Whether your flock roams a pocket-sized suburban backyard or a pristine stretch of land multiple acres in size, there’s no doubt that free-ranging chickens experience plenty of healthful benefits. Exploring the grounds, pursuing butterflies, chasing chipmunks and other distractions all keep your hens active and exercised.
Not only is your property their playground, it’s also their smorgasbord, with a seemingly unlimited variety of insects, fresh berries and tender greens to snack on.
Their scratching naturally unearths tiny pebbles and grit necessary for digestion and endless options exist when it comes time to dust bathe or snooze in the sun. From your chickens’ perspective, free ranging may be the next best thing to heaven.
But even paradise has its problems. And your girls might encounter dangers where and when they are least expected. Keep an eye out for these four threats to foragers.
Being away from the shelter of a coop or the protection of a run paints a target on the back of a foraging chicken. While most predators are nocturnal, some—such as hawks, foxes and weasels—operate during daylight hours.
Furthermore, nighttime hunters such as coyotes, bobcats and raccoons are becoming increasingly diurnal. And they are doing so in urban and suburban areas as they adapt to vanishing habitat.
Dogs and cats (especially feral felines) also pose a danger to free-ranging chickens.
To minimize the threat posed by wild animals—and by neighborhood pets—meticulously maintain your property. Mow and weed-whack frequently. This not only allows you to keep your birds in sight, it also removes the tall grasses in which predators conceal themselves.
Remove any cover that provides predators a place to perch and dispose of accumulated yard junk under which hungry hunters can hide. Fence your property in if you can. If not, create a chicken run large enough to allow your flock to roam freely within while still safely enclosed.
The ability to forage freely is one of the key benefits to free-ranging your flock of chickens. They are able to feast on fresh dandelion greens, clover, nettles and chickweed to their heart’s content.
Chickens aren’t the most discerning eaters, however, and they can and will get into plants that can hurt them.
I had to give away my beloved irises because our Orpingtons would constantly dig up my front garden to get to the bulbs, which are poisonous to poultry. Azaleas, begonias, daffodils, lupines and tulips all adversely affect chickens, causing vomiting, disorientation, weakness, labored breathing and more.
Other popular garden and landscaping plants that can be—or are—lethal to chickens include:
- red maples
- the extremely toxic black cherry
Cultivated flora is not the only danger. Wild plants such as pokeweed, milkweed and jimson weed all pose a threat to your birds.
To protect your flock from ingesting a potentially toxic plant, enclose your vegetable garden and install ornamental (and practical) fencing around your decorative landscaping to keep ranging chickens out.
Recognize and remove dangerous wild plants from your yard by hand. (Using herbicides simply replaces one poison for another.)
At least once a month, I drive by the sad remains of a chicken that failed to cross the road to get to the other side. In our rural residential zone, many of the poultry-keeping residents allow their birds to range unchecked. And, for reasons that have stumped joke-tellers for decades, roads seem to attract curious chooks.
I cringe each time I head into town or to the nearby nature preserve, knowing full well that a chicken might dash out in front of my car at any moment. Driveways can be just as perilous to roaming birds, especially if you don’t check your rearview mirror to make sure the coast is clear before pulling out of the garage.
As if cars and trucks weren’t enough, our silly birds are just as likely to run right in front of a lawn mower, tractor and brush hogger.
The only measure that has succeeded in preventing poultry-vehicular accidents is keeping the chickens contained. In areas where there is a lot of road traffic, this may be the only option to keep your hens safe.
Not all neighbors are nice. You may love your chickens with all your heart and never suspect that your neighbor has absolutely had it with egg songs and clucking.
One flock-keeping friend lost a hen every couple of weeks a few years back. He thought that perhaps his girls were being picked off by coyotes. Nope.
It was the little old lady next door, who was sick and tired of seeing free-ranging chickens in the field next to her house (which belonged to him). She had her adult children do away with the hens.
We experienced something similar with a former neighbor, a city-dweller who chose to move near our poultry farm. One day he decided he’d had enough of our quacking ducks and gobbling turkeys.
If communication fails to resolve issues between yourself and an angry neighbor, be prepared to fight for your right to farm. Contact your state’s Department of Agriculture to learn the requirements for a Right to Farm determination. This status overrides any municipal regulations and protects you—and your birds—should you choose to involve the authorities.