Perhaps one of the more iconic scenes of rural americana is a flock of fluffy, colorful chickens pecking away in the green grass. Nowadays, having backyard chickens is becoming popular for both country and urban dwellers.
But for the enthusiastic (perhaps slightly over-attached) chicken owner, the idea of free ranging your flock can come with a touch of anxiety. The benefits of free ranging your chickens are undeniable, from the obvious advantages such as fresh air, abundant sunshine and exercise, and an all you can eat buffet of bugs and plants to the more subtle things like a healthier development of social flock structures.
Chickens have dozens of different calls and vocalizations. The freedom of free ranging allows your flock to fully develop a more natural and complex flock order. Not to mention the joys of watching “chickens in the wild” and observing their individual personalities and discovering the significance of their many different vocalizations. The throaty/happy alert call my Roo sends to the hens to signify that a tasty treat has been found is one of my favorites!
The benefits from a varied diet of insects and plants that free ranging affords is wonderful not only for the health of the individual chicken but also for their eggs. A stronger immune system, and healthier microbial diversity in the GI tract are a boon for your chicks and a superior nutritional profile for their eggs is a plus for you!
Free range eggs are higher in omega 3’s, B vitamins, and vitamin A and E than their cage raised counterparts. The
creamy, orange-golden yolk is incomparable to the pale yellow store bought variety. And if you are so inclined to (gasp) eat “Fluffy” (yes, I have named every one of my chickens), their meat is nutritionally superior to cage raised as well, with a higher protein content per serving and a healthier balance of omega 3’s to 6’s.
Now to the anxiety ridden part (at least for me). Free ranging your chickens can come with perils, namely predators. From the neighbor’s cat to a swooping hawk, your sweet, unassuming chicken can meet an untimely end
in the great outdoors. There are definitely precautions you can take to minimize these dangers. Just to name a few:
*covered runs (the safest measure)
*covered areas for chickens to run to, i.e., shrubbery, bushes, heck even an old car, tractor or trailer
*livestock guardian dog
*scarecrows, decoy owls, hanging up shiny objects(CD’s) to deter aerial predators.
*limiting their time to when you are home and available to keep an eye out.
*having a rooster with your flock
But even with all these protective measures, you can still lose a chicken to a predator. However, I must confess
that I actually do few of these safety measures. My flock of twelve free range every day for about four hours (mid to late afternoon). I have no covered runs, and our property is surrounded by woods and tall trees where
various varmits and hawks can hide and perch. I vaguely humored the notion of constructing a scarecrow but
gave it up after a few minutes of thought. I have an immensely sweet and gentle dog, but a guardian dog, he is not.
I do, however, have an awesomely fierce and protective Roo, “Snow Leopard”, who is highly intelligent (in my
estimation, thank you very much) and whose head seems to be on a constant swivel, watching out for danger. They also have plenty of bushes to run and hide under. When it comes to my free ranging style, I guess you could put me in the category of “less is more”. I’ll admit, my free ranging experience is relatively new.
My flock has been at it now for a little over a year and so far no losses. Yet, I have seen a chicken from my brother’s nearby flock done in by a hawk in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, that is the risk you take when deciding to free range your flock.
It is simply a decision of quality of life over possible quantity of years. For me it is not even a question--- the joy of seeing a healthy, happy free ranging flock scratching around in the green grass on a spring day is an indelible imprint on my mind and heart.