Lincolnville farmers struggle with raptor threat
Lincolnville — "Eagles are finding that chickens are easy pickings," said Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Public Information and Education Director Doug Rafferty. At Ararat Farms in Lincolnville "easy pickings" has begun to resemble a near-daily feast, the organic farm has reportedly lost 20 percent of their chickens to eagles in less than a month.
Jed Beach, who operates Ararat Farms with his wife Emilia Carbone, said eagles have become a significant threat to the farm's chicken population this summer. Beach said Ararat had 100 chickens at end of June and as the end of July approaches they're down to 80. Beach said he and Carbone are "always on the lookout for terrestrial predators" but they're struggling with how to protect their flock from the airborne threat posed by raptors.
"Ironically I have a really soft spot for bald eagles," Beach said, adding since the birds began to stalk his chickens he has developed "more decidedly mixed emotions."
He said he has found chicken remains strewn on the farm property and has seen the eagles "rise with things in their talons." Beach said one of the teenage helpers at Ararat reported seeing an eagle snatch a chicken within mere feet of where he was standing.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes an increasingly large problem," Beach said.
Rafferty said since eagles were removed from the Federal Endangered and Threatened Species List in August 2007 they have thrived.
"Bald eagles are doing well in Maine, there's no doubt about that," he said.
Rafferty said he has not heard of widespread issues involving eagles and domestic animals but that eagles are likely responding to normal predatory instincts when they feed on chickens.
"The eagle is just doing what comes naturally," he said, noting the preferred diet of bald eagles is fish.
Rafferty said that Midcoast Maine is "prime eagle habitat" as is most of the Maine coast where eagles can nest in tall trees and prey on abundant fish.
Though the bald eagle was removed from the endangered and threatened species list, it is still federally protected by the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The law makes the "take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg" illegal with out a special permit, according to the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jim Dunham of Tanglewood Road said he and his wife Cindy have about 45 chickens, including free range laying hens and sheltered meat birds that they raise with one of their neighbors. Dunham said they've experienced a steady issue with goshawks preying on their hens. He said they've had less trouble this year but said he and Cindy are diligent in their efforts to protect the chickens.
"Our biggest concern for predation has been hawks," Dunham said.
He noted he and Cindy try to "be around when the chickens are outside." He said the couple lost four birds within 30 minutes in 2011 while he was indoors on the computer. He said they haven't identified what type of predator — terrestrial or airborne — was the culprit in those attacks.
Dunham said "being present" has been their greatest tool against predation. He said they generally put their hens in an indoor, protected run when they leave the property. Dunham said the couple also routinely scours the woods around their home clapping and making startling noises to "disrupt the pattern" of predators. Dunham noted their home is situated in a clearing surrounded by forest, which he said is an ideal habitat for raptors. He acknowledged that the hawk threat is "part of living out in the woods."
"Birds of prey are clearly something we're concerned about," Dunham said.
Toni Goodrich lives on Slab City Road and has 10 free range chickens including four roosters. Goodrich has raised chickens for 25 years. She said goshawks and northern harrier hawks have posed a constant predation threat.
"Definitely hawks are our biggest problem," she said. Goodrich said as many as five of her chickens have fallen prey to hawks in a single spring.
"So far there hasn't been a loss but I expect it will be any day," she said, adding she has considered confining her hens to a run because of raptor predation.
Beach said the Ararat crew has made a few changes to their chicken setup in an effort to curb losses. They've added a canopy of protective netting but feel it's not a long-term solution. While Ararat Farms is primarily a vegetable growing operation they've been working to expand their egg production as demand for free range, organic eggs has continued to grow. Beach said the eagles have been "picking off" a lot of younger pullets just reaching the age where they would begin laying.
"We can't tolerate these losses again," he said. "Our egg production has dropped off hard."
In order to maintain organic certification, Beach said the Ararat hens must have access to the outdoors. He said if they make it through this season he plans to work with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association on a plan for an acceptable outdoor, run-type cage.
"It makes sense that eagles, as predators, would figure out that chickens were good prey," Beach conceded.
Marc Payne, a bird rehabilitator and one of the founders of Avian Haven in Freedom said the raptor threat could be attributed to a simple cause.
"Maybe more people have free range chickens," he said.
Payne advised chicken owners to adjust their containment situations, "have a roof on it, have a pen," he said. Payne explained that domestic birds walking around are easy prey for raptors.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.