Getting started. Why raise chickens? 3
Requirements (parts list) for raising chickens 4
Basic breed types and their characteristics 2
Purebred flock vs. assortment 2
Incubators and hatching chicks 3
When things go wrong and predators too! 5
Processing birds 4
The Problematic Opossum
The opossum is, perhaps, the most common predator encountered in chicken coops across North America. Opossum are one of the few marsupials native to North America. Marsupials give birth to their babies at a stage which would be too premature for most mammals, but then they carry them around in a pouch until they are old enough to make it in the outside world. Opossum are very adaptable. They are found over much the United States. Over at least the last fifty years, they have been expanding their territory. opossum have been found so far North, that their ears had frozen and fallen off. Yet they continue to prosper and move into new territory. Opossum are omnivorous. They eat almost anything. But they prefer fruits and berries, insects, rodents, grubs, small reptiles and amphibians. They love to find and eat eggs, of all kinds. They are opportunistic, meaning, if a new food suddenly becomes easily available, they unhesitatingly take advantage of it.
Opossum often move slowly and appear unable to hurry. As a teen, I ran a trapline, checking my traps before sunrise, every day. Many times I would encounter opossum while I was walking back from the trapline. I’d spot them in the dark because their eyes glowed yellow by flashlight. Most of the time I could run them down and catch them by the tail. For a while, I had a buyer who would pay $15 for a live opossum, which was a lot of money back then! So, I kept my eyes open for them. A few times, however, when I tried to catch a opossum, the critter would out run me. They’re not always so slow.
Opossum can be a real pain if you have chickens. From the middle of the night on into the very early morning, before dawn, most chickens are pretty sound asleep. They are vulnerable to opossum, which can easily climb up onto a perch and grab them. Some chickens will startle, escaping the opossum. Yet in some cases, the opossum will pursue the chicken until it catches it, killing and eating at least part of the carcass. Most of the time, when a opossum eats a chicken, it will start with the head and neck, and work its way down into the body cavity.
If you go outside at night, or any time before daybreak, and find a chicken out of place, away from its accustomed perch, chances are that a predator like a opossum has been pursuing it.
Opossum Story: December 2017
I generally do my morning chores before I leave for work at 5:30 AM. It’s really dark at that hour, and I wear a headlamp on my cap, in order to see. For months we’d had a couple of chickens roosting in the rafters of our hay barn. No matter how we tried, they refused the coop and insisted on the rafters in the barn.
One cold, dark, drizzly December morning I slid the barn door open and stepped inside to grab some hay for our goats. As I stepped into the barn I almost stepped on a opossum, who was sitting on top of a dead chicken. Before I could move, he scurried up the hay bales and disappeared in the back of the barn. I tossed the dead bird out the door, where the dogs might get it. There was nothing more I could do at that hour.
That evening, when I did chores, I set a live trap in the barn, knowing the opossum would return, looking for his kill. I noticed that all of my barn dwelling chickens had opted for new roosts, away from the barn. I went to bed with visions of trapped opossum… dancing in my head!
The next morning I found… no opossum. The bait was gone and the trap was unsprung. The trip mechanism failed. He had returned, but the trap failed. That evening I reset the trap.
Note: Can you guess why I didn’t reset the trap in the morning? It’s all too likely that chickens would get in it! Whatever a opossum likes, a chicken will like.
It was dark and drizzling on the third morning. I stepped out to care for the animals and found a hen shivering in the rain and crouched near the step, where I would go in to get feed. I reached down and picked her up, causing her to scream and act like I was about to eat her myself! Then I walked over to our chicken coop, thinking to put her inside and out of the rain. As I stepped into the coop I saw the yellow glow of eyes, up on one of the perches. (By the way, chicken eyes don’t glow when a flashlight is shone in them.)
By the light of my headlamp, I saw glowing yellow eyes…
I was looking at the opossum I’d been wanting to catch. He was poised to grab another hen, on the perch. I had no gun on my person, which is probably just as well. Bullets and shotgun blasts are hard on tin roofs and walls. I knew this opossum was a “runner.” He’d already out run me once before. So, without pause I stepped under the perch and grabbed him by the tail, which was hanging down.
I wish I could have taken a picture, but at the moment I was too busy.
I pulled him off the perch and then swung him, as hard as I could against a post, hitting his head hard enough to kill him. Not wanting to take a chance, I carried the still-moving body to our shop, grabbed a shovel, and made sure his head was indeed crushed.
The tail is the only suitable handle for grabbing a opossum. Once you have hold of it you can control the animal and keep the biting part away from your person. If it tries to curl up and grab your hand, you just give it a shake to stop it.
If you keep chickens, it’s almost certain that you will have encounters with opossum. A live trap can be extremely useful for dealing with small to medium size predators, like these. If you live where you can have one, a livestock guardian dog can be really useful! However, opossum sometimes elude dogs. For one thing, we have them coming through fences, where the dogs cannot easily go. They also climb out of the dogs’ reach, and, to top things off, most dogs really detest the taste of opossum, even to pick one up.
Don’t stay up all night, killing a opossum!
Recently I read a blog post about an urban chicken person who had to deal with a marauding opossum. She was up all night trying to kill it! This ought not to be! Opossum are tough little critters. They don’t die easily. But killing them ought to take less than 5 minutes.
To be sure they are indeed dead it is important that you actually crush their heads. Okay, so it is possible to kill them without crushing their heads. But if you are inexperienced or just in a hurry, it’s possible that “dead opossum” you left on the ground, will get up and crawl away when you’re not looking! So, don’t be squeamish. Hit them hard!
Some possible weapons for killing a opossum:
- Broom stick – much more effective than one might imagine. This was how I killed almost anything when running a trapline. Up close, a broom stick is better than a 22 rifle.
- Baseball bat – if you don’t have a broom stick or have to work in really cramped quarters.
- Shovel or hoe – can be awkward, but will get the job done.
- 22 rifle or shotgun – only really recommended if the opossum isn’t actually caught and might get away. Before using a gun, be sure you have received proper safety instruction. ALWAYS BE MINDFUL OF WHAT MAY LAY BEYOND YOUR INTENDED TARGET! It isn’t worth wounding or killing a human, pet or other livestock, just to kill a opossum, nor do you want to damage your own property!
- Live trap – can be used to catch opossum. Once you have one in it, you can drop the whole trap into a pond or creek and drown the varmint.
- Don’t even think of trying to kill a opossum with a BB gun. This is hardly effective.