Chickens are abundantly amusing and useful livestock to keep on the farm, but that doesn’t mean keeping them is without its challenges, especially with free-range fowl. Shutting them up at night keeps them safe from predators and in their intended living space, but free-ranging during the daylight hours enables them to engage in natural foraging activities for better nutrition and overall health.
Keeping them from roosting in trees, wandering off or peeking through your windows, however, can be difficult. When your favorite relaxation spot or frequently used machinery becomes their new perch—aka a droppings board in function, if not in name—the rose-colored glasses start to fade. If you’re having to wage war with your free-range birds to keep them under control (and off the porch!), the following tips should help to turn the tide in your favor without imprisoning your prized poultry.
1. Move Your Coop
Jennifer Cook, the small acreage management coordinator from the Colorado State University Extension, says that a free-range flock needs a minimum of 10 square feet per bird in a run or fenced area to forage. If you have 10 chickens, they need at least 100 square feet of space set away from your human-designated areas but will likely roam farther based on their comfort with the space as well as with you.
Placing shelter and feeding stations nearby makes sense from an accessibility standpoint, but this accessibility makes your porch, equipment or anything else that could serve as a nice poultry perch tempting to your fowl flock, too. If proximity seems to be the problem for your situation, consider moving your coop and other shelters farther from the area where your chickens need to be banished.
If proximity isn’t the problem and your hens are just straying too far from the coop, as they tend to do as they become comfortable with an area, Jacquie Jacob, a poultry extension associate at University of Kentucky, recommends adding a rooster to your flock: “Sometimes a rooster will keep them closer to home,” she says.
2. Limit Your Feeding Areas
If your poultry shelter was already positioned at a suitable distance or moving it didn’t have the desired effect, evaluate the behavior of your flock to determine what might be driving them to set up shop in your zone. “Other than the use of confinement, it is hard to get chickens to not roost where you don’t want,” Jacob says. “Sometimes, they want to be near people, so even if there are better perching areas, they still migrate to where the people are to see if they can get handouts.”
Be sure to keep your handouts restricted to the area where you want them; feeding near your personal areas will only encourage them to seek you out. Food should be associated with a location more so than a person.
If you’re not the attraction, look around to see what is. Does a porch railing or tractor steering wheel give them a better vantage point than they already have? Chickens will look for the highest perch for the best view and might even compete for the honor if there isn’t room for more than one, which is why you might find them roosting in trees on your property or, if you lack those, your porch rail. If you find this is the case, raise the stakes—or perch alternative, as it might be. Offer a higher perch near the point of offense to lure the birds away. If your chickens take the bait, gradually move the perch toward their designated area to help ease the transition.
3. Break Your Chickens’ Bad Habits
Even with proper spacing and preferable perch options, habits can be difficult to break. If you have the time and energy to devote to herding the birds off your porch several times per day for days on end, then a traditional shooing method might be enough to curb your birds’ bad habits.
You will need to be home to drive the birds from their perch as quickly as possible each time they come to it. Leaving to go to town or leaving the area to do other tasks will kill the consistency needed to make this method successful. These “shooing” methods include just walking calmly and slowly with arms extended toward the birds—probably the safest and least trust-damaging method to use with your birds—to using spray bottles to spritz the offending fowl.
That said, most small-scale farmers don’t have that luxury and would prefer to devote their energies to other farm-related chores. In this case, look into automated deterrents, including mechanized decoys and water sprayers. Chickens have a natural aversion to their common predators, which has led some companies to develop animated owls, snakes and hawks that move and make sounds. These frightening tools have limited efficacy as the birds can become accustomed to the mechanized predators, especially if they aren’t moved to various locations and positions on a regular basis. While this is a lesser commitment, it does require some upkeep to garner the most benefit from it.
Another mechanized tool that might work is an automated sprayer often sold for deterring dogs from landscaping. These motion-activated sprayers shoot a small stream of water at the offender. This one would require thoughtful placement to avoid spraying yourself or other members of your family, but it affords the consistently random deterrent required to keep chickens at bay.
Protecting Surrounding Birds
Be sure the deterrents you choose don’t impact the raptor population in your area. Although birds of prey, such as great horned owls, hawks and eagles, are natural predators of poultry, it’s illegal to use scare tactics or lethal controls on them without a permit.
People who experience raptor damage problems should immediately seek information and/or assistance, according to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, a research website (www.icwdm.org) funded through a grant and maintained by Scott Hygnstrom, the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Wildlife at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point:
“Frustration killings occur far too often because landowners are unfamiliar with or unable to control damage with nonlethal control techniques. These killings result in the needless loss of raptors, and they may lead to undesirable legal actions. If trapping or shooting is necessary, permits should be requested and processed as quickly as possible. Always consider the benefits that raptors provide before removing them from an area; their ecological importance, aesthetic value and contributions as indicators of environmental health may outweigh the economic damage they cause.”
Although they vary by state, the legalities that protect these birds are quite strict: All hawks and owls are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These laws strictly prohibit the capture, killing or possession of hawks or owls without special permit. No permits are required to scare depredating migratory birds except for endangered or threatened species, including bald and golden eagles.
In addition, most states have regulations regarding hawks and owls. Some species may be common in one state but may be on a state endangered species list in another. For permit requirements and information, consult your local representatives at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and/or state wildlife department.
The Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management recommends preventing an attack before predation becomes a problem: “Eliminate perch sites within 100 yards of the threatened area by removing large, isolated trees and other perching surfaces. Install utility lines underground and remove telephone poles near poultry-rearing sites. Cap poles with sheet metal cones, Nixalite (bird barriers), cat claws or inverted spikes.”
The same fright devices you use for your chickens might not be legal for birds of prey in your area, so check local regulations. The same pitfalls of these devices often apply to birds of prey: Generally, if birds are hungry, they quickly get used to and ignore frightening devices.