By Lisa Steele
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.
Pretty much every backyard chicken keeper’s dream is to sit outside with their happy, healthy flock of chickens roaming around the yard or pasture. And it’s healthier for them not to be confined to a small space, i.e. the run 24/7, but instead be out on fresh grass.
Economically, free ranging also makes a lot of sense. The more your flock is able to supplement their diet with grass and weeds, herbs, seeds, earthworms and bugs the more you’ll save on your feed bill.
Letting your chickens free range is also healthier for your family. From a purely nutritional standpoint, the eggs they lay will contain more vitamins and nutrients.
But free ranging can come with a price.
Predators can range from fox, coyote, bobcats, raccoon, weasels, fisher cats and mink to hawks, owls and eagles. Even your neighbor›s dog might be a threat to your chickens. And the dangers don’t only come from predators. Your soil or grass can contain pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals, or even things like nails, screws, washers or other pieces of dangerous metals that can lead to hardware disease.
In addition, there are plenty of plants that can be toxic to chickens.
But besides these very real dangers 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
• 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?
Despite all of the potential pitfalls, I love watching my chickens free ranging. They enjoy scratching for worms, chasing bugs, taking dust baths and nibbling on all the various things they find in the yard.
I hate to jinx myself, but I haven’t lost any chickens to predators in years. (Not since a horrific fox attack early on, that ironically happened inside our run when a pair of fox dug under our barn.)
However, the key word is “watching”. I don’t just open the coop door and let my chickens out and go about my day. I’m pretty sure I would lose them in a heartbeat.
Instead there are some things I’ve learned that help to deter predators and make free ranging safer. Not 100% safe. Free ranging is never without risk.
But you can mitigate that risk using these simple tips. 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.
At night I use solar predator lights to keep predators away from our coop and run, but they don’t work for daytime. So I spray Predator Pee, specifically wolf urine on the trees surrounding our property.
Wolves are an “apex” predator, so their scent should keep other predators away. Also helpful is letting your dog (or kids/husbands!) urinate around the coop. I’m told little boys especially seem to find this a LOT of fun!
Bottom line, 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
It’s the result of taking a couple of simple steps that I believe helps to mitigate the risks to my chickens.
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.
Raising other livestock on your property can also help to deter predators. Specifically donkeys or llamas are great at guarding chickens. The presence of a herd of larger animals such as goats or horses can help deter aerial predators, as can several geese.
Incidentally, the only way I would feel comfortable free ranging our chickens all day, every day without being outside with them would be if we DID have a LGD (livestock guardian dog) or other animal whose decided purpose was to watch the chickens. Maybe one day…
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.
But if you can’t be outside with your chicken while they’re free ranging, or you’re willing to take a bit more risk, and leave them out alone, there are still a few simple things you can do to try and reduce the chance of a successful predator attack.
That leads me to my second tip.
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.
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.
Hanging laundry on an outdoor line can help to keep predators on their toes. Clothing flapping and moving is a great deterrent. 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.
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.
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. 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.
And watch your ducks closely. They scan the skies almost constantly when they’re out free ranging.
Poultry have unique eyesight in that their eyes are on the sides of their head, so they can keep one eye to the ground looking for bugs and one eye to the sky.
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. So their right eye is focused for close-up work, like finding bugs and seeds, while their left eye is dialed in for distance. This allows them to constantly scan the sky with their left eye for predators at the same time.
Therefore, when a hawk or eagle flies overhead, a chicken or duck will tilt their head with their left eye up to the sky.
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.
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.
Free ranging can be such a positive experience for both you and your flock, but can also go very badly. Free ranging pretty much never ends well in the long run, and if you raise chickens long enough and let them out enough times, eventually if will end badly.
It only takes one predator one time…
But I hope you can incorporate these tips into your free range routine and make it a safe, pleasant experience for both you and your chickens.
LISA STEELE is a fifth generation chicken keeper and creator of the popular website Fresh Eggs Daily. For more than a decade she has been sharing tips and advice on raising backyard flocks naturally with her nearly 1 million followers worldwide. The author of six popular books on raising backyard flocks, Lisa is one of the world’s most prolific poultry authors. She lives on a small farm in the Maine woods with her husband, their corgi, a spoiled barn cat, and flock of more than two dozen assorted chickens, ducks and geese and is currently hosting the “country lifestyle” show Welcome to my Farm which airs nationwide on public television. A long time devotee of preparing seasonal dishes with produce fresh from the garden and eggs fresh from her coop, Lisa’s latest offering is a cookbook titled The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook. Visit fresheggsdaily.com or follow on social @fresheggsdaily to learn more.