Chickens are curious and active birds. Raising free range birds is a key factor in maintaining a healthy and stress-free flock. Not allowing birds access to engage in natural behaviors creates serious behavioral and emotional issues in the flock – from picking to frustration aggression. While backyard chicken predators are a serious threat, there are many ways to let your birds enjoy an enriched environment – and stay safe. Plus….you get the best humanely produced eggs a chicken can lay!
Feeding the free range flock
Pastured flocks that are foraging on lush and varied plants, with the all you can eat bug and seed buffet, won’t have much of an appetite for processed pelleted feed. Unless you have a substantial flock (over 15 birds ), you may find yourself looking to give away some of that 50 pounds of grain. I once asked a grain manufacturer if they had any appealing grain products, or were researching that culinary element to make the pellets more appetizing my birds hated chicken feed. They said nope, so I made my own formulation.
You may notice your pastured poultry staring at their grain as if you were trying to poison them. This happens. Chickens are biologically designed to rustle up their own food.
In the wild, jungle fowl spend 61% of their time foraging, Dr. Jacquie Jacob.
Pasture ranging birds is similar to offering a “free chicken dinner” advertisement to every carnivore in your area. Don’t underestimate predators. Here are a few tips to deter marauders:
- Only free range your flock when you can supervise them. This only works if you are literally with your flock. It is your presence that deters the predators. Some hawks will wait nearby for you to take a break to launch their attack!
- Hire a neighborhood kid to watch your flock. They get to enjoy the great outdoors and make a wage! This job is better than dog-walking or paper delivery. They get to spend time with chickens (who could resist?), and they can do whatever they want while they follow the flock (text, catch-up with social media). The job perks are enticing!
- Livestock guard dogs have been bred to do just that guard other animals. These dogs need to be trained, but they are a fantastic addition to your family. Many poultry keepers, and commercial farms, are hiring these pups.
- Make sure your range has plenty of bramble (like gooseberries and raspberries), thickets and other cover. Plant grapes, stands of blueberries and holly. Place movable coops in the pasture (like chicken tractors) to give the birds extra security and to provide a nesting area. You can use some portable and temporary coops that are good for free ranged birds.
- Free Range your chickens with other livestock. Consider mixing geese and heritage breed turkeys with your chickens, ducks and guineas. These large birds are wary and will readily sound the alarm. Go “BIG” by adding llama, donkeys, cattle, goats, horses and donkeys. These large animals will make predators think twice about your birds, and some of these grazers will attack the bad guys, especially if they are loose dogs. It is well known that domestic dogs are the number one killers of poultry.
Chickens do not need any fencing. Ironically, we install fencing to keep things AWAY from the chickens not to curtail the birds’ wanderlust. Chickens begin to head for the back forty only to stop at the first acre! Fence choice depends on the species that frequent your area. Once an animal learns that food can be found on farms and homes, they will not unlearn that.
Assume local predators are looking for meals around homes. If neighbors have lost livestock to predators, those animals will be targeting your birds too.
Livestock = easy meal
Most ground attackers are nocturnal, but they can and do roam during the day especially if they are livestock killers, food is scarce and/or they have litters to care for. Predators will chew through thin wood, metal or plastic. They will break glass in windows and dig under fencing. NEVER underestimate a predatory animal. Many are also habituated to humans and will not run from you. Local wildlife and agricultural resources will be able to inform of you of legal methods to remove livestock killing animals. All birds-of-prey are protected in the United States. Killing or poisoning these raptors is illegal.
Note: Traditional chicken wire has no barrier effect. Dogs, coyotes and certainly bears can rip right through. Never use chicken wire as a predator fence. Charged electric fence is the only fence that will stop bears. You can simply run strands of this around the perimeter to prevent bears from entering.
Using electric fence keeps the ground killers away, but it does nothing to stop the aerial attackers. You must use top netting to prevent birds of prey from entering your pasture area. They are pretty tenacious and not shy taking the time they need to find a way into your chicken yard.
For quick protection, the fruit tree mesh sold at garden centers works well. It’s cheap and available. However, it tangles easily and is hard to work with.
For more permanent protection, you can purchase heavy-duty aviary mesh that is designed for long term installations.
If the idea of swathes of dark netting insults your aesthetic sense (it is rather,¦glaring) here is another solution. The Hawk Stopper netting was designed for the fish farming industry. It exploits the acute vision of hawks and eagles. We barely see anything, but the raptors see the netting!
Urban poultry keepers
If you are a city chicken keeper, don’t assume your birds are safe. Cities harbor coyotes, foxes, raccoons, rats, hawks and skunks. Use the same poultry protection procedures as the country folk.
Free range chickens that are allowed to dine on fresh greens and “found” treats produce high-quality eggs. The nutritional content of pastured eggs is superior to any other. Research at Penn State (2010) showed that, “Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens [sic] eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids… Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs…” and that is significant.
As always, send on your tips and suggestions. We love to hear from you, and look forward to those great comments! Keep on cluckin’.