Interested in free-ranging your chickens? Make smart choices and keep your birds safe with these tips from Jonathon Engels.
Many chicken owners, especially of the backyard ilk, would prefer to have their birds live free and enjoy a life that few hens ever do. But in reality, that’s not the way it goes. Like chickens, people are creatures of habit, and there are certain protocols to raising poultry.
By and large, we tend to pair the words “chicken” and “coop” without giving it much of a second thought. We enter this fowl world and immediately turn to chicken feed and chicken wire. Chickens get a yard, people get a yard, and never the twain shall meet.
But somewhere out there in the ethers, amongst the clouds and brush and abandoned orchards of yore, there is a heaven—or at least the promise of one—in which chickens and people can both roam freely across a swath of land.
And in this promised land, chickens still lay eggs, people still eat omelets, and the world still whirls around. How can that be?
Before waxing on, it’s worth noting that wild chickens are not without their drawbacks. There are legitimate reasons for chicken coops, and there are legitimate concerns to consider when chickens are left to gallivant liberally through farm and field. That said, simple solutions do exist for these issues.
- Chickens will decimate gardens. They eat seeds, they peck at sprouts and shoots, and they scratch and throw mulch everywhere. They’ll even eat all those valuable earthworms if they find them. Solution: Fence the gardens. Plants don’t tend to move around.
- Neighbors won’t like your chickens. Even for those who enjoy the eggs and the concept of home food production, if chickens visit the neighbors’ garden or poop on their walkway, things can get tense. For that matter, chickens pooping on your walkway can be bothersome as well. Solution: Create the space that wild (free-range) chickens require to be wild. In spots with neighbors, free run (chickens in a large pen) is a diplomatic choice, and chicken tractors can work well too.
- Unfenced areas mean unprotected chickens. Chickens in open spaces are more vulnerable to predators, and sometimes the natural order of things happens. Truth be told, bad stuff happens in chicken pens as well. What chicken owner has not had a predator problem? Solution: Free-ranging chickens need safe spaces too. Designate free-ranging space near trees and shrubs for aerial coverage from birds of prey as well as for safe sleeping.
- Gathering eggs isn’t as easy. Confined chickens only have so much space to lay their eggs, whereas wild chickens have so much space to lay their eggs. Finding those protein capsules can be an adventure. Solution: Providing a coop/roosting box isn’t against the rules. Birds can be introduced to laying in boxes prior to being let loose, and often the habit sticks once they’re free-range.
Disadvantages of Cage & Coop
Now that we’ve focused on free range as having disadvantages, it’s worth noting that cooping up birds has its downsides too. In fact, those downsides aren’t just regarding the ideal, independent life of a chicken, but also the duties of their owners.
- Chicken feed costs money. For those looking for financial advantage from fresh eggs, this can be a harsh reality. But chickens must eat to lay eggs, and if they can’t forage and find their own food, people have to provide it.
- Though chickens are natural service providers, caged chickens don’t get much work done. A wild chicken can help eradicate weeds, keep insect populations in order, and fertilize trees. Confined chickens add another set of tasks to the farmer’s to-dos.
- Pecking order is a real thing, which means some birds are at the bottom of it. When a flock only has so many resources, those bottom birds may not get sufficient access to fresh water and food.
- Chicken coops require maintenance. Chicken coops require repairing and cleaning, both to avoid unpleasant smells and to keep the birds healthy. Maintenance means time and energy on the farmer’s part.
Wildly Advantageous for Hens and Humans
Rather than focusing on negatives, let’s get to some of the good stuff. Free-ranging hens has plenty of positives for both poultry and people, so if space is available for it, it warrants consideration.
- Rich diets make rich eggs. When birds are allowed to roam freely, they have diets richer in protein, including plenty of insects, worms, and seeds. The natural nutrients, which would be a very expensive addition as feed, provide higher quality eggs, both nutritionally and flavorfully. If the chickens are finding food themselves, that means chicken farmers aren’t paying for it.
- Natural living makes happier, healthier birds. Not only does foraging, pecking, and hunting come instinctively to chickens, but it also keeps them active and enriches their nutritional intake. This, in turn, makes for happier, healthier chickens, and that means less need for diet supplementation and disease prevention.
- Choreographed chickens work for free. Just because chickens can go anywhere doesn’t mean they’ll wander off, never to return. Even wild chooks, just like wild birds, appreciate an easy meal when available. Free-range chickens can still help with handling food scraps, turning compost, prepping gardens, and fertilizing, not to mention providing eggs.
- It’s less responsibility and less costly. With wild chickens, there isn’t the need to feed and water them daily. The pens don’t demand to be maintained. Chickens can find their own dust baths for keeping clean and grit for digestion. They can even evade predators themselves.
- Chickens are amazing pest control. Free-range chickens are able to hunt for insects and arachnids, including ticks and flies. Additionally, they’re deterrents for snakes and mice, so chickens circling freely around the house can mean less rodents find their way inside.
A Helpful Wilding To-Do List
Prior to letting chickens run free, it’s worth doing a bit of homework and preparation. Though the chickens may feel wild, the idea and ideal for most chicken owners would be setting the stage for them to live as independent chickens whilst still providing easy-to-reach eggs. Is this even possible?
- Choosing appropriate breeds is important. Some birds are well-suited for life in the great wild world, and others aren’t. Birds that are flightier might better evade predators. Birds that are good foragers, though they might not produce as many eggs, might be right for the open range. Here’s a good starting list from Mother Earth News: Cubalayas, Jungle Fowl, Catalana, Minorca, Malay, Hamburg, Old English Game, Houdon, Pearl Leghorns, Langshans, Cornish, and Polish. Wilding may not be right for rescue chickens.
- You can build beneficial “wild” infrastructure. Shade, shelter, protection, and perches can all be provided by trees and plants. A source of water, be it in the form of a puddle or pond, ensures the birds can drink. A compost bin or feeding area (for kitchen scraps) would help keep tabs on them. Fencing in gardens and other spaces where the birds shouldn’t go might save some heartache and irritation.
- Companion animals will protect the chooks. Guineas and/or geese are great additions to a free-range flock of chickens. Not only are these birds avian bad-asses, willing to take on snakes, hawks, and other predators, but they are also quick to put out the distress calls when uninvited visitors are around. A well-trained dog can work wonders for keeping raccoons, opossums, coyotes, weasels, foxes, cats, and other dogs at bay, but of course, many dogs are prone to killing chickens themselves. Roosters, too, have a practical role to play in protecting a flock, as well as keeping it going.
- Free-range orientation helps with finding eggs. If chickens are running wild, able to roost wherever they like, then the likelihood is that some eggs will go undiscovered. To counter this, it can help to set up a temporary enclosure, perhaps with electric net fencing, to get the birds accustomed to laying eggs in a roosting box or a particular location before opening the gates. Then, when the fence is gone, they’ll usually go to the same place out of routine, familiarity, and security. It can also be helpful to dump food scraps or grass clippings nearby in the evening.
Easy Does It
In the end, free-ranging chickens certainly comes with its ups and downs, and it isn’t for everyone, every place, or every bird. However, when it does work, there’s a certain easy vibe that comes along. The chickens mind themselves. The farmer isn’t stressed about feed and fencing. Eggs keep coming, and they taste better than ever. The biggest concern usually involves stepping in some fertilizer because wild chickens just don’t seem to understand where to poop.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he’s lived as an expat for more than a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.