Free-Range Chickens

If chickens are able to run free and forage at will, that is really the ideal situation for happy, healthy chicks.  Not every setting or situation is ideal for free-ranging though, and the decision has to be made with a great deal of fore-thought.  Our chickens are some pretty happy gals because they get to free-range all day.  We have one of those ideal settings.  We have three acres for them to roam on; our hen house is centrally located on the property, so they pretty much stay within our boundaries.  (Chickens will usually roam within about 200 feet of their roost.)   While no area is ever predator-free, our setting does not have a high-pressure predator threat.  It's always a risk to let chickens free-range, just like it's a risk to let your cats run free or let your dog off a leash.  It's a personal decision that each flock owner has to assess and make.  I've kept free-range chickens for many years without incident and believe it's the right thing for us.

 I'm willing to take the risk of letting our chickens roam because they are happier, healthier chickens in the long run, and the eggs they produce are more nutritious. I do take some precautions and responsibilities, however.  I don't let them out if I'm not going to be home, and when they are out, my ears are tuned to listening for unfamiliar or alarming sounds.  One day I heard them squawking, and I ran out to investigate.  They had run under a pine tree for safety, but when they saw me in the yard, they ran from the tree to where I was standing as if they knew I was their guardian and protector.  I pay especially close attention to their whereabouts at dusk, because that's when night predators become more active.

When the chicks were first moved into the coop, I didn't let them out for a couple of weeks so they would feel at home there. Now that they free-range, I don't let them out until about 11:00 in the morning.  I go and visit them at the run each morning with a good breakfast and let them spend the morning hours in the coop and run so they can take care of their nesting duties and develop attachments to the comforts of their home.

In the afternoon, I let them out to free-range.  They develop a routine, and at any given time of the day, I am pretty sure where they will be.  They have their favorite foraging spots, their favorite shade spots for resting, and their favorite dirt pits for dust-bathing.

After free-ranging for several hours, when the sun goes down these weary girls head back home. It's like clock work.  If I'm in a hurry and want to speed them up a bit, I go down to their coop ahead of them.  They are used to me giving them food there, so they come running when they see me heading in that direction.  When I feed them I always say, "C'mon chickies, pretty chickies."  They are very familiar with that call and associate it with food, so I can always get them to come by calling out.

When they arrive "home" in the evening, they go in the house on their own.  At the beginning, I had to sort of herd them in by just standing back a distance and slowly moving in toward them.  Now I just have to stand there.  They know the drill and fall in.  Chickens appreciate and respond very well to consistent routines. Who says chickens can't be trained?

When they go inside their house, they might pause for a drink of water or a bite of layer mix, but then they go out into the run for a bit.  They're not quite ready to "turn in," but they are ready to relax.

As much as these gals love to free-range, they also love their run.  That's where they get their breakfast, and that's where they like to go in the evening and relax on the outside perches.  It sort of reminds me of how I feel in the evening when I finally get to sit in the recliner chair and let my breath out.  You know that feeling of unwinding at the end of the day. That's what chickens like to do too.

And when dusk turns to dark, they go inside the house and climb onto their roost for a good night's sleep.  They like to cuddle close together, and they all want on that top perch.  I've noticed that Buffy seems to be their quiet, gentle guardian/leader. She's not aggressive in her leadership, but she is very watchful.  She is always one of the first to arrive at the house but stands outside the door until everyone else goes in.  I think she does a head count.  When they climb on the perches, she will stand back and let them all find their places, and then she will squeeze in.  Ruby, the RIR is usually the one who will scoot over and make room for her.  I always do a head count myself to make sure everyone is "home sweet home" before I close and lock their door for the night.

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