Chicken Hawks in San Francisco

Like many urban agriculture enthusiasts, I keep backyard chickens for egg production.  As the sun was coming up this last Sunday morning, I went to check on my ladies and discovered one had disappeared.  There are many reasons to lose a chicken, but after careful consideration of the facts and some wild speculation, I’ve determined that this one flew the coop in the clutches of a hawk.

My backyard chicken, Cuddly Fluffy, in all her glory.

The chicken that went missing had been lovingly named Cuddly Fluffy by my son.  She was my oldest chicken and was a beautiful black and white Barred Plymouth Rock. My other two, Alcatraz and Pecky, are plump golden Orpingtons.  All three ladies are kept in an impenetrable fortress of a coop with an automatic, light-sensitive coop door surrounded by a 15’ x 10’ fenced run sheltered by large Acacia trees.

I initially assumed Cuddly Fluffy had escaped the previous day and hadn’t gotten back into the coop before the automatic door closed for the night.  I expected her to tear out of a bush, desperate to re-enter the coop after a cold and lonely night away from her sisters.  When this didn’t happen, a quick glance around the yard revealed she hadn’t been in it the day before.  The garden was in perfect order; void of the usual sea of destruction and devoured lettuce heads my chickens like to leave as their signature calling card. I peeked over the fence to see if perhaps she had absconded to a neighbor’s yard. Nothing.

Around the dinner table that evening, my family and I discussed what happened to Cuddly Fluffy.  We came up with three possible suspects: an unsavory chicken thief neighbor, a raccoon, or a hawk. 

The unsavory chicken thief neighbor was the first to be ruled out for logical kid reasons.  The chicken thief clearly would be able to fit all three chickens in a knapsack and would have monopolized on this opportunity if he or she had been the culprit.

We briefly considered the raccoons that often frequent our yard.  Living only a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, our street’s length of adjoining backyard fences is a veritable raccoon highway. However, the coop had not been compromised and there were no tell tale signs of raccoon carnage. As a child, I once had neighbors who had their backyard ducks killed by raccoons.  Feathers, blood, and a broken leg were strewn about the yard.

A hawk became our final suspect. Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks, collectively called “Hen Hawks,” are all seen around Golden Gate Park. With no other evidence besides a lack of evidence, a hungry Hen Hawk seemed the best explanation for Cuddly Fluffy’s disappearance into thin air.

The three kinds of Hen Hawks around Golden Gate Park.

Red-tailed Hawks are the most commonly seen hawks in North America and Golden Gate Park.  In the park, I have often seen them soaring overhead or perched in trees.  On one lucky day, I saw a huge Red-tailed Hawk swoop down and with a screech demand a recently trapped gopher held by a Rec & Park gardener. The shocked gardener threw the gopher to the hawk like he was playing hot potato game. 

Because it is the largest and most common of Hen Hawks, I assumed a Red-tailed Hawk was to blame for Cuddly Fluffy’s disappearance.  Then I read from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that “You’re unlikely to see [the Red-tailed Hawk] in your backyard (unless yours is a big one). Red-tailed Hawks eat mostly mammals, so they’re less likely to visit.”

Red-shouldered Hawks are not nearly as common as Red-tailed and its rare to see them in the area.  The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory reports about 1 Red-shouldered Hawk for every 50 or so Red-tailed Hawks sighted.  While they aren’t as common, Red-shouldered Hawks are more likely to eat a backyard chicken.  They have a wide range of culinary tastes including amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even crustaceans.  I am sure a fluffy backyard chicken would seem a veritable feast.

Cooper’s Hawks are the smallest of the three hawks, weighing less than a pound and about the size of a crow.  At this diminutive size it is hard to imagine one taking off with a chicken.  However past behaviors often dictate current ones.  Hawk Mountain Raptormedia reports, “In the past, many people kept free-range chickens…and [Cooper’s Hawks] were a threat to poultry. The more conspicuous Red-tailed Hawk was often blamed for the more secretive Cooper’s Hawk’s predation.” As a result, Cooper’s Hawks were hunted almost to extinction in many parts of the country.

All three Hen Hawks are mostly perch hunters.  There are many perches around my chicken coop including surrounding rooftops, my backyard fence, a neighbor’s half cut down pine, and another neighbors elevated sprinkler (elevated sprinkler?).  In the past couple of years while I was away at work, my neighbor has reported seeing a hawk perched on our fence eagerly eyeing the chickens and frightening them into a cacophony of screeches and squawks.

Many perches for hawks to hunt from surround my backyard chicken coop and lovely ladies.

Losing a chicken is always a bummer, but par for the course if you keep fowl for any length of time. I’ve lost chickens for many reasons, but a hawk is by far the most majestic one.  Despite my glorious vision of a regal hawk swooping down into my yard, I bought some bird netting to cover the top of the run.

Cuddly Fluffy was over three years old.  While three may not seem old to you and I, it’s into the age when a chicken begins to lay less eggs.  In commercial egg production terms, Cuddly Fluffy was ancient.  While I will miss her gentle quiet nature, I find solace in the fact that her absence will allow me to get two new spring chicks.  Not only are chicks the cutest darn things on earth, but they will help me to keep up a robust backyard egg production.

R.I.P. Cuddly Fluffy.