Saturday, August 28, 2010

The problem with free range hens.

The majority of our chickens are Old English Game birds, they are a bit more 'wild' than most domesticated layers. They can fly, they like to roost in trees, they get 'broody' often and instinctively make fabulous mamas. If you have read anything about keeping chickens, you'll find these guys do not follow the rules.
All of our English game birds are free range. However, it is not entirely intentional, we fenced in a small area around the chicken coop and created a closed pen to keep them safe. The chickens however, quickly found ways to escape. They dug under the fence, squeezed through small wholes in the chicken wire and refused to be contained. So we fenced off a larger area for the goats and chickens to share. We hoped this would allow them some freedom to free range, but also keep them out of the garden, off the deck and help protect them from predators. The fence is five foot high, and they fly out of it effortlessly.
Folks have suggested we clip their wings, but their ability to fly is their best line of defense against predators. Several years ago we had a wandering dog attack. All of our wild birds were able to escape, but the domesticated birds who do not fly were all killed. So we don't clip wings.

One of the problems with free range chickens is that they lay their eggs were ever they feel like it. Some mornings are like an Easter egg hunt, looking in all the usual places trying to find all the eggs. We have found them in the goat shed, hidden among the sweet potato plants, in between rows off beans, and quite often in my flower beds.
Another problems with free range chickens is that quite often one will just disappear. Sometimes they are gone for good, and occasionally they reappear 21 days later with a special surprise.

This year we have had several hens disappear, only to reappear with a new brood of chicks. This is Honky, named by the kids because of the unusual 'honking' sound she makes. She hatched out 4 little peeps earlier this week.

i love little fluffy baby peeps. We seriously can not get enough of them. The kids follow them around all day, trying to pick them up and trying not to get flogged by the mama. It's really hard to get a picture of all four. They move so quick and try to stay hidden underneath mama hen.

Another picture attempt. Three have the 'chipmunk' markings we often see with these game birds, while one is a more traditional fluffy yellow.

Only a few days after Honky brought out her peeps to introduce them to the flock, we found Gilfie in the shed with two new peeps of her own. These little balls of fluff are less than 24 hours old. The hen is still setting on several eggs so we are expecting a few more. Typically the hen will set for 2-3 days after the first peeps hatch, and then she will abandon the nest regardless of whether the addition eggs have hatched or not.

The hens then brings the chicks out and teaches them to forage and scratch up bugs and seeds from the soil. At first they spend a lot of time in the garden, hiding among the raspberry canes for protection. They show the peeps how to scratch up cutworms, and other bugs. One of my favorite parts of having new peeps is that the hens will follow me around in the garden while i work. As i'm turning soil or applying compost i often find large beetle grubs. The mama hen will take them right out of my hand, and cluck for the peeps to come and eat it.

The problem with 'true' free range chickens is that they don't behave the way books tell you that chickens will behave. They don't want to sleep in the coop, they prefer the trees. They don't lay in the nesting boxes, they prefer hiding them among the flowerbeds. They poop everywhere, the new peeps are easily picked off by predators which is always devastating. :( Although they scratch up some garden pests they also leave the most destructive ones and cause a lot of damage to many of the vegetables in the garden. This year my chickens stripped all my kale and swiss chard.

Regardless of these problems, i absolutely love having free ranging chickens. i love watching the kids chase them across the yard. i love looking out the window and seeing a rooster on the deck railing crowing his morning song. i love the surprise of a missing hen returning with new peeps and having them follow me around the garden. i love knowing i have happy chickens, doing instinctively what chickens are supposed to be doing and not what the books tell you they do.


  1. Hi
    I posted elsewhere about the fair trade art site but then I went wondering and just fellin love with your website.
    I lived in the country for a decade of so, had my kids there, chickens, veges and my business. In the last year we moved to the city where I am happy enough but...
    My heart just leaped out of my chest when i saw all that you do with your home and family.
    The city offers so much but its just not where my heart lies.
    So thank you for just being who you are and sharing that with the world. I have some thinking to do :0)