Being the responsible caretaker of a small, urban flock of chickens requires a thoughtful understanding of your hens, as well as the environment in which you are raising them. One decision to consider is the space your hens will need in which to forage, scratch, dust their feathers and interact with one another, whether that’s free-ranging or a coop-and-run setup.
Housing & Grazing
Some coop systems include a small enclosure where hens can accomplish their normal day-to-day activities. These spaces are usually attached to the structure that offers safe roosting at night and a nest box for egg-laying.
After starting a small-scale flock in this type of housing, it’s quickly apparent that their normal behaviors take a toll on the available ground. Where once grass may have been, the girls scratch and forage the available space into a barren wasteland.
Wet weather can add to the difficulties of an attached run because the hens will quickly churn soil into a muddy mess, and it can be challenging to offer clean food and water sources for the flock. Adding sand, dry bedding and weeds pulled from available garden beds for forage can provide needed stimulation and relief from the constant pressure the flock can put on available real estate.
The pecking order of hens in an enclosed run may prevent some flock members lower on the list from getting access to food or water. Limited space means less room to move around and get away from inter-flock tensions.
With these challenges in mind, you may thoughtfully consider ways to expand available daytime space for your hens. One way to do this is to house your flock in a movable structure. Chicken tractors or movable fencing enable you to provide temporary access to another area of your yard, and using these allows you to move birds to different grassy spots providing space in which to stretch their legs while still offering needed shelter and protection from predators. However, to be successful hens must be easy to handle and move to and from their main yard to the temporary space.
For chicken keepers without a fenced-in yard, this solution is a viable option. It can be a way to give your birds controlled access to another part of the yard while taking the pressure off the coop space. It’s also a wonderful resource when seeking a complete cleanout of the coop.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll define free-ranging as access to an area beyond the confines of the pen and coop structure. A completely fenced-in yard allows chickens to free-range during part or all of the day, which has definite advantages and disadvantages.
Pros: Birds will gain health benefits of added diversity in their nutrition, high levels of activity and more space to do all the things normal chickens do.
They’ll spread out and use their space for foraging natural, high-protein resources—insects, worms, lizards and even small mammals—in your yard. They’ll scratch, peck and hunt, staying occupied and entertained in ways they miss out on in a more confined space. If they have access to your garden beds, your girls will churn the soil and consume pest insects.
Cons: Your hens will make a mess of those garden beds, kicking mulch outside garden borders, consuming new young plants and regularly digging plants out of containers. They love petunia blossoms, fresh tomatoes and new shoots of developing plants in general.
While you will enjoy eggs with beautiful orange yolks—the result of nutritional diversity—you may also find that free-rangers don’t always lay their eggs in nest boxes. Sometimes, hens choose a spot somewhere else in the yard that they prefer. What might seem like a drop in egg production may actually be a hidden stash of eggs.
Free-ranging hens will put less pressure on their pen, in part because they will be pooping outside the pen. Of course that means they will poop everywhere: on the patio or deck, near the back door, under the swing set and along human pathways. Poop falls where it may.
Hens will also create their own favorite dust-bath stations, and they seem to love spots around the foundation of houses and coops. These spaces are relatively protected, dry, cool and comfortable during the summer months. Unfortunately, the birds will likely create unsightly trenches.
A small-scale flock may also become a nuisance to neighbors. Hens stick their heads through fencing when enticed by fresh garden vegetables, or especially industrious hens may even find their way into the flower or garden beds next door. Keep an eye on what your flock is doing, and don’t be afraid to share fresh eggs with your neighbors to help build relations on your girls’ behalf.
A Day In The Life
Pacing at the enclosure door, hens are anxious to be released from the confines of their normal coop area. An overnight rain means they are excitedly anticipating the search for worms and insects brought to the surface by the weather.
The hens burst out of the door and head off in the direction of favored areas of the yard. They begin scratching through fallen leaves in the shelter of nearby shrubs consuming insects found throughout the yard.
Throughout the day, the flock can be observed doing everything healthy hens do: scratching, eating, dusting their feathers, warming their wings in the sun, returning to the coop area for food and water, resting in the shade.
They will take full advantage of water and grain sources. In addition to having it remain available inside their normal yard, it’s helpful to provide other stations for these two items. Hens will avail themselves of fresh water offered in other yard locations and will move between feeders in their normal enclosure as well as outdoors.
As the daylight begins to dwindle, the birds start making their way back into the confines of their coop. They move their foraging activities closer and closer to the open gate, sometimes going in and coming back out of the coop itself or the available pen. As evening comes on, they may come and go for an hour or more before settling in for the night.
As the shadows deepen and full dusk arrives, a human appears and secures the coop for the evening—all birds accounted for and safely back inside their pen and coop.
It pays to tuck your flock in at night. Some flocks are adept at putting themselves to bed if their pen door is left open while others may need a little enticing to return to their roost, such as some mealworms or scratch in the coop.
Free-ranging opens up a whole new world for your backyard birds, but it also opens the door to a greater risk from predators, including birds of prey and neighborhood cats and dogs.
Local wildlife will become increasingly familiar with the routines of your hens. When the seasons begin to change—particularly as fall arrives—hawks and other wildlife may become more predatory. Before allowing your hens to free-range, know what wildlife is present in your area. If predators become a major issue, you may have to vary free-ranging times or limit free-ranging all together.
If you are home during the hours your hens are free-ranging, you can keep an eye on their activities while also watch out for predators. Hawks will hang around, dive bomb and even land and run after a hen. Hens will respond by raising the alarm—calling loudly and urgently—and take advantage of available cover. Shrubs and bushes offer shade and places to hide if an overhead predator shows up.
While free-ranging comes with risks, watching hens work the entire yard is enjoyable, and you’ll learn about your birds’ likes, dislikes and pecking order. Insights like these can make small flock maintenance fun for the whole family, because your birds will entertain you to no end: They don’t call it “chicken TV” for nothing.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Chickens.