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protecting livestock from eagles

Protecting Livestock from Eagles

How livestock owners grapple with fighting off these predatory birds legally and humanely

Jennon Bell Hoffmann

How livestock owners grapple with fighting off these predatory birds legally and humanely

With knifelike talons, a razor-sharp beak that can slice through hide in seconds, and a 7-foot wingspan, the eagle perches quietly in the trees, watching the bleating herd of sheep below. It’s lambing season and the predator knows it. While he sits, rigid as steel, he is joined by two more eagles, then five, then 10. 

They wait and observe. It’s a matter of seconds before dinner is served.

This is not the opening scene of a horror movie, but instead the reality faced by many farmers and ranchers across the country. Eagles are ferocious and stealthy hunters, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in livestock and poultry losses annually.

Because of eagles’ protected status, landowners are very limited in terms of how they can quell or deter the predatory birds from attacking and killing their animals. But there are a few options.

Here’s how to legally and effectively keep livestock safe from eagles.

Know When and Where to Expect Eagles

There are a couple main culprits to be aware of. According to the Audubon Organization, the bald eagle, which is more common and widespread than other eagle species in the U.S., is frequently found near open, fish-filled waters and North American prairies. The juvenile bald eagle does not have the distinctive white head coloring (that comes later), and it’s often confused with its rarer cousin, the golden eagle. The latter breeds in the Rockies, western prairies, and Arctic and Subarctic Canada and almost never breeds in the Midwest. Golden eagles frequent forested and grassland landscapes, often away from lakes, rivers, and coastlines. Both species use cunning hunting techniques specific to their type of prey—from fish to fowl and the occasional deer, lamb, kid, or calf.

When determining which eagle you’re dealing with, it’s also important to note the season, which impacts the habitat they choose. During fall migration, golden eagles are seen across the East, whereas bald eagles keep to Atlantic coastal marshes and rivers with fast-moving currents and natural waterfalls. Both types of bird will go where the food is, and in winter, that usually means wherever there is easy-to-catch waterfowl.

Non-Lethal Eagle Controlling Methods

Eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Act and the Migratory Bird Act, which stipulate that ranchers and farmers cannot scare, harass, or interfere with eagles that are preying on their livestock or poultry. Killing or harming raptors can result in hefty fines and even jail time.

However, you can contact your local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services (FWS) office to learn which controlling measures are approved in your region, and what can be done if a convocation of eagles continues to attack and kill your animals.

For non-lethal controlling measures, some low-stake tactics worth trying include:

  • Hanging shiny objects, such as old CDs or aluminum foil, around the farm to distract and deter the eagles
  • Stringing fishing line or open netting around vulnerable spots, such as chicken coops, duck runs, and outdoor areas where small animals congregate

Understand Your Options: Permits and Livestock Indemnity

After receiving a non-lethal permit to scare away the local raptor population, Will Harris, owner of White Oaks Pastures, a poultry farm in Georgia, tried using cannons, flares, sparklers, carwash scarecrows, netting, tarps, and 15 dogs, according to Droves magazine. But nothing worked long-term. After years of struggling against the airborne hunters, and losing an estimated $2.2 million in chickens, Will won his restitution case against the Farm Service 

Administration (FSA), and found some recourse with the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP).

Currently, the Department of Agriculture’s LIP can cover the losses incurred by eagles to farm owners. However, going through that channel requires a significant investment in time, energy, and money, as well as precise documentation and record-keeping.

In excessive cases, farmers and ranchers may be able to obtain a permit from FWS if all non-lethal controlling measures have been taken. This option is rare but may be worth discussing with your regional FWS office, so that they are aware of issues with local raptor populations.

Sheltering Animals at Risk of Eagle Attacks

Eagles have impeccable eyesight and hunting prowess, but they cannot open gates or see through rooftops. Installing netting (as mentioned above) or a covered run or gate over a smaller area may be enough to deter an eagle from preying on otherwise vulnerable livestock and poultry, such as chickens, ducks, and calves and lambs.

For livestock production that requires larger parcels of land, such as free-range farming, keeping hundreds of animals contained and covered may not be realistic. If possible, try moving the herd or flock as far from the eagles’ nesting or roosting spaces to avoid openly drawing their attention–especially during lambing and calving seasons.

Visit the FWS website to learn more about bald eagle and golden eagle management. In addition, you can read guidelines for following the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.