Friday, December 23, 2016

To free range or not?

Le poulet fermier?

Right now it's 4:17 in the afternoon and our four chickens, Chloe, Callie, Cleo, and Otis the Rooster, are free-ranging out in their big deer-fenced area on the side of the house. They're dust bathing and sun bathing, since it's a balmy 58 degrees. 

Free ranging is a big deal these days. You get free range eggs and egg dishes in the kinds of restaurants that have all the menu descriptors in French, because the image of lovely roaming poulets laying healthy oeufs is one which we foodies dearly love and is the reason a lot of us actually start keeping chickens in the first place. But is free ranging the best thing for them?

Mid to late afternoon is generally the time of day when I allow my chickens to roam their side of the property...when it's a busy time in our rural neighborhood. The dog next door has taken to barking at random air molecules (something he often does), there's a bit more commuter traffic on the road by our house than other times of day, and I'm generally nearby, doing this and that around the property.

While I love the idea of hens free-ranging 100 percent of the time and laying those coveted 100 percent free-range eggs, I don't allow my chickens to free range it all day long. It's an idea that sounds great, but I don't want to risk the loss of life and my investment. In other words, if my chickens is going to get eaten, it better be by me. 

In our area, we have foxes, coyotes, occasional loose dogs, plus eagles and hawks of all kinds. We have raccoons and skunks. All these critters will happily kill a chicken -- or entire flock, given the chance. And my job, as the chief chicken steward, is to keep those chances as low as possible.

Le Coop.

I've had two friends lose chickens in the last month. One was letting hers free-range in her yard 24/7 and roost in the trees at night, which was, as she said, "the way God intended it." Unfortunately, apparently God also gave raccoons a taste for blood and sport killing, so she's one chicken down now. Another friend let her hens out to free range and went into town for an hour, only to come home and find her entire flock murdered by either a stray dog or coyote.

There's a lot of talk around about just letting "chickens be chickens," meaning letting them find their own food, shelter and protection as they would "in the wild." I don't buy into this because the chickens we raise today are nothing like the chickens your ancestors had in their yard. 

Most of our hens are purebred birds, born in an incubator, raised in a brooder, and dependent on us for food, just as we're dependent on them for our omelettes and meringues. They are about as much able to be "natural" chickens as a pug is able to behave like a wolf. Traits like common sense and smaller size have sadly been gradually bred out of them as better laying was bred in. 

Today's hens are super layers, and are also plump, tall in height and not terribly bright. That's the down side of selective breeding  -- we have super layers who are super stupid. And so it stands to reason that our chickens today need more supervision than cross-bred, half-wild birds. You can't just turn them loose in the yard and expect a good outcome - for them or you.  

Le Run.

Le Sécurité.

I also don't want any area predators to realize this is where the lunch wagon is, and once you lose one bird to a predator it stands to reason they'll return right back to your property the next time they're hungry.  And so, while I am in no way a chicken expert, in keeping them for several years I have learned a few things, a few of which I touched on above, and a couple of other things:

1.  Limit the amount of time you let your hens completely out to range on your property. Let them roam when there's activity going on that will deter coyotes and raptors. Sometimes just your presence is enough, but so is your neighbor pruning his trees or running his tractor.

2. Train your birds to come to you at a recall signal of some kind. It's as simple as offering a treat when they come, and they learn pretty quickly. This allows you to get your birds in quickly should there be a predator be in the area.

3.  If you can have a rooster, do so. I was so reluctant to do this because I'd experienced a couple of nightmare roosters at friends' houses. But my bantam rooster Otis is lovely. He's gentle yet brave, and not so much a grand protector as much as a great alarm system. If there is a hawk in the area, I can hear his distress crows from inside the house. He's much louder than the hens and therefore lets me know there is trouble well before I would spot it for myself.

4.  Have a secure, smaller run, a decent sized hen house and a good, solid door to keep everyone safe at night. Chickens are their most vulnerable at night, so that last point is the most important.

5.  Don't accept attrition by predator killing to be just part of doing business. I've kept chickens for five years now and have yet to lose one to a predator. I'm sure it will happen at some point, but going a half-decade without it happening is encouraging.

6.  Think like a predator. If you see gaping holes which would allow predators in, seal it immediately. Buy the best and strongest fencing you can afford. And go out at night regularly and make sure everything is completely secure and locked down. Finding your flock murdered would be a terrible way to discover your security door was not working like you thought it was.

In short, there is no good reason for losing birds to become a regular thing, if you're willing to do the work to help keep everyone safe outside and in. 


  1. Our chickens have always been allowed out to free range during the daytime. Early on we lost a few so I got a rooster. He was a great alarm. Sadly, he died this year. We also have a fenced chicken yard and a house with no chance of entry. Although it can be frustrating at times to "have to be home" at dark, I am diligent about locking them in. My oldest girl will be 8 in the Spring. She and the other 4 will be our last.

    1. Aww, I can understand that. If you've been keeping them for at least eight years, you probably are ready for a break! How amazing that your old hen has lasted this long. You must take very good care of them. : )

  2. Love these tips! I always figure if Martha's chickens are not allowed to free range and you know who's *are* I'm going with Martha. it appeals more to my smothering sense of protection

    1. Seriously, Martha does not let her chickens free range? You are right, she's got the experts to tell her what's best so I guess I'm on the right track. As for that other person, how you can absorb that kind of loss and just shrug your shoulders is beyond me. She loses half her flock every year and doesn't care.