5 Tips for Safer Free Ranging for your Chickens and Ducks

The sad fact of the matter is that free ranging your chickens and ducks always carries risks with it and eventually is probably going to end badly (more than likely very badly) if you raise them long enough.

As an old farmer told me once, you only have to lose once... and the predator only has to win once.

The odds are definitely stacked against the chickens and ducks.

But chickens (and ducks) so enjoy roaming freely in the yard, searching for bugs and worms, basking in the sun and stretching their legs chasing each other and butterflies.

And we so enjoy watching them.

But besides the very real predator danger from letting your chickens roam free, there are a whole host of other pitfalls including:

  • piles of poop everywhere
  • landscaping destroyed
  • flowers eaten 
  • vegetable gardens decimated
  • mulch strewn across the lawn
  • huge craters in your yard
  • possible dangers from eating loose coins, nails, wire or other metal bits
  • hidden eggs laid by sneaky broodies 
  • and even possibly far-roaming chickens being hit by cars, harassed by neighbors dogs or even making themselves at home on your neighbor's porch (and gasp! pooping)

But letting your chickens roam is good for them and good for you.

There's nothing quite as relaxing as watching a flock of pretty chickens wander, living in the moment, enjoying their freedom.

So what to do?

5 Tips for Safer Free Ranging

Over the years, I've been pretty uptight about free ranging and erred very much on the side of caution.

We use trail cams to try and get a jump on anything that might come prowling.  It's helpful to know in advance what might be checking out your chickens.

I've listened to all of you who have suffered losses - and paid attention to the whens and wheres of those losses - and I've learned from others mistakes.

But it's paid off. In nearly ten years, I haven't lost a single chicken or duck to a predator (knock on wood), but really,  it's more than just "luck".

It's the result of taking a couple of simple steps that I believe helps to mitigate the risks to my chickens.

1. Supervise, Supervise, Supervise

Obviously one of the easiest things you can do is stay outside with your chickens and watch them while they free range.

Having a dog outside with you is a huge benefit also.

Not only is even a pet dog's scent a big deterrent to predators, dogs senses are so much more attuned to potential threats than ours are and even our corgi could be at the treeline chasing off a fox before I likely even realized it was there.

I admit sometimes I will let our dogs take point and go back inside the house as long as I know they're out with the chickens, but I actually really enjoy that part of the day and look forward to it.

I save outdoor chores for the afternoons when I let the chickens out - cleaning the coop, painting or repairing the coop or run, washing the car, gardening, trimming the bushes, picking flowers, etc.

That leads me to my second tip.

2. Be Conscious of the Time of Day

It makes sense to limit free ranging to the afternoons.

Aerial predators such as hawks, eagles and the like start hunting each morning and will hunt until they have found their food for the day, at which point they go back to where ever it is that they hang out.

After years of raising chickens and being observant, I noticed that we rarely see hawks circling in the afternoon. Not saying it can't happen, but it's not as common.

So I generally don't let my chickens out until after 2pm, and sometimes later in the summer when it doesn't get dark until 9pm or later.

The other benefit to free ranging in the afternoon is that the chickens won't stray quite as far from the coop later in the day, and of course will put themselves to bed at dusk.

3. Don't Stick to a Strict Routine

Believe it or not, predators are out there all the time, watching and listening.

I've had people tell me that they have gone into the house for just a second to answer the phone, get a glass of water or use the bathroom, and in that split second, a fox or other predator has attacked.

For that reason, I try and switch up my routine and not let my chickens out every day, not let them out at the same time each day and even herd them to a different part of our property some days.

I also move things around the yard - rakes, shovels, plants, chairs, benches etc. - to keep things looking different from day to day.

Those things also give the chickens something to hide under if necessary. And making a scarecrow can help too.

The one thing you don't want to be is predictable. Keep any predators trying to figure out your routine guessing.

4. Be Conscious of the Time of Year

I tend to limit free ranging during the fall and spring. Those times of year the predators are pretty desperate.

In the fall, the food sources are getting scarce heading into winter. In the spring, everyone has babies to feed... and then later to train to hunt. In the spring and fall, the raptors are also migrating and tend to be more mobile.

So spring and fall tends to see a lot more predator activity. And I tend to keep my chickens safe in their run more often than not.

It actually works out pretty well because in the spring I want to keep our small seedlings, flowers and garden plants safe from the chickens, so I would tend to pen the chickens up more then anyway.

In the summer, however, I let my chickens free range almost every afternoon. I love the excuse to take a break from working and sit outside with them. 

There are plenty of bugs, worms, seeds and grasses for them to eat, as well as herbs from the garden and edible flowers.

5. Don't Rely on a Rooster, but Watch Him (and the Ducks)

Too many times I have someone tell me that they feel comfortable free ranging because they have a rooster in their flock.Yet time and time again, the rooster just ends up being the sacrificial lamb when a predator attacks.

No rooster is a match for any predator like a dog, fox, coyote, fisher cat or even a hawk. But a rooster does provide a valuable warning - if you pay attention.  As do our ducks.

And it's smart to listen to the wild birds and squirrels. If they all of a sudden go silent - or conversely start going nuts - you know something is amiss.

Safer Free Ranging

Little story for you to illustrate my points:

The other day we were all out enjoying a sunny afternoon when all of a sudden our ducks all froze, with one eye to the sky.

(Side note: they do that - their left eye is dialed in for distance, while their right eye is focused for close-up work, like finding bugs. So they constantly scan the sky with their left eye for predators. *See footnote below.)

Our little rooster Sherman immediately let out a piercing alarm call and herded all 15 chickens under the stairs leading up to our deck.

Looking up, I saw a dreaded red tail hawk circling.

I ran over to Sherman and tossed him under the steps with the chickens, confident he would keep them there until the danger was passed.

Then I headed over to stand with the ducks who were still sitting in the middle of the lawn like marble statues (ever hear the saying "sitting duck"?).

Ducks know they can't hope to outrun a predator so they stay perfectly still - also knowing that many predators hunt by looking for movement - so they figure if they don't move the predator can't see them.

Winston, our corgi, jumped up from where he was under the picnic table snoozing and started barking at the sky.

As soon as the hawk moved on,  Sherman gave the all clear, the ducks "unfroze" and went back about their business, and Winston went back to sleep.

That was a classic example of a multi-pronged predator defense system that worked. This time.

As I pointed out earlier, free ranging always carries a risk to your flock, but taking these simple steps to keep your chickens safe(r) during free range time can return far more successful results.

Footnote: *Just before a chick or duckling hatches, it gets into "hatch position" which means it turns in the shell so that the right eye is next to the shell and their body, or more accurately wing, covers the left eye. 

Once they hatch, their right eye develops near-sighted vision which they use to search for food, while the left eye develops far-sightedness to help them predators from afar. 

Therefore, when a hawk or eagle flies overhead, a chicken or duck will tilt their head with their left eye up to the sky.

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