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Should Chickens Free Range All Day?

Hawk sitting on the electric fence — watching chickens

Free range chickens is one of those concepts that everyone seems to have a different idea as to what it means. I’ll admit, it can be quite confusing. For an in-depth look at what free range really is, check out ‘What is a free range chicken?

Once you’ve gotten through all of the terminology and have a really good grasp on the concept, now it’s time to ask if your flock should free range all day.

Provided your flock is safe and will not infringe upon the rights of your neighbors, a chicken will be most happy to free range all day.

While this statement is pretty straight forward, determining the truth of your particular situation, probably won’t be so easy. For starters, your flock will never be 100% safe if they’re free range. Even if you are standing with the flock, a bold fox can grab a hen and be gone before you even realize what’s happened.

So for the sake of this article, we are going to focus on the arguments, both for and against, chickens that free range all day.

Free Range Chickens: Is Your Location Ideal?

I can tell you from personal experience that if you set a chicken free, that bird is going to wander. They may stay close to the coop in the beginning but as their confidence grows, so does their range of travel. Here are some things to consider for your flock.

  • City living – If you live in the city and have limited space, then a chicken on the loose is probably not ideal for you. Tall fences and overhead netting would certainly help, but nothing is guaranteed when it comes to these birds. They can behave predictably for months on end and then out of the blue, they do something different. This can be incredibly frustrating when you think that you’ve got everything covered.
  • Neighbors – Another thing to consider for free range flocks is the proximity of your neighbors. In my case, neighbors have generally been a positive. However, it’s worth stating that people are entitled to their privacy. Just like us, they’ve probably had a crazy day at work and want nothing more than to retreat to the solace of their own home. It can be fun to chat at the mailbox, but when the conversation is done, then it is time to get back to our own individual lives.

So with that in mind, you can understand why it might be considered rude for your chicken to wander over to the neighbor’s back deck and look in their window (begging for a treat). And while a feathered peeping tom might make them laugh, a pile of poo left behind is sure to be unappreciated.

Imposing on your neighbor’s good humor to let your flock free range into their lives is not responsible behavior on your part. I have found that my neighbors are most appreciative of me taking the steps to keep my animals on my property…especially when they have animals of their own.

Be sure to respect your neighbor’s right not to love your animal.

  • Inherit risks – I visited an acquaintance recently who spends her days caring for injured wildlife. Her non-profit deals with all sorts of animals – including those that would LOVE to eat a chicken. For the record, every time I see a mink dancing around in one of her cages, I shudder. Mink and chickens are NOT a good combination. For this reason, I do not think it would be wise for me to free range chickens near her.

And there are other risks beside wildlife rehabilitation centers to consider. For example, do your neighbors ever let their dogs roam? The probability of a domesticated dog attacking your chicken is very high. What about busy streets? There is a farm, just down the road from us that looses chickens every year to cars that couldn’t/didn’t stop in time.

Each location is unique. So be sure and take some time to think things through.

Free Range Chickens: Is Your Breed Of Chicken Ideal?

I’ve had chickens in the past that were so friendly, I’m confident that if I somehow lost them in busy park, they would have no problems approaching people and begging for a treat. Some breeds of chicken are just ‘user friendly’.

Generally, the visitors that come to my house are not annoyed by my flock. Point of fact, most of them are quite entertained – especially after I let them feed the birds. However, I take great steps to ensure that my flock is people friendly. I would feel beyond horrible if a grumpy old rooster attacked someone. For that reason, I will not free range roosters as we get visitors quite often.

And it’s not just roosters that can be grumpy. Recently, I was shopping for a new batch of chicks when I came across one breed that had appealing plumage. Unfortunately, the description included, ‘originally bred as fighting birds’ – at which point I navigated back to the directory. Be sure to research your breed’s behavior before you let them loose.

Free Range Chickens: Are You Available For Emergencies?

I am one of the growing number of people who are able to telecommute (work out of a home office). After years of burning through cars, I’ve made the switch and have never once regretted it. This allows me to be on site for my flock. And because of this, I have been able to thwart more than a few predators.

If your vocation requires you to be away from home for long lengths of time, I would not recommend you free range your flock. Predators are incredibly persistent and chickens are incredibly oblivious at times. This makes for a bad combination.

Also, chickens can find themselves in trouble, even without the help of predators. We had a wood chuck sneak in last summer (when the weather was extremely hot) and spill all of the water out of the chicken’s waterer. Chickens need an ample supply of water in the summer time. If I had not been available to check on them, I could have easily lost birds due to dehydration.

Free Range Chickens: How To Protect From Predators

If your flock is able to wander freely through an area that predators can access, then it is more than reasonable to expect that you will loose a chicken. Generally speaking, chickens are not native to your back yard. They are domesticated animals and as such are at significant risk by wildlife. After all, if the wood duck, which is a comparable sized bird, is at risk from say a fox, then how much more at risk would your fat, non-flying chicken be?

The best three things that you can do to protect your free range flock are; employ a guardian, provide hiding spaces for your flock and eliminate hiding spaces for predators.

  • Employ a guardian – People have been using dogs to protect livestock for over 2000 years. While I’ve never used a dog myself, with a 2000 year track record, I would have to assume dogs are pretty good at this. Not only are they able to fight off most predators, but with their capable noses, they are able to recognize when a potential threat has crossed onto the property. Also, a dog will mark its territory and this could discourage any predator that has wandered into the area.

A goose is another potential guardian. Geese tend to be quite territorial and will not hesitate to bite or hiss at anything worthy of their rage. Geese are also very loud, which is helpful for alerting you when something might be amiss.

FYI, it’s probably not a good idea to let your goose free range in places where you have lots of people – lawsuits have been filed/won against injury from domestic geese.

  • Provide hiding spaces – Our flocks have always seemed to appreciate cover. It’s not unusual for me to look out the back door and not see a single chicken. However, the moment I step outside and make the treat call, a dozen birds will come scurrying out from underneath the pines. Even when it’s really hot, chickens seem to enjoy the cozy feeling of thick, low laying branches. And this is very helpful against aerial predators.
  • Eliminate predator hiding spaces – Having suffered losses to my flock, I make it a priority to push back the tall brush as far as I possibly can. Predator animals generally don’t like to be seen and the more open area I can provide, the more response time my flock will have.

Free Range Chickens: Partial Vs Full-time

In a perfect world, chickens would be able to free range all day without concern of mortal peril. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of things. But, there are compromises that you can make, that will give your flock the freedom that they crave while reducing the threat of attack from a predator.

  • Electric netting – Nothing says ‘stay away’ like a jolt of electricity. Even the small solar powered units can really deliver. We purchased one of these smaller units this spring after the deer had decimated our apple trees. Admittedly, I was quite skeptical. But after testing it, with myself being the guinea pig, I can state with every confidence ‘they REALLY hurt!!!’ And I’m quite sizable compared to most predators. Just be sure to consider a guardian, such as the goose, as electric netting will not protect from airborne threats.

Also, a lot of electric netting is mobile – meaning you can pick it up and move it easily. In this way, you could periodically move your flock around to new locations, allowing the birds to free range while still giving them a barrier against danger.

  • Limited exposure – Another option that we have been using is to simply limit the amount of time our flock is allowed to wonder.

We have a fenced in area that is roughly 100 ft by 100 ft. What works best for us, is to leave the flock inside of this chicken run for the majority of the day and then let them out to wander in the evenings. On the weekends, when there is more activity outdoors to discourage sneaky predators, then we will let them out to free range all day.

This type of scenario gives us the option to keep our birds confined and protected when we are away or if we have seen signs of a predator in the area. But it also allows the flock to be free and wander where ever they want when the opportunity presents itself.

Personal Experience

Free range chickens following us around

Our first two flocks were completely free range. They slept in a secure coop all night, but during the day, they wandered all over the property – free of any barriers. This actually worked well for a couple of years. But one summer’s evening, this all came to a screeching halt. A fox had discovered our setup and killed 3 chickens in less than three hours.

The following day, I elected to leave the birds confined in their coop (much to their displeasure) and cleared out a large area with the mower. Afterward, I set posts and ran 6 ft fencing around the whole thing.

Just as I was finishing, a grayish flash of fur bolted away from my approach. That fox had returned and was hiding not 10 feet from where I was working! That predator knew there was food for the taking and it had come back. I have no doubt that if I had not acted immediately, the rest of my flock would have been gone.

I am a big believer in free range chickens. It is my opinion that the birds are happier and healthier if they are able to wander over large areas, gathering bugs and spreading their waste. However, I’m also intimately aware that there are predators in my area that will decimate my entire flock if I’m not proactive. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you study your particular location, know the risks involved and take steps to protect your flock. A full time, free range scenario might not be the best choice for your flock.