on the stand this summer. I had to chase a mink out of the chicken house just the other day, so now the grateful chickens come running and follow me around the yard. This summer I also chased an eagle off of a very stunned pullet – but the eagle kept coming back until he finally received his reward. Not all our predator attacks are face to face confrontations – usually we just see the aftermath – a pile of feathers, a leg, or nothing at all. Just fewer chickens, with the remainder hiding in the bushes. Our black Spanish turkeys free range with fewer problems, at least for the adults, because they resemble Turkey vultures. The young are easy targets for ravens. Racoons are nocturnal, so I just see families on the road at night. Then this summer, we caught a raccoon who quickly put his hands over his eyes. He was so darn cute; I can see why people like to feed them, but it should be remembered that raccoons are wild animals and should not be fed. They can also be vicious, and often carry disease. He put up a fight as he went into a cage while his fate was deliberated. It's definitely time to regroup and fabricate a humane yet better predator-proof system for the chickens.

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