Guide to the Infamous “Chicken Hawk”: Types and How to Protect Your Flock

Hawk hunting with talons at the ready

When it comes to protecting your chickens, there are many predators to watch out for. Unfortunately, this includes damage caused by other birds.

Did you know there’s a category of hawks called chicken hawks?

They are called this because they tend to prey upon chickens.

In short, a chicken hawk preys on domesticated fowl; however, you might be surprised to learn that “chicken hawk” is not the name of a singular bird species.

Chicken hawk is an informal name given to three separate species of hawks. These hawks include the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk. While all three are hawks, they are all different.

This article will discuss the three types of chicken hawks, their dangers, and preventive measures to ensure your flock’s safety.

What is a Chicken Hawk?

The term chicken hawk stems from these species’ reputation to attack and prey upon chickens. It is an older term used amongst farmers, which could indicate why a “chicken hawk’ could be one of three species.

While their name is literally “chicken hawk,” one of the biggest myths surrounding these birds is that they are only attracted to attacking chickens. They are likely to attack any small mammal.

The second big myth surrounding chicken hawks is that they pose a constant impending threat to poultry. Most of these hawk species prefer hunting wild prey that is more readily accessible and matches their natural diet.

Another myth/misconception is that they will attack people. While they have become acclimated to more urban environments, they are still somewhat shy amongst humans and will fly off.

Again, even though the term “chicken hawk” is misleading, it is not just one species. Instead, a few different types are known to prey upon chickens.

The birds of prey more likely to wreak havoc on chickens are the Red Tail Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Types of Hawks Considered “Chicken Hawks”

Red-tailed Hawk

A Red Tailed Hawk perched on a branch

These Birds are widely identifiable opportunistic predators with a rather diverse diet.

Size

Adult Red-tails, on average, have a wingspan of around 3.5 to 4.8 feet! They weigh between 2 and 4 pounds. The good thing about them weighing less than large chicken breeds is that the likelihood of them carrying off one is much smaller.

Appearance

In case the name didn’t give it away, Red-tailed hawks have a reddish-brown coloring to their tail feathers, making it their most identifiable feature.

Their bodies generally have brown feathers with mottled patterns, and their undersides have a lighter cream coloring with a dark belly band.

They have a hooked black beak and dark yellow eyes. Their beak is curved so that they can easily tear into prey.

Geographic Range

Red-tailed Hawks can be found throughout Northern America, including Canada and parts of Mexico.

Due to them being found all over North America, they can inhabit many habitats, including forests, deserts, open flatlands, and grasslands. They are even known to inhabit urban areas.

These birds are adaptable and can survive and thrive in many different environments.

Diet and Behavior

As we mentioned, these birds are opportunistic predators. Their diet is diverse, including small mammals such as mice, squirrels, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and insects. And, of course, they are also known to prey upon chickens.

They are known for their “sit and wait” hunting style, perching on high advantage points to stalk their prey. They will dive down from high spots to capture their game with their talons when hunting.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a water bowl

Description and Identifying Features

Cooper hawks are medium-sized birds belonging to the family Accipitridae. These hawks are known for their adaptability and navigating through dense vegetation when hunting prey.

Size

On average, the adult Cooper Hawk’s have a wingspan of around 2.5 to 3.5 feet. They weigh, on average, between 8 to 24 ounces.

Appearance

Cooper Hawks have blue-gray back feathers. Their chest has fine barred reddish brown feathers down their chest. One of the most striking characteristics of the hawk is that their eyes are a deep red color.

Geographic Range

Cooper Hawks are found throughout North America, from Canada down to parts of Mexico. Much like Red-Tail Hawks, they are adaptable to several environments. They have also adapted to several urban environments and have been known to hunt birds near bird feeders.

Diet and Behavior

Cooper hawks are more known for capturing smaller birds. They have a strategic ambush approach for capturing birds in mid-flight. Cooper Hawk’s diet mainly consists of doves, pigeons, and other small birds. While they primarily focus their hunting on small birds, they are known for occasionally preying on domestic poultry.

Typically, they like to build their nests in heavily wooded areas. Like other birds of prey, they are essential in balancing the ecosystem with controlling populations.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Sharp Shinned Hawk perched on a tree

Description and Identifying Features

The last most notable chicken hawk is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Like the cooper hawk, these birds are a part of the Accipitridae family.

Size

These hawks are smaller than the last two mentioned. They have a wingspan of about 9 to 13 inches in length. They weigh only around 3 to 7 ounces.

Appearance

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is nothing short of beautiful, with their blue-gray back and red-brown breast feathers. One of the most striking features is their bright yellow legs.

Geographic Range

Much like the previous two hawk species, the Sharp-shinned hawks are spread through North America. They are known to migrate seasonally.

Diet and Behavior

Their primary diet consists mainly of sparrows, songbirds, and finches. Sharp-shinned hawks are stealthy hunters who like to perch high up and surprise attack their prey.

Due to them being in the same family and similar appearance, the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper Hawk are often mistaken for each other.

Other Raptors of Concern

While chicken hawks are a concern for domesticated poultry, there are several other birds of prey to look for signs of. Check out our article here for more information on common chicken predators.

Due to their nocturnal nature, Owls have almost an advantage over chickens. Owls can have a surprise attack while your birds are sleeping. Their feathers are specialized and allow for a very silent flight. Therefore, keeping your chickens locked up at night protects them.

Another bird of prey that has reports of attacking chickens is an eagle. While it is even more uncommon for an eagle to be the reason behind a domestic chicken attack, it is still not entirely unusual. Eagles are opportunistic predators; therefore, if given the chance, they will attack.

Why are Chicken Hawks a Concern?

Now that we have gone over what a chicken hawk is and what they look like, we will go over why they concern poultry homesteaders.

While they might not always kill chickens, they can cause stress among your birds, leading to various health issues.

Your birds can become anxious and stop foraging for food, which can lead to dietary problems, especially if they are known foragers. The added stress is also known to decrease egg production.

When looking at the economic impact these hawks can have on domestic poultry flocks, several factors have to be considered, including the size of the flock, the local hawk population, and the measures that need to be taken to build protective enclosures.

Within more suburban areas, the cooper hawk and the Sharp-shinned hawk populations have grown substantially. This means that more backyard flock owners are being affected rather than larger farms.

Protection Measures

One of the most important goals for any poultry owner, whether you have a small homestead flock or own a commercial farm, is to keep your flock happy and healthy. With the presence of hawks, that can be difficult. Below, we’ve listed several options for keeping birds protected.

Physical Barriers

Chickens in a handmade chicken tractor on grass

Physical barriers such as aviaries and netting can be a great resource in keeping birds safe.
But with any preventive measures come pros and cons.

Pros

Physical barriers provide 24/7 continuous protection for your flock. Netting overhead decreases the likelihood of hawks swooping down to attack your birds.

Nets and other physical barriers serve as long-term solutions for protecting domesticated birds from harm. Although they might be costly, once set up, they are suitable for a very long time with the proper upkeep.

Another pro to physical barriers is the reduction of disease transmission from wild birds and other animals.

Cons

Unfortunately, netting and caged runs come with limited mobility for your birds and limiting innate behavior for foraging.

The cost of these barriers is one of the biggest cons when it comes to these physical barriers. Climate considerations can affect the cost as well. For different climates, you may need different types of protection. Depending on the type of protection, additional ventilation and humidity controls may need to be implemented, which will result in a higher cost.

The final con to nettings and physical barriers is that they aren’t always 100% effective. Predators tend to find ways to get to their prey.

Guard Animals

Another solution to protect against Chicken hawks is using guard animals such as dogs, geese, or llamas as deterrents.

Pros

The pros are pretty simple regarding using other animals as deterrents. They are active day and night. They are effective against various animals, not just hawks. As well as with the proper training, they typically require minimal maintenance.

Cons

Unfortunately, when it comes to using other animals for protection against your poultry flocks, there are also several cons. The initial cost for these animals can be high, and they also need to be fed and properly taken care of.

Proper training needs to happen to keep your flock safe so that there aren’t any displays of aggression towards people and even the chickens.

Unfortunately, when it comes to hawks and other aerial predators, guard dogs can only do so much because there is an advantage from the predator above.

Auditory and Visual Scare Tactics

Some people have started using auditory and visual scare tactics to protect their flock from predators.

Here is an example of a noise deterrent. If you want to go the DIY route for a quick visual deterrent, you can hang up old CDs. (And yes, I might still have old CDs in my house!)

Pros

One of the biggest pros to using these scare tactics is they are not lethal towards the hawks. Several laws are put into place regarding the protection of hawks, meaning you could be fined a significant sum of money for killing one.

Many scare tactics are relatively cost-effective and won’t cost much to set up. Setting up scare tactics that move in the wind or spin makes them unpredictable; therefore, predators won’t easily be able to find ways around them.

Cons

When using scare tactics, sometimes the weather can make them ineffective.
Sometimes, scare tactics can have limited protection against aerial predators such as chicken hawks.

Unfortunately, there is always the chance that these predators get used to these scare tactics over time, resulting in them not being bothered by them.

Legal Considerations

One of the laws put into place to protect migratory birds is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law makes killing, owning, or selling migratory birds and their parts illegal.

Specific permits can be obtained to capture and control migratory birds using non-lethal methods specifically.

Conclusion

As backyard chicken keepers, we are responsible for keeping our birds happy, healthy, and safe from other birds.

While they are beautiful creatures, chicken hawks are known for preying on domesticated poultry.

Chicken Hawks are just one species of hawk rather than several, including the infamous Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp Shinned, and Red Tailed hawks.

Most of the prevention ideas we listed are straightforward, and you are likely to have some of them in place, but it always helps to check for any points of weakness in your protection.

You’ll want to check your birds regularly for signs of attack/stress.

For more details on hawks and avian predator management please, check out this link from the USDA. It is very detailed and helpful!

In the comments section below, let us know what deterrents you have tried and if they worked for you.

Chris Lesley Bio Picture
Chris Lesley has been Raising Chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth generation chicken keeper. She can remember being a young child when her grandad first taught her how to hold and care for chickens. She also holds a certificate in Animal Behavior and Welfare and is interested in backyard chicken health and care.

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