BELFAST, Maine — Foxes and other varmints have developed a taste for free-ranging backyard chickens, and that means trouble in Maine neighborhoods, according to Chris Dyer of the Maine Warden Service.

“People need to know, when they let chickens out, they’re attracting predators to their home or field,” he said recently. “Foxes, fishers, bobcats — it could be anything. If you’re going to let your chickens run, it’s like an open buffet.”

In fact, the so-called “buffet” is so delectable that foxes are adapting their natural hunting patterns so they can have easier access to it, Dyer said. Foxes usually are active at night, in the early morning and at dusk. But Mainers are finding more and more that foxes are out when the food is out, and that’s during the day.

“People go to work and leave their chickens out. The fox comes in and cleans out half the flock,” he said.

Many people who see foxes during the day suspect they have rabies, in part because many suffer from a parasite called mange, which causes them to lose hair and look peculiar. But rabies isn’t the reason foxes are on the move during the day, Dyer said.

“The reason they’re out is that they’re looking for something to eat,” he said, adding that he has had multiple calls from Belfast-area homes, where foxes had eaten chickens. “(One day) I had seven calls about foxes in the greater Belfast area.”

This is bad for chickens, certainly, and poses dangers to other domestic animals — house cats, namely, which also are at risk when there are more predators in the neighborhood.

“To foxes, coyotes and bobcats, a house cat is just as good as chickens,” Dyer said. “They basically become part of the food chain.”

But many backyard poultry aficionados prefer to let their chickens roam free for lots of reasons, and some say the risk of predation is preferable to leaving the chickens trapped in a small cage or coop. Outside, chickens find their own food, such as ticks and insects, which is economical and helps with pest control. And some owners say the chickens seem happier when they’re free

“We live in the country, so predators are on my mind,” Kellie Jacobs of Waldo said Tuesday. “But just seeing them in the size pen they have, I know they’re not happy. I’d rather see them outside, digging and scratching, like they’re supposed to.”

Jacobs doesn’t live in an urban or densely populated area. But many backyard chicken owners who do live in towns or cities prefer their chickens to be free, too. This sticks in the craw of Sarah Ruef-Lindquist of Camden, a chicken aficionado who fought to change her town’s ordinance to allow backyard birds several years ago.

“The Camden ordinance does not allow for the free ranging of chickens in the town,” she said. “The folks allowing their animals to free range are basically in violation of the ordinance, and they’re also inviting the decimation of their flock. I get a little upset when I see folks allow their chickens to free range. It’s dangerous for drivers and cyclists and dangerous to the birds. They’re very vulnerable.”

Ruef-Lindquist said she keeps her chickens in a roomy coop all the time, and she has never lost one to a predator, though she lives close to Camden Hills State Park and knows there are foxes, hawks and other hunters roaming around.

“Some people think it’s funny or it’s cute to have free-range chickens,” she said. “Well, it’s really not. It’s not good for the flock.”

Dyer said that when he receives calls from people peeved about their purloined poultry, the first thing he asks is how the fox got into the coop. Very often, he learns they were not there at all. There’s little he and other game wardens can do when people call with such complaints, and that’s why he’s trying to get the word out about the problem. Foxes and other predators also are drawn this time of year to homes with stocked bird feeders, which the warden says is a bad idea right now.

“That’s the hard part of it,” he said. “It’s just foxes being foxes.”

He also does not issue tickets to free-ranging chicken owners. That’s up to the local municipalities, he said.

Ruth Vaughan, who works in the Orono code enforcement office, said the local ordinance allows in-town residents to have six chickens — no roosters — that must be penned up.

“Chickens can get out into traffic. We’ve had them on Main Street,” she said, noting one problem is the messy droppings they leave behind.

If someone complains about the birds getting into traffic or leaving unwelcome presents behind, the town will go to the owners and ask them to keep the chickens confined.

“We try to do without having to fine people,” Vaughan said. “There was a big rush on permits for the chickens for a while. Then all of a sudden people found out they’re a lot of work.”

Joanne Parent, a chicken owner who lives in a rural part of Belfast, said she doesn’t mind the work. She leaves her chickens in the coop at night, in an effort to protect against nocturnal predators, but lets them out during the day.

“We had 11 chickens and now we have seven,” she said. “The foxes are definitely out there. But chickens are the happiest when they’re running around, eating worms and bugs. It’s just nice to have them in the yard. Happy chickens make good eggs, honestly. I would never keep them in the coop all the time.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: