Friday, January 11, 2013

A Patriotic Predator: The Bald Eagle

by Rebecca Nickols

What a wonderful surprise I've discovered! Less than a mile from my property are several bald eagles overwintering. I can't imagine that this is their first winter here, but then again I don't know how I've missed them for the past ten years... With the trees now bear of leaves, their large shape and distinguishing white head make them easy to spot.
The bald eagle has quite the regal presence in the landscape... Not only is this majestic bird the national emblem of the United States, they are considered near the top of the food chain in the bird world. Bald eagles don't receive too many threats and they'll readily steal the prey another bird has hunted and captured. Their diet consists mostly of fish, but these birds can (and will) eat a wide variety of foods depending on what's available (birds, reptiles, amphibians, carcasses).

Their preferred habitat is near large bodies of water, staying away from heavily developed areas. The eagles near my property are usually seen perched on the trees overlooking a spring-fed pond or the near-by James River. Though I have seen them flying over my property, I haven't noticed them hanging around the 3 acre pond in my backyard (perhaps because it's surround by houses, dogs and trees).

Here's my dilemma...  I've chosen to allow my flock to free-range and I am well aware of the risks that poses. I know that I'll eventually lose a hen to a predator; whether it's a stray dog, raccoon, fox or an attack from above. I've heard many stories of a chicken keeper losing a chick or full grown bird to a hawk or owl, but I hadn't heard of any attacks from eagles.--So I did a little researching (or hunting) of my own. First I poured through the forums of through the comments and stories shared from fellow chicken keepers throughout the world. I figured if an eagle was a formidable predator of a flock it would be documented on this site. I did read of a few sad incidences where chickens, ducks and geese were attacked and killed by bald eagles, but there were not nearly the amount of attacks that I thought I would find. One photo and comment from this site caught my attention and I contacted the chicken keeper (Kathy) and asked her permission to share her photo and experience with our Community...

I have lots of eagles around me. In fact, I was watching 2 of them yesterday floating on high. I never fail to get a thrill watching them. I don't know that I've lost any birds to them. Hawks yes, eagles...I just don't know. Only time I've ever seen them close was when I threw a dead raccoon out back, and there was an eagle with the vultures. In fact, I've driven up to a stop sign, and seen an eagle on the ground eating roadkill. We have a lot of them around me, most are year round residents. I'm near a very large lake (Orange Lake, Florida) that has a lot of eagles, so they probably would rather fish than get chicken. My flock does free range, but they have a lot of cover. They have a barn and a shed they can all run in, and there are several large live oaks they can get under. My chickens are pretty savvy when it comes to overhead predators, and I have a lot of resident crows that sound the alarm when a hawk shows up. I haven't seen any eagles on the ground near my birds, but it's not very wide open, so I don't think it's comfortable for them. -Kathy

Next I called upon the Community Chickens facebook followers to share their experiences and thoughts on this subject. Here are the questions I asked and a few of the over 60 comments I received!

A question for the Community! 
I have several bald eagles overwintering near my property. My flock free-ranges during the day and I know that an eagle is capable of making a meal out of one of my hens, but my questions are: Have any of you ever witnessed a bald eagle attacking a chicken? What measures do you take to protect your flock from overhead predators? 

  • Tina Baldonado We have Eagles and many hawks here, but i have not ever heard anyone losing one of their flock to one.
  • Peggy Thompson I have eagles of all ages that are here all year long. I have lots of bushes in my free range area and a few make shift shelters for them to hide when the eagles are circling. They seem to go for the chicks rather than the hens. My rooster has challenged them once that I watched.
  • Amanda Jordan we have seen several bald eagles around our area...only one actually flew over the farm. i won't lie, i had my camera ready and was fully prepared to sacrifice a chicken to get an amazing video of the eagle...but, it just glided over and away it went. now that there is snow on the ground (FINALLY! YAY!), our chickens stay closed up in an indoor/outdoor covered coop 
  • Adrianna Lowe I have never seen one go after a live chicken. Here in Arkansas there are tons of chicken houses (home of Tyson is in Ar) the eagles hang out around them to pick up and eat the ones the workers put out.
  • Mary Neill Schuytema I have had a hawk come and take off with one of my hens. I was watching out the window, ran out, and was able to get wing tip because the hawk was struggling with the chicken. The hen had a nasty cut under her wing, but did heal up. I do have eagles on the property also, but none have attacked that I know of!
  • Maria Sayle-Terry I've lost to hawks (I'm in TN). Have only seen one eagle in the area. Our Roo keeps an eye out and they run to shelter when he sends out the alarm. I have no solution other than making sure they have something close to run under. The neighbors dog is a bigger threat.
  • Gia Lamela We have a nesting pair of Bald Eagles on our property. We have free range chickens (including a rooster) as well. The Eagles are far more interested in our Koi pond than chickens. We have never lost a chicken to one of the Eagles but I think it may be because they have access to a river where they can get fish. If they were really hungry the chickens would probably be considered fair game.
  • Rebecca Flagler-Hinds They don't attack per se -they swoop and fly off with! We couldn't figure out what was dwindling our free rangers until buddy Jimmy showed up and identified a group of six eagles that were in migration -since they left the area, we've lost no more chickens!
  • Timber Creek Farm We recently had three bald eagles circling and roosting in our trees near the coop. But our chickens have a large enclosed roaming area that is partially covered and partially has caution tape zig zagged across the top to keep prey from swooping in. Charming look, I know but the neighbors can't see it so it works for me
  • Mary Lavaliere We do have eagles, but the chickens and ducks know it and keep an eye out. I think the ducks communicate the warning to the chickens and they run for cover. Haven't lost any birds...a cat, but no birds.
  • Kristi Ann Sherman Hi we live on a lake and have Silkie Bantams and a few laying hens. I have witnessed the Eagles attempting to kill ducks on the lake for hours. In order to rest they come to a big cottonwood on our property. At one time the Silkie Bantams were underneath the tree .. CROWING!! and the Eagle ignored them and still went for the ducks.. go figure... I am just glad they prefer duck than chicken!
  • Kathy Ashby Kalin I have eagles all year around. They are huge birds. I did see one pick up a cat once therefore I keep my chickens in a run with a roof. You could use netting too, but make sure it is secure. There claws are sharp.
  • Barbara-Jeanne Clark We keep our Border Collie out with them. He is always with the chickens and ducks when they come out of their yard. Yesterday he came in for about 15 minutes, I happened to look out the kitchen window and what's sitting on the fence, you got it! A big ol bald eagle. Being a photographer I ran for the camera, while the husband ran for the door to shoosh him away. I'm bad...I was willing to sacrifice for a good shot. Well, opening the door caused him to take off anyway. The poor birds...we keep a covered dog kennel in their fenced yard as well as them having their big room in the garage. Most had gone into the room, but some were crunched up in the rear of the kennel. Poor things. My "little girl" was so shook up. But nobody got hurt.
  • Bruce O'Donal We have eagles here in Maine too. And they do make a try for my birds. But so far the girls have managed to out run the eagles and get to cover. As a rule though, I have been lucky enough to happen to be in the yard to scare them off. The ribbon electric fence keeps the rest of the critters out, and the chickens safe.

In addition to the numerous eagle sightings and even a few attacks, there were several more comments sharing the fact that hawks are a flocks' major threat from above. Hawks (and owls) are year-round residents of the United States and their diet consists mainly of small birds--including chickens. Bald eagles would prefer to dine on fish or carrion, but as the Community shared above: if a fish isn't available, a meal of a hen is not out of the question...

The Community also shared ways to protect the flock from avian predators: covering the run with netting or chicken wire; having ample natural places for free-ranging hens to take cover (trees, shrubs, coops, sheds); a guard dog or a protective rooster.

A few facebook followers even noticed that I had missed an additional eagle in my photo!

And my favorite comment!

In the final phase of my bald eagle research, I went to the experts...
I contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and asked their opinion. (See below):

Thanks for the question.  Bald Eagles are extremely opportunistic--they are both hunters and scavengers, and will take a wide variety of food in whatever form or habitat they can find it.  Because they are better at hunting in aquatic environments than on land, domestic chickens do not seem to be a common target.  In fact the Birds of North America Online (THE go-to source for North American bird info) has no mention of domestic fowl in the Food Habits section for Bald Eagle:

I've copied the most relevant info below (BNA is a subscription service):

To capture live prey, soars overhead to visually locate the item, then suddenly stoops and attempts to capture such items with 1 or both feet. Repeatedly stoops on waterfowl on the water but often with poor success. Most prey taken to a nearby perch site for consumption, although small items may be consumed on the wing. In areas with high concentrations of Bald Eagles, successful foragers are often chased. In such cases, successful foragers select perches away from the foraging area for less conspicuous consumption of prey. Items taken as carrion that are too large to carry off are eaten on site, such as salmon carcasses on gravel bars, duck and goose carcasses, deer, and occasionally domestic livestock (cows, sheep, pigs). Very few documented cases of predation on live livestock; Bald Eagles implicated in cases attributable to Golden Eagles (Phillips and Blom 1988, DellaSala et al. 1989, Marr et al. 1995).

There would be more cause for concern with Golden Eagles. That said, it is certainly possible that a Bald Eagle would try to take a free range chicken, particularly if there are population pressures on the more reliable food sources.  It is worth monitoring the situation, and please stay in touch! 

Marc Devokaitis
Public Information Specialist

I want to thank Backyard Chickens, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and our Community for sharing their experiences, knowledge and advice! Continue to share your eagle (or hawk) sightings, stories and solutions to attacks in a comment below...

To view what else is happening 
at my Southwest Missouri property, visit:  

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