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Bee's key points to successful and safe free ranging.

By Beekissed, Aug 16, 2013 | Updated: Jun 14, 2015 | | |
  1. Beekissed
    You really need the right breeds/birds, the right rooster or dominant hen, the right place, the right dog, the right perimeter fencing(if in town), the right hide outs/duck and cover places and the right attitude.

    Right breeds/birds~birds that are docile, slow moving, overly fat, used to being picked up in the daytime hours and have no quick reactions to alarm calls and aerial danger flying overhead are just sitting ducks for hawks.

    Silkies, overfed BOs, Polish (they can't see overhead as well) or any other birds with a slow, friendly, docile manner that are used to shadows overhead(humans) stooping over them and picking them up. All they will do is duck down and freeze, instead of run for cover as they should be doing. You'll want flighty birds that instinctively move away from any and all potential predators..including you.

    Breeds that are naturally good at free ranging are most of the heritage lines of birds such as Black Australorps, New Hampshires, Plymouth Rocks of all variations, Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes, Delawares, Wellies, Doms, Leghorns, etc. These old timey breeds make good free range breeds, even when derived from hatchery sources. There are many breeds out there that still have good foraging and free range tendencies.

    Contrary to popular lore and belief, white chicken breeds do not specifically attract aerial predation. Any and all birds I have lost to hawks have been those that were grey with a barred pattern feathers~those birds more close in appearance to the hawk's natural prey. And those birds were ranging and living side by side with many white chickens...I've never lost a white chicken to an aerial predator~I range mostly that color and have done so since the age of 10.

    Right age~ The younger you can get them out on free range, the better, particularly if you have older flock members to show them the ropes. Chicks kept in brooders and houses until they are 4 weeks old and older have grown used to sounds and sights in the house and no longer startle as easily, nor are they conditioned to outside sounds and sights. While they are still little chicks they instinctively react to danger signals of shadows overhead, the call of a hawk, fast moving animals, etc. The older, house kept chicks can still learn to adapt but they are 4 wks behind on the learning curve and just the right size for a hawk to snatch and run. I turn out my chicks at 2 wks of age to learn about free ranging with the older flock and am always amazed at how quickly they react to alarm calls and how quickly they find cover. Try an experiment with your new chicks in the brooder...give them an alarm call as if from a rooster and watch them run for cover! They come out of that shell equipped, so make good use of it before they are big enough to attract aerial preds.

    **********Don't hatch out chicks in the fall and then try to free range them~this I have found out from personal experience. The leaves are gone from the underbrush and trees, hawks are migrating through and are hungry, and juvenile chicks are the perfect size for hawk predation. Keep the chick hatching and subsequent free ranging to the time when most animals have young on the ground, cover is plentiful, and the hawks are not traveling through but have specific territory and young of their own to protect and feed. This is also the time crows have their young and are way more vigilant than we ever could be...and there's nothing a crow pack hates more than a hawk. They will chase them, pecking them and harassing them until they flee, screaming and going as fast as they can.******

    Right rooster or flock master(can be a hen)~ A good rooster will sound the alarm before you even see the threat and will have trained his flock to listen and act on it. He's worth his weight in gold when it comes to free range. Most will not fight a dog or other 4 legged predator, but the rare few will stand off a hawk, challenge a hawk or sacrifice himself for the flock. Mostly they will get the flock to shelter when a pred is in the area. A dominant hen can take over this role if she's the right sort.

    Right place~ Areas that have plenty of trees, fence rows, shelters, shrubs, etc. where a bird can run and duck under to avoid the stoop of a hawk. If there is a lack of natural shelters or hides, creating them at convenient distances throughout the range can mean life or death for your chickens. Some use pallets up on blocks, some even use pup tents, trampolines, and tarps over range shelters made from cattle panel hoops.

    Right dog~ A dog that lives outdoors all the time, is safe around the birds and sees them as living in his territory, so they are automatically protected from predator threats..even those from the sky. He is watchful all day and night and his constant vigilance lets area preds know this is a risky place for a meal. He doesn't have to cost a lot nor need some high dollar training or have to even be a LGD breed...mine have all been lab mixes that were unwanted by someone else~read FREE~and served years of unfailing, loyal service to the flocks and to the family. Loved companions, good dogs, fierce flock protection and have saved my flocks over and over. I'd never try to even have chickens~be they penned or free range~without a good dog to watch over them when I am gone all day and sleeping at night. They are indispensable to having livestock on your land....and that's just what chickens are.

    Right fence~ The right fence can and will slow down most canine preds from doing a quick grab and snatch of your birds and also keep your birds contained. They don't usually fly over a fence, they fly to the top of a fence and drop down on the other side, so removing any surface that makes for good landing at the top of your fence is imperative~even if you have a 6 ft. high fence. You can string light wire there above the hard top of the fence/gait to discourage the hop up or extend the fencing materials above the posts and gates by 6-8 in. Chickens, even adult ones, can regularly roost in trees and barn rafters, so a 6 ft. fence does not mean it is going to stop this behavior. Even clipping wing or wings can sometimes not deter a determined escapee.

    If you have a good fence and keep your birds contained and you still get a neighbor's dog breaching those defenses, you have a leg to stand on when it comes to the legal aspects. A good looking, cheap and effective way to protect suburban birds from 4 legged preds is a simple electronet poultry fence on a solar charger...you can move it to different areas, you can put it away and use it another day, it lasts up to 10 years with good care, you can place it around your coop and not worry about coons, foxes, possums, etc at night and it will shock the vinegar out of even a black bear...and it will definitely keep the chickens in if you leave it energized.

    Right attitude~ To free range, one has to accept the risk of possible loss. If done correctly, those losses are very few...I've lost 4 to aerial preds in the last 10 years or more. Three of those were just this past fall(2014) due to me hatching chicks in the fall, right when the hawks are migrating...bad mistake, never to be repeated. I've lost 1 bird at night because she roosted in the barn loft where the dogs could not defend her and got picked off by an owl. All of these were barred rock pattern birds, 3 were due to human error and poor judgement and one was due to poor judgement by the pullet, which is an acceptable loss to me. Don't need stupid birds out on range. In other words, she was too dumb to live and so didn't get to do so. All in all, these few losses over many years and many birds free ranged tell me that free ranging can be done with minimal loss if done properly.

    Another important attitude to have is that you are going to do everything possible to avoid predation, not just turn out your chickens to the grass with a kiss for luck~ then cry to all and sundry when it goes wrong, telling anyone who free ranges they are putting their birds at risk and are negligent. (This happens more than you could possibly know...people try it once, the wrong way, and then announce it can't be done safely.)

    Free ranging can be done and done well for many years if you have the right system in place that insures your birds are just as safe as they are in a coop and run...and many, many stories of predation start right there~in a coop and run~so these are not fail proof places to keep chickens.

    There really is no such thing as a Ft. Knox coop unless it is, indeed, in the middle of a Ft. Knox gold vault. A black bear or a determined pack of dogs can show you in about 5 min. how safe your coop and runs really are. Chickens in a coop and run are like fish in a barrel to predators and there is no possible escape there...at least out on free range they have a chance to run, fly, duck and cover and you may not lose all your birds in one devastating attack .

    Feel free to ask questions for clarification.

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  1. boskelli1571
    Excellent article! I had a great rooster that was lost to a hawk this past summer :(
  2. debp
    Thank you, Bee, for the response. I would like 2 if they get along, so I have a back-up rooster, should something happen to one of them.
  3. Beekissed
    A flock that size can support two roosters easily. I've never had any issues with a single rooster being a problem...they are actually very quiet and mannerly without the extra rooster being around. Nobody to have to crow against. If they were raised together from a chick, they shouldn't fight much at all...they will settle the pecking order and that should be about it.
  4. debp
    On another thread, someone said they would never have just one rooster. I think that was because that one rooster was thought to become obnoxious and intolerant after being the sole cock. With a flock of 20 to 25 hens, can you keep a couple or 3 roosters free-ranging with the flock? I am going to have to choose which of my roosters to keep here in a few weeks (all my birds are 7 weeks old), and I am open to suggestions.
  5. Beekissed
    Yep...dogs may not deter a snake as they are pretty quiet and slip in unawares...lost some chicks that way once. After that I used mothballs around the coop and never lost anymore. Now my chickens eat all the baby snakes they find and it's almost natural justice, so I encourage it...when I find one I'll hand it over to them just to see the races.
  6. mithious
    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to do this! I am really leaning towards getting a dog, to go with my whole setup. Still on the fence, but your article showed me just how important a good dog can be. Thanks again!
  7. LindaMurphy
    Dogs are worth their weight in gold, however it did not help my baby duck that I just found dead in the cage. The other 4 chicks and 1 duckling were in the attached coop. When I looked in the cage to find the other duckling it was laying there lifeless. It looks like a snake had tried to swallow the baby and either could not get out with it or wasn't big enough to swallow. Boy you are not kidding that you have to have a good attitude. Not sure what to do to keep the little ones safe. If it's not a coyote it's a hawk. If it is not a hawk it's a snake. Boy they certainly do keep us busy trying to protect them. I am not giving up. I believe my Americana is a roo. Not sure yet but he caries himself like one. Hopefully he won't be mean and will help me protect them from the air predators. My dog is great with the chickens and ducks and keeps the coyotes away.
  8. howsekatz8
    Great article and good advice!
  9. Beekissed
    Not many dogs that have been acclimated and trained to be around chickens "all of a sudden" eat birds. What usually happens is the family dog behaves himself around the chickens while the owner is there also, but has never really earned his right to be around them alone....but one day he is and finds himself with delightfully squawky toys that run when chased and no one there to run interference. Chances are there were warning signs from that dog towards those chickens even when the owner was present, but since they were not addressed at the time, the dog didn't get a good idea of right from wrong in regards to the chooks.

    I've never specifically selected a dog just for guarding chickens...but I have selected dog breeds/mixes that are more prone to want to earn your approval and are calm around humans. Jittery, hyperactive dogs already have problems...they move a lot and they move quickly and both of these startle chickens. When chickens run and make noise, that's prey.

    I choose breeds/dogs that are intelligent and willing to learn. I've had a few that were super intelligent but not willing to learn...anything. Willful dogs are hard to train and can never be fully trusted, IME. I get rid of those.

    If you have a breed/dog that's hard to train on basic commands, takes many corrections to discourage bad behavior and cannot perform commands consistently each and every time, this is a breed that will give you trouble with chickens. I'm not saying it can't be done but you set yourself up for failure from the beginning when you try to manage a headstrong, belligerent dog...and then try to get him to understand that no means no, come back, leave it, etc., when there are live prey running around in front of him.

    A watch dog is not a livestock/farm dog..a watch dog is supposed to bark when there are intruders. That's it. A livestock dog does that and more...they are watching all potential predators for the livestock and are willing to fight for them and even kill for them, they nurture the young livestock and interact with the elders. They sleep and eat with them and will even lick them when they are wounded, will get agitated if they think they are being hurt, and will even break up fights between members of a flock.

    There are a few vids and books about training dogs around livestock out there and I'm sure they could detail a good plan on how to go about it. I winged it and went on instinct and it worked. I worked on basic obedience first and when that was always consistent and I was recognized as pack leader, then the rest is way more simple....they want to please the pack leader and love to take instruction. They respond to good, clear signals to let them know good from bad and they like it to be consistent. Just like kids. Consistent training and discipline makes them feel more secure and a secure dog is not a destructive dog.
  10. Trumanda
    How do you select & train a dog? I've heard of people's watch dogs all of a sudden eating the birds.

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