It’s late March, and a red fox has been hanging around for the last couple of weeks. That’s a long time for a predator that roams a territory of two or three miles and tends to move around a lot. It’s been my experience that a fox will stay just long enough to clean out the supply of mice, voles, and rabbits, and then move on. The time of year, and the fact that this fox is still around, lead me to believe it has pups stashed in a den nearby, which means that this one has four to seven extra mouths to feed.
Red foxes are very common in North America. Prior to European colonization, they were animals of the northern latitudes, ranging across Canada into New England. Their love for the sport of fox hunting on horseback led the colonists to import foxes from their homeland and release them in the South for hunting. As more and more land was cleared for agriculture, which created more habitat, the adaptable and savvy fox increased in number and expanded its range to the point that they are now found in most of the United States.
While their color can vary widely, all “red” foxes have the signature white tip on their tail. Similar to a squirrel’s tail, the fox’s thick tail aids in balancing, while also serving as a warm cover in cold weather, and as a signal flag to communicate with other foxes. Although the red fox has a variety of barks and calls, they are rarely vocal other than during the winter breeding season. They live in dug-out burrows, called dens, that house the fox and its family.
Habitat generalists, foxes adapt well to human environments including farms, suburban areas, and even cities, and their diet is as flexible as their home habitat. These solitary hunters feed on rodents, rabbits, birds, and other small game. They also eat fruit and vegetables, fish, frogs, and even worms. If living among humans, foxes will opportunistically dine on garbage and pet food. They normally hunt at night, however, if in an area where they feel safe, they will hunt during the day.
Several years ago, we made the decision to let the farm grow up to provide a diversity of food and habitat for wildlife. The obvious drawback to this reconciliation with Nature is that the fox now has enough cover to sneak up on our chickens. Just beyond the mowed “yard,” the tall grasses, mixed with chicory, milkweed, daisies, and other wildflowers, make it hard to see a hungry fox sneaking up on his intended meal. Our dogs will alert us when there’s a critter hanging around, but if the animal is downwind, they can’t smell it.
Note: Gray foxes, known for their silvery-gray fur, are also found throughout the country, where they tend to favor more heavily forested areas. At one time, they were the most common fox in North America, however, because red foxes are better adapted to human habitation, they have become more common in the eastern United States than their gray cousin. Both species have similar behavioral traits and share a predilection for chicken.
The fox’s resourcefulness has earned it a legendary reputation for intelligence, making protecting chickens from them even more difficult. Smarter than most dogs, foxes are smart in ways that matter: finding food, surviving weather extremes, outwitting predators, and protecting their young. Persistent and patient, they are challenging adversaries when they’re focused on having chicken for dinner. They bide their time, quietly stalk their prey, and strike when a lone bird, or a few isolated birds, wander from the rest of the flock.
About a year ago, we lost our favorite laying hen to a fox. We raised Olive from a two-week-old chick. She was very friendly, more like a pet than livestock. One day while we were busy stacking firewood, we heard the frantic clucking from the flock that signaled trouble. By the time we found them, the fox had already struck and made its getaway. Comet, our rooster, had rushed the hens to safety under the house, but a tell-tale pile of feathers in the yard told us one of the hens didn’t make it. It was Olive.
You’ve no doubt heard the term “fox in the hen house”—know that it comes from real life. If a fox gets into a chicken house or run, it can get into a killing frenzy and kill every bird, usually taking only one or two birds with them. Sometimes, time permitting, they will bury the bodies so they can come back later and dig them up. Losing one chicken to a fox is distressing; losing an entire flock can destroy one’s soul.
Even knowing the risks, we prefer to let our chickens free-range because the high-protein insect diet provided for free by nature keeps them healthy and gives the eggs more taste. However, at the first sign of a predator, it’s into the chicken coop they go. And if we’re going to be away for any amount of time, the chickens get locked up.
Chickens, as large-bodied and slow-moving birds, are a natural prey animal for many predators. In our rural area, foxes are the biggest chicken predator, but hawks, coyotes, badgers, ferrets, minks, raccoons, skunks, and dogs also pose a threat. With all these chicken-loving predators on the prowl, it’s almost impossible to keep your free-ranging flock completely safe. Nevertheless, there are measures you can take to protect chickens and reduce the risk of an attack.
Tips for Protecting Chickens from Foxes and Other Predators
- Don’t let your flock out into an unsecured area early in the morning (when a predator is the hungriest). Quiet areas, away from human activity, are especially dangerous. Keep in mind that a cagey predator will learn your routine and lay in wait.
- Keep your boundaries secure. Predators will look to exploit any weakness, whether a short circuit in an electric fence or by expanding a hole under a fence dug by a rabbit.
- Walk around your flock at irregular times. A pattern to your movements is no different than a weakness in your fence.
- When the birds go up to roost, be there to close the door.
- Be aware that foxes, as well as other predators, can and do hunt during the day.
- If you have dogs, letting them out at unpredictable intervals during the day could discourage an attack.
- Livestock guard dogs can be an effective deterrent, though probably not practical for protecting chickens. I recommend having a rooster. Though they can’t fight off a predator, they keep watch over the hens and will rush them to safety when they sense a predator is close by.
- Mow grass regularly and keep brush cut back to reduce the cover that foxes can use to sneak up on domestic livestock. (We made a personal choice not to do this in order to help wildlife in general, so we have to be extra vigilant.)
- If hawks are your problem, install bird netting over the top of the run. Hawks tend to hunt a large area, but will eventually spot your free-ranging flock. Quite vocal when hunting, their high-pitched cries are a signal to get your flock into the run.
- If you build a movable coop, your hens will have access to insects (while staying safe from predators) and keep the soil fertilized.
Chickens have some natural instincts that help keep them out of trouble, but in general, they’re incredibly vulnerable creatures. When it comes to their survival, you are their protector. Practice these safeguards to help protect chickens from foxes and other predators around your homestead.