Free ranging didn’t work for me… July 11, 2012

Fox family living in a drain. Photo by Heather S. of Colorado.

When I go out in the morning to bring treats to my girls and collect our little egg gifts for the day, I’m greeted at the run door by hens begging for me to let them out. How could I turn down those sweet little faces?

Sadly, I feel I have to. In the early days of my chicken keeping, I wanted to give them the best of everything… even freedom. After losing some of my favorite birds to dogs, foxes and hawks, I came to realize free ranging just wasn’t for me.  At first, I was heartbroken, thinking they’d be coop-bound forever. But instead of getting mad, I got smart.

First things first: I secured aviary netting to the top of my run to keep out hawks and other birds of prey (see my prior post on Blue Heron). Second, I buried galvanized hardware cloth 12″ deep to keep out diggers like foxes and dogs–and rodents. With the run secure, I had no problem letting them out, but still they were pouty about being imprisoned, and no wonder.

So, the ladies and I came to a compromise.  Some days, right before sunset, I let them out. I stay outside in the garden and watch over them while they graze. They know the day is ending and don’t wander off too far. (That saying, “chickens come home to roost” is really true–every night, faithfully, they’ll return to their coop.)

After weighing my options, this routine is best for me and my girls. So many of you I’ve spoken with on the phone prefer to free-range your flock all day. You know you’ll lose some to predators, but you prefer them to live the happiest, healthiest lives possible, even if those lives are occasionally cut short. Ultimately, so long as your chickens are respected and given a healthy, clean living environment, the rest is up to you. No matter whether you choose to free-range them all the time or just once in a while, they’ll still be much, much happier than factory farm birds living the whole of their lives indoors.

35 Comments
Maery Rose July 11th, 2012

I’m with you. I haven’t even been brave enough to let my 4 hens out for a little while. Perhaps this way, they are satisfied with their run as they’ve never been out of it. But I would like to let them explore further some day, maybe when they are a bit older. Boy, I sound like a mother hen!

Joann July 14th, 2012

We do the same thing now..we lost 3 hens to a hawk, raccoon and a fox. I don’t live in a rural area so these creatures are looking for food since they have difficulty getting it. We now leave our hens in the pen which is actually a dog run hooked up to the coop it is quite lengthy so they have plenty of room to roam during the day. At dusk we let them out to roam and we are in the yard the whole time. I recently had 2 very close calls with the fox during the day. I went inside and she came in the yard chasing them I went outside to chase her and all the hens headed for me and so did she..she was so focused on the hens she failed at first to see me. Once she realized I was there she ran away. I wish I had a solution that would work for all the creatures.

Liz July 14th, 2012

I have 3 hens, in the city, in a neighborhood of fenced yards, but I have to be careful too. We have large hawks, racoon, possum, and I’ve even seen a fox in the area. So I have also turned to letting them out only when I am out in the yard, usually early morning or evening. Wish I could let them free range all day, they sure would like it.

Mary July 14th, 2012

I love this compromise!! Great idea. Thanks for sharing

Beth Burnham July 14th, 2012

I understand and agree with you. We were letting ours out a coop at a time. One day we let the cochins out and I was around the corner of the house. I started hearing the rooster bulging and ran around the corner to see the neighbors dog on top of my LF cochin rooster. I started screaming and ran at them….the dog ran off and the rooster ran around the run to the gate where there was a hen in the corner trying to hide. I opened the gate and they ran in. The other gate was open and the other hen had already ran into their run. The next week one of the hens died. I had to believe it was shock.
But., mostly it is safe if you are out there with them. But I make up for lack of free ranging with lots of treats that are good for them.

ReiMiraa July 14th, 2012

I have a property that is an orchard and I let my birds free range most the time I have lost many a times it to coyotes, owls and a bobcat. This morning I saw two coyotes so my flock is in lockdown for a few days. In the winter with the snow they don’t roam far. So I try tO let them get as much sun and goodies in the summer so u have good eggs in the winter. Then again my birds are spoiled. They get 30lbs of cherries everyday to eat. My favorite and most valuable birds don’t have freedom anymore because I care for them the most.

Marcy July 14th, 2012

My Babies go out every day when I get home from work, they wander about while I am taking care of their coops, the horses and the barn kitties. They go to bed at dusk and they all know which coops they live in which amazes me. On the weekends I let them out to range for the day but only if I’m home and then I do chicken checks every 1/2 hr or so. One of my kitties always comes with me on chicken checks and the girls love him. He will go up to them and rub on them and they don’t seem to mind at all. Such joy we get from them. I’m glad I live where I can have them and let them have small amounts of freedom.

Jeanine July 14th, 2012

I also let my girls out, only if I am out with them. I lost four to a fox. Our routine is when I get home from work, I change, grab a water and watch my girls graze. It is my decompression time and it works.

Daniel Heuerman July 14th, 2012

you are right u cant get mad. i face the same problom with coon’s foxes red tale hawks owls and the list go’s on. you cant kill all coons and foxes that come near. its a never ending battle that way ! shock netting works verry well for keeping things safe.but all so it could be a bad thing if not used right. larger pets like goats a such can get tangled up in the netting. the netting should be unpluged in a rain storm !

Lori Mortensen July 14th, 2012

We have been blessed with the ability to free range ours. Our big dogs keep any four legged predator away during the day. Gratefully they themselves do not go after our girls. The few times we have had an Eagle they have run under the trees we have thanks to our attentive roo. Then one of us has gone out and chased it off. So far so good it has not returned. Our biggest threat has been a family of coons at night. They moved in a year ago and took out half our flock before we figured out what the problem was. Now we have to be over diligent and make sure everything is closed down for the night right at dusk. And to make sure none of our more independent birds have decided to hang out in the barn for the night.

Jodi July 14th, 2012

After encountering upsetting senarioes with predators and losing some of my birds I decided to provide a climate controlled environment for my birds. We let them out to graze for short periods of time. We also don’t have to worry about them dying from heat exhaustion during the summer months.

Martha Chamness July 14th, 2012

I’m with you! I recently lost 2 to a fox while they were out free-ranging. I only let them out right before sunset and I stand guard with my .22 loaded!

Terry E. July 14th, 2012

We didn’t want to take that chance on our three hens. They are out for a few hours, twice each day and it works perfectly for them. The rest of the time they are kept safe in the coop. They go back to the coop on their own when they have had their fill of food and bugs. Our dogs keep predators out of the yard and so far, so good.

Chris July 14th, 2012

Our girls have large fenced in yards, and we provide plenty of greens and veggie scraps for them as well as their layer pellets. When we are home and in the yard, we let them loose to range, but they always stay where we are and follow us like puppies
They especially love it when we are weeding the garden-all kinds of great stuff then. When we go in the house, we walk them back to their yard, and we always close them in their coops before nightfall.

Darlene July 14th, 2012

I like mine to free range, but have a fox that keeps returning every spring. So this year I bought 160′ of the electrified mesh fencing that I made into an enclosure adjoining their pen and coop. It is FANTASTIC and I don’t need to worry about them even at dusk. I highly recommend it.

Kelly Miller July 14th, 2012

I would love to continue free ranging but I could not stand loosing another of my flock to dogs. My girls and boys can only be out when I’m out. Sad but necessary.

sclinton July 15th, 2012

I recently lost one to a coyote that came very close to my house to nab one of my baby hens. I was so sad, I put them all under house arrest for a few days and they let me know ALL DAY LONG what an injustice it was. I started letting the free range again, but now I lock them back in the coop a bit earlier, hoping to get them in before the coyotes start moving at dusk. So far, so good, but I know I am running a risk with having them out all day.

wawyandottes July 15th, 2012

After losing 7 of my first 8 Silver-Laced Wyandottes to coyotes and coons, I built a welded wire yard and installed an electric chicken coop door on a timer. My new flock has been incident-free now for almost 3 years. The idealistic notion of free-ranging was an expensive venture in terms of lives lost, but I learned several valuable lessons. Now my flock is happy, healthy, and most importantly, safe.

Juniper July 16th, 2012

I only let my girls out (they have 16 sq ft per chicken run) when I get home from work and putting them back up at night. Also I let them free range on the weekends when im home. It workes out well for all of us!

helen chavis September 15th, 2012

I had a problem with hawks going after my chickens when id let them out when i had my first 10 chickens. now when i let them out i stand there with them. havent had problems with any other predators (knock on wood) which is surprising because i live out in the country. I only lost one chicken to a hawk (a polish hen) but that chicken’s boyfriend (my only other polish at that time)died shortly there after of sadness. that was his only friend none of my other chickens ever excepted him. He would just mope around making sad sounds he wouldnt eat or drink much. it was so sad 🙁

Georgia Alexiadi October 15th, 2012

Dear Shannon,

I’ m writting you from Athens, Greece. I red your comments about keeping your chicken most part of the day since you are afraid that something might happen to them and I wanted your opinion on the following:

My parents keep chicken in their house, which is in the country, but near the city.
Often, they go to my father’s village and of course they take the chicken whith them.
Many times it happend that 10-15 days after they arrive to the village, a chicken who was perfectly healthy in Athens, dies in one or two days unexpectadly.

I must explain that my parents love and take very good care of the chicken, but I cannot understand why these deaths always happen in the village.

Do you have any explanation for that or have you heard something similar ?

Please help me, I’ m so frustrated.

Best regards,

Georgia

shannon October 15th, 2012

Hi Georgia, I would be a little concerned on what the birds may be eating at the location you have them visiting. I don’t know the area well, so I could check to see if their is a spot the regularly forage and check for things that may be poisonous. Good luck!

Karen October 28th, 2012

Wow, just had a wild experience with finding a hawk in the actual coop of our hen house! We threw a blanket over him and got him out but of course the 16 hens and 2 roosters are very upset! My husband was in the coop at the time and saw the hawk actually swoop in after the chickens as they ran into the coop! Luckily he had his cell phone on him to call me down to the coop and get gloves and a blanket. We have a large fenced but uncovered run. Now not sure what to do to keep the hawk from coming indoors! Any ideas? Please help! Our run is large so would be very expensive to cover.

shannon November 2nd, 2012

Hi Karen, I’m not sure about your coops set up and the hawk got into the coop. Was the door left open? As for the uncovered run, the hawk probably found his was in from there. I would try some aviary bird netting to attach to the top of the run. Its very simple to drape over and tie down. I hope that is your girls last run in with that hawk!

Susan Childers April 23rd, 2013

I live in a house in a subdivision. We have a massive (LOL) 1 acre lot. (I grew up on a 140 acre farm, so I certainly feel the snug-ness!)

After wanting chickens for a long time, we got them last spring and the original 6 just celebrated their first birthday the week after Easter. We have since added more, starting with a pair of precious, very tame, white Silkies. I didn’t let them out of their pen unless I was there to watch them.

One evening, I decided to let them enjoy the outdoors, and didn’t worry too much since our back yard is entirely fenced in. I checked on them every 10 minutes (reminded by the timer on the microwave!), and they were fine. Then I got busy with the kids, and didn’t check on them for about 30 minutes. When I went out, I discovered that one of the precious silkies had fallen into our inground pool, which we didn’t cover for the winter, and drowned.

After that, their outside excursions have been heavily supervised. I learned my lesson: not all dangers involve predators. 🙁 🙁

shannon April 24th, 2013

Susan, it’s so true. They are like toddlers sometimes, and need constant supervision. 😛

Bonnie April 8th, 2015

What about snakes? We have found snakes in our coop a few times and have gotten rid of them using ping pong or golf balls, although this seems cruel. Any other ideas? They are after the eggs, not the chickens.

Lissa April 9th, 2015

Hi, Bonnie! We have suggestions and information about what chicken keepers should know about snakes right on our website–just follow the highlighted link in my comment!

[…] point out that it isn’t always the best choice for everyone.  Shannon has blogged about why free ranging  didn’t work for her. Now I’ll explain why it doesn’t work for […]

Pat October 28th, 2015

I do pretty much the same… give them about an hour in the evening right before sunset. I babysit and they enjoy being out. We’re constructing plans for a barn and we’ll be building a new and much bigger coop as an extension of that project, so hopefully by this time next year, my girls will have a lot more room to run and I’ll feel better about leaving them in the coop. I just hate the heartbreak that comes with a coyote kill. 🙁

Niamh June 20th, 2017

We have a run with their coop in it so that they have space to walk around and roost without getting attacked.

Diana July 28th, 2017

After reading all of your stories I see that I am BLESSED for my Chickens to be able to Free Range. They are free from the time I rise till they go to roost.
Have always wanted to live on a Farm with property…Instead I live within the City Limits with a huge fenced in backyard so my girls have their waking hours free to roam. (Have only had one incident with a Hawk – My Hen squaked loud enough for me to come help.
One day my dreams of a Farm will happen & I will heed all your advice to making a Safe & Free Environment for them thanks to you…..

Vicky July 28th, 2017

We have a dog who does not eat our chickens, so we let ours free range with no issues. Sure there is the occasional hawk, but for the most part they do not bother our chickens ever. We’ve had more issues with smaller hawks than the Redtails. The neighbor’s husky was a different story but it was only one chicken. We have had foxes, coons, possums and even weasels. You get them taken care of quickly and your hens will have peace. We have an acre with a whole farm behind us. They don’t wander too far and have a nice big coop they can into quickly if needed. We’ve even lost a few to traffic, but not often. Although we do have a rather large flock of over 40 I think.

Mary C Sullivan July 28th, 2017

We have a coop with a large covered and very secure run attached to it. The run then has a pop hole that opens into a fenced “chicken” yard, which then has an opening that lets us free range the flock as desired. My flock free ranges quite a bit but we also have three dogs that sort of over see them plus a big rooster that is great at his job. So far our only losses have been to a weasel in late fall 2012. We stop free ranging from late fall through early spring, which the girls really don’t mind since they hate the snow.

Carla Field July 28th, 2017

I arrived at the same compromise. I let my hens out after I get home from work, and by the time the sun is setting, they are ready to head back inside their coop.(And I agree, there is something very relaxing about watching them graze and poke around, though I do my chicken-watching with a glass of wine in my hand, not water.) 🙂

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