Keeping Free-Range Backyard Birds
I have neighbors. Not “next farm over” neighbors or “down the road a piece” neighbors. I share fences. I hear the kids playing in the yard behind me and I can chat with the guy across the street without either of us leaving our driveways. So what kind of trouble do I run into when my chickens are left to roam free in the yard? As it turns out, not much.
Free ranging chickens offers many benefits, the most obvious being that access to fresh air, sunshine and open land on which to forage can make for healthier chickens. But it doesn’t end there. When chickens are able to forage for themselves, all of those bugs, grubs and worms fuel healthier eggs as well. Cholesterol and fat content is reduced. Omega-3, Vitamins A and E shoot sky high, and those eggs will just plain taste better too. But is free ranging practical in a suburban setting? We have a few things going for us:
Chickens are natural homebodies.
Chickens love to forage, but they also have an instinct to stay close to the protected roost provided for them and reliable sources of food and water. So if they do stray, it probably won’t be far. A well-maintained coop and a consistently full feeder are key.
A fenced-in yard.
I have an eight-foot fence enclosing my back yard, which encourages the flock to stay put. In fact, I had been keeping chickens for about a year and a half when one cold winter day, my next door neighbor dropped by. “This, uh, may sound strange, but…do you have chickens?” she asked. They had wandered into her back yard in search of softer earth in which to scratch. My first realization was that I should chat with my neighbor more often. Secondly, it says a lot about many of the misconceptions about chickens that my neighbor had no idea that a flock of nearly a dozen birds was nesting less than thirty yards away. Since those early days, some of my birds have become more inclined to hop the gate to forage in the front yard or wander into an adjacent wooded plot. Which brings us to…
The family living behind me was also surprised when, one day, half a dozen chickens stopped by for a visit. Not only did the kids get a kick out of real live chickens out by the swing set, but we had a great time talking about the different breeds in my flock and they loved going home with a carton of multicolored eggs. Having cool neighbors helps a lot. When my chickens cross the road (which, thankfully, isn’t too often), Steve and Deb are happy to see them.
Backyard chickens don’t need to free range to be happy, healthy and productive. There are plenty of situations in which free ranging isn’t practical. Predators, limited space or intolerant landscaping are all good reasons to keep the birds in their enclosed run. But if conditions permit, allowing your flock to roam free now and again can keep your bug population down and chicken spirits high.