Let’s Talk About Raccoons

Every now and then, photos of videos of raccoons will appear on my Facebook Newsfeed, talking about how cute or impressive the little buggers are. I have to admit, I used to agree. Raccoons can be little chubby balls of fur with masks and human-like grabby paws.

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Do you also like to rip feathers out of panicking chickens?

But ever since I got my first pair of chickens back in 2013? Ugh. Rarely have I felt such malevolence toward another living thing.

Recently, Toronto spent millions of dollars on “raccoon-resistant” trash bins, only to have some “uber-smart” raccoons still break into the garbage like it ain’t no thang. I wasn’t surprised. While memes might paint raccoons as chubby, lazy little critters, anyone who’s experienced them as a pest will tell you the opposite is true (okay, they’re probably still chubby, but they sure as heck aren’t lazy).

And they’re everywhere.

I live in the middle of a residential area, where lots are about 60 feet wide. Although houses are raised (thanks, sea-level elevation and flood potential!), the openings are fenced or bricked up. And yet, there are hoards of raccoons that are able to find someplace to sleep during the day so they can wreak havoc at night.

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Sneaky, sneaky.

Some of those masked grabby-bears are ballsy!

One night, my chickens started making concerned coos. I went outside with my hefty Maglite to scare off what I assumed was a single raccoon, or maybe a pair. When I round the corner, four pairs of eyes gleamed back at me from on and around the coop. There was a rustle overhead, and I shined the flashlight into the branches of the oak tree to find several more raccoons staring down at me. In total, there were more than half a dozen.

I inched closer to the raccoon gang, made noise, and threw sticks. None of them moved. Whenever animals don’t behave as expected, rabies is a concern. However, I’m more of the opinion that this particular gang was used to people and empowered by their numbers. Whatever the reason, I decided to put faith in the strength of my coop and go back inside. Fortunately, they eventually left without breaking in.

Other memorable raccoon run-ins include:

  • A raccoon chasing one of my hens and pinning her down. I caught them in time and she was able to get free, minus a few feathers.
  • A raccoon sneaking into my coop every afternoon for weeks to steal eggs and feed. It was pretty skinny and probably only out during the day due to desperation for food. I borrowed a trap and relocated the bugger.
  • A raccoon breaking the door of my nest box to try and grab my hen, who spent all night and day in the box due to a strong broody spell. She got away, and on the positive side, the attack broke her broody spell. Even though it was after midnight, I immediately repaired the nest box because…

Raccoons will always return.

Unless you physically relocate the animal beyond its reasonable travel distance, or you make whatever “treat” completely inaccessible, raccoons will keep coming back. They are persistent, surprisingly clever, and occasionally malicious.

A friend recommended I get an airsoft gun and pop the critters. I’m preeeetty sure that’s not legal within city limits, but even if it is, I have terrible aim and would probably hit a hen…or a neighbor!

Therefore, for current and would-be chicken owners, I have one major piece of advice:

Build a fortress.

When installing your coop and run:

  1. Cover all “open” sides and the roof and any windows in galvanized hardware cloth. Secure the hardware cloth onto your frame with exterior screws and washers (the hardware cloth holes are too big for the screw heads, so the washers hold everything in place).
  2. Bury hardware cloth or heavy pavers all around the perimeter of your coop and run, extending out at least a foot. This will prevent digging (and raccoons will dig).
  3. Invest in a treadle feeder that “hides” the food in a closed container when the birds aren’t actively eating.
  4. Place your nest boxes inside the coop and off the ground. If you include an “easy access” door that let’s you collect eggs from the outside, make sure it’s secure enough that raccoons won’t treat it as an easy-access door too.
  5. Secure doors with screw links/carabiners or actual locks. Raccoons can squeeze and work out rods, so simple carabiners or slides won’t keep things secure.
  6. If you feed your birds table scraps, don’t leave them out overnight.
  7. If your birds free-range during the day, put them up half an hour before the sun fully sets. I’ve caught raccoons prowling around my yard well before twilight.
  8. Realize that despite your best efforts, you might still lose a bird. Following all of the steps above should minimize your risk, but anything that lives outside may become a predator’s meal. Losing a bird sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.

Remember that you can always rebuild. I learned about 40% of what I know about coops and predators from research and 60% from failures and near-misses. The important thing is that you pay attention, learn from what went wrong, and immediately take action to remedy the misstep.

Although I prefer prevention as a way to eliminate painful situations before they arise, it’s not like I can eliminate raccoons from my neighborhood. Sometimes, all you can do is make yourself a more troublesome than everyone around you.

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Chicken Coop Designs Through the Years

By the winter of 2012, I’d spent about six months in my new house. I’d learned that the dirt in my yard was hard clay that stuck to my shovel like peanut butter, that roaches appeared in surprising places during warm weather, and that I really enjoyed working outside and taking care of animals.

So I started planning for chickens.

Things I knew, starting out:

  • My backyard is fenced in, and I planned to let the chickens free range while I was home. Therefore, the size of the run could be a bit smaller than if the chickens were in there 24/7.
  • Everything needed to be enclosed. I wasn’t sure what my predator situation was yet (see a few paragraphs down), but I didn’t want to risk a chicken to find out.
  • Since heat is more of an issue in south Louisiana than cold, the coop needed good ventilation.

The feed stores wouldn’t have any chicks until February or March, so I fumbled my way through building my first coop in January. It was my first major build, the previous largest being storage bench. I researched and sketched and researched more. Finally, I ended up with this happy little blue number perfectly sized for two chickens:

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I couldn’t find any good pictures of the run, but it folded up small enough to fit into the back of my car. At the time – keep in mind I was in my initial year of living in a hurricane-prone area – I was very worried about how and where to take my chickens should we need to evacuate, so a transportable run seemed like a good idea. But I’d also overbuilt it out of heavy wood, so it was really unwieldy for everyday use. I hated run.

A few months after my first chickens arrived, I decided to get another pair of chicks. Halfway through 2013, I returned to the sketch pad.

This new coop would not only be larger, but it would have a fixed run. I was worried about the chickens scratching one spot of grass to mud, so I read a lot on chicken tractors. With some good wheels and mechanical advantage on my side, a heavy coop would be easy to move around the yard every other day or so, right?

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Those tiny, tiny wheels.
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Here, you can see the old coop behind the new one.

In that first picture, you can see “levers” connected to the wheels. The idea was that the coop would sit squarely on the ground until it needed to move. Then, I’d pull those levers and engage the wheels.

That, er, didn’t exactly work. The coop was heavy and – once again – unwieldy. I also have far too little land for a chicken tractor to be effective; my entire lot is less than a quarter of an acre. So the wheels came off and the coop found a permanent home in my yard. I filled the run with sand, and for a short period, everyone was happy.

But it was with this second coop that I learned about my nocturnal predators.

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“Borrow a cuppa sugar, friend?”

See, the part of my yard that isn’t peanut butter clay is sand. Apparently, my area has many, many raccoons and opossums, and those critters like to dig. I woke up in the middle of many nights to chickens shrieking because something dug under the edge of the coop and squirmed inside. Fortunately, the only victim was the chicken feed. I laid down a perimeter of galvanized hardware cloth and heavy stones, and all was well again.

It was also around this time that I tried using an automatic coop door. The idea was that the coop door would slide closed at sunset and open at sunrise, so that even if something got inside the run, the chickens would be protected. Although now I see plenty of kits and ready-to-go options for sale, back then, it was more reasonable to put my own together with a solar panel, battery, and gearbox. Technically, it worked, but with the expansion and shrinking of wood, the door got stuck and trapped my chickens in the coop. I eventually gave up on it and resolved to put my energy towards making the coop and run like a fortress.

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It’s not perfect, but this was probably my most charming set up.

I was happy enough with that coop, until in 2017, I decided to get ducks.

So here’s another obvious mistake I made:  even if you think you’ve sealed your wood, don’t let it sit directly on the ground, especially somewhere with humidity and insect issues like Louisiana. As I dissembled the coop and run, some of the wood on the bottom crumbled. Of course, the pressure-treated pieces held up better, but still:  don’t let wood sit directly on the ground.

I had some experience behind me, and I’d gathered some tools since my first coop back in 2013, so the 2017 edition went up more quickly and was more solid than ever.

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Okay, so what do we have different than before? The whole thing sits up on leveled concrete blocks. All of the lumber is pressure treated and painted with exterior-grade paint. I actually built this in two stages – you can see the separate chicken coop to the left is actually finished and sealed off.The ducks have their own separate house, lower to the ground for stubby little duck legs (although one or two have already shown off that they can awkwardly waddle up the ramp into the chicken house).

Finally, this much larger run is easily tall enough for me to walk around in so I can clean. This is particularly important because the bathtub for the ducks requires a regular water change. The height also allows easy access to the feeder, the houses, the water reservoir, etc. And when the ducklings first moved outside in 2017, it was easy to cordon off an area and keep them separate from the adult hens until the ducks grew large enough to hold their own (which didn’t take much time at all – maybe a few months – ducks grow very quickly).

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Man, they were so freakin’ cute.

For anyone interested, I do water changes using a submersible pump that can handle large chunks (little pebbles and sticks often wind up in the tub). I swap out the water three times per week and sprinkle a few mosquito bits to prevent larvae in the standing water.

This coop has performed well. Zero predators have gotten inside. However, I’ve [grumble grumble] started having some problems with mice. I’m currently trying a treadle feeder to see how that helps the problem. And in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve also laid out poison (protected from the reach of the ducks and chickens). I don’t like using poison, but mice and rats are not only expensive (they blow through feed), they carry disease and can chew on and damage wooden structures.

Another change I made with this coop is the substrate. Previously, when I only had chicken, I used sand. It’s easy to rake and keep clean-ish. The chickens seem to like it for scratching around and dust bathing. But while preparing for ducks, I knew wetness was going to be an issue. Not to get too graphic, but while chicken poo is solid, duck poo is more like diarrhea. Yum. Therefore, in this coop, I used pea gravel almost everywhere; it’s easy to hose down and rake. There’s still one corner of sand for dust baths.

Alright, so what I have learned from building and rebuilding and building again?

  • Never let wood rest directly on the ground; set it up on concrete blocks.
  • Build a run big enough for an adult human to stand up in and move around.
  • Bury hardware cloth around the outside and secure 1/2″ or smaller hardware cloth to all openings using fender washers (they have a large diameter); assemble that coop and run like a fortress.
  • Given tools, time, and the ability to understand your mistakes, you can always rebuild.
  • Sand for chickens; pea gravel for ducks.

Every time I was preparing to build, I’d also visit the BackYard Chickens forum for ideas and instructions. The trick is, though, understanding your environment and building (or rebuilding) to that. My chicken-keeping friend in Colorado has no roof on her run – it’s basically a fenced-in patch of yard – but she doesn’t have the same predators that I do. Understanding your environment might mean that your first stab at a coop sucks, and that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you never do anything to make the situation better.

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Meet the Flock

We’ve spent a lot of time in the front yard so far, but hey, there’s a whole lotta land behind my house. Hah! Kidding – my house sits on less than 1/4 acre, but I’m trying to cram as much as possible on that little bit of dirt. As of this posting, that include five chickens and four ducks.

The winter after I moved into my house, I started researching what a backyard flock required. Housing. Food. Protection from predators. Part of this came from my mom talking about getting chickens on and off while I was growing up. She never did it, though, so I figured I’d give it a go and see how two little fluffy chickens went.

Hehehe.

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The feed store near me had Barred Plymouth Rocks, so I got a pair of those in 2013.

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They were the top hens – assertive to others yet submissive to me. I quickly realized the pair would not be enough, and two months later, I picked up a pair of Buff Orpingtons.

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Man, chicks are awkward and cute at the same time. It’s so much fun to watch them explore.

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While both of my Barred Rocks had similar dominant personalities, the Buff Orpingtons are pretty different. I call the slightly smaller one “Sassy” because she’s quick to fly off the handle at the other birds and if she’s displeased with a person, she pecks feet. The other is “Goofy” because she frequently gets lost in my tiny backyard.

Once upon a time (when they were chicks living indoors), the chickens had pet names, but those went away when they moved outside. For the most part, the birds are either “chicken” or “duck.” Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially lovey-dovey, they’ll get “baby chickie” or “duck-duck.”

I’m sorry to say that the Barred Rocks have both since passed on.

Last year (2017), my chicken-raising friend got a batch of new chicks and I started to feel the itch too. However, I didn’t really want more chickens exactly, so I ordered ducklings through the mail.

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The idea of ordering live animals has always made me uncomfortable, but the only breed I could find locally was Pekin. I’m sure Pekins are lovely, but I wanted something a bit different. I ordered two Blue Swedish (the grayer ducklings) and two Welsh Harlequins (the blonder ones).

People don’t lie when they say ducks are messier than chickens, and it’s mostly down to poop. Chickens have infrequent solid poop and most of it plops out as they roost at night. It’s easy to contain and clean. Ducks, however, often pause in their travels to shoot out watery poop. If they eat fish, that poop might even turn blackish. There; now you know about duck and chicken poop.

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The funny thing is, I was never a huge fan of ducks until I decided to add them to my flock. They are absolutely hilarious to watch, though. I was worried they might be loud, since I live in a city neighborhood, but they’re pretty quiet. When the ducks do make noise, it’s “chatter” (like a very soft goose honk) or the occasional startled quack.

While the ducks will turn your pristine pond into a mess, they aren’t as destructive in the garden as chickens. My ducks will root around with their bills, but the chickens have sharp little feet their use to scratch apart plants and dirt.

This spring (2018), I got the itch again. I was still recovering from my ex and spending loads of time in the garden was a large part of my healing. I realized just how much satisfaction I get from raising and caring from animals. The feed store also happened to have some breeds I haven’t yet raised:  Rhode Island Red and Australorps.

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So. Stinkin. Cute.

I’ve heard that Rhode Island Reds can be aggressive, so I only got one. All three, however, seem to have similar personalities – very energetic, curious, and adventurous. After a day or two, they were already climbing all over me. My other chickens were quite shy.

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David Attenborough voice:  “Here, we see three juvenile females – oh! Looks like we’ve been spotted.”

Now that I’m more comfortable with raising ducks and chickens, this batch of chicks moved outside way earlier than the others. Previously, my system was to raise the birds in a large dog kennel in my living room for a few months until they had feathers. These three moved outside at two weeks old.

Of course, it helps that I live in a subtropical climate and even our early spring days were close to 70F. I also put their brood shelf outside (protected in a plastic bin) so they had access to heat. For weeks, they lived in their own little section of the coop, fenced off for protection from the older birds. Although the chicks were freaked out at first, they seemed to enjoy living outside, and they feathered out quickly.

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Ah, destroying my gardens as a family. How sweet.

Now everyone gets along, for the most part. I was worried that the young chicks might grow up to be aggressive, but living with the older birds from a young age has tempered that a bit. If one of the younger chickens gets in the way of a duck, the duck will make like she’s going to smack the chicken with her bill. They don’t make contact, though. No one’s singled out, and no blood is drawn. Yay!

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I won’t lie. The birds are a bit of work, and keeping the flies at bay is a constant battle (it doesn’t help that I live close to the stables of a horse racing track). They are more at risk to predators than other pets because they live outside. Losing them really freakin’ hurts, because often, we as owners could’ve done more to protect them.

But few things in my life up to this point can compare to sitting under the pergola, coffee in hand, on a Saturday morning and watching the birds wander around the yard. Then, when my tummy rumbles, I head inside and cook a pair of fresh eggs.

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