Is There a Future for My Free-Range Flock?

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When I first moved to Panther’s Hollow, I was warned that it would be hard to keep free-range poultry here with all the predators around. A couple of the locals had tried and given up after all their birds were killed. But having free-range chickens was one of my main objectives in moving to the country, and I had seen them on nearby properties. So I was determined to give it a try.

I’ve written earlier about my problems with predators at Panther’s Hollow (“A Guinea Disaster,” “Chicken Challenges,” “Predator Problems“). In the two years I’ve had my free-ranging flock I’ve lost at least two-thirds of my birds each year — not an encouraging start! Some of this, though, can be chalked up to lack of experience. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve learned a number of lessons about how predators can get at my birds and have found ways to improve security.

This year, some new challenges presented themselves. First, as my new chicks matured, many of them started to think that the large chestnut tree next to the coop was the best place to spend the night. (So did the two guinea keets.) This may have been partly because the mature birds were bullying them, with one hen in particular trying to clear everyone else off the roost. I began shutting the aggressive hen in a pen at night, but that didn’t solve the problem, and I lost a number of young birds that way.

I did think of a few strategies that might have avoided this problem. First, if I placed a second feeder in the coop then I might be able to get all the birds feeding at once and shut the door before any could escape. Now that I’m down to very few birds, I can do this fairly easily. Second, I think removing some of the lower branches might make it hard for them to get up into the tree.

I’ve also been planning to convert another, much larger building into chicken housing, and I think that will work much better. With more space and more perches, the younger birds won’t be as easily intimidated. The building is also closer to the house, which may make predators more cautious, and there are lights I could use if necessary.

The raccoon that I mentioned earlier began coming around again before dark, and this time I had my rifle at the ready. Though I still can barely hit a target, I got as close as I could and fired a few shots at her. Amazingly, the first shot barely caused her to flinch. After the second, she ran off a little way and turned to face me again. Only the third shot was enough to send her running, never to be seen again. Perhaps I came close to hitting her — I don’t know. What I do know is that a new problem soon presented itself.

One day, two birds mysteriously disappeared during the afternoon — my guinea hen and my favorite chicken pullet. This got me thinking that there were two of something hunting together. A few days later, I was in the kitchen when I heard a great ruckus and all of the chickens and guineas came flying out of the woods. I ran outside just in time to see what looked like two coyotes sauntering off through the woods! Fortunately no birds were caught that day, but one day I heard another ruckus and came out to find a coyote walking around the front of the coop and another bird missing. Shyer than the raccoon, these marauders always disappeared before I could go after them with the gun. They did stop coming around, though, for whatever reason.

Occasionally I’ve lost a chicken to a hawk, too, though the guineas are usually pretty good at spotting them and sounding the alarm. Clearly I can’t go on like this — raising birds to feed the local wildlife. It’s not fair to the birds, let alone to me. So I’m hoping my new strategies will help to keep the birds safe, and that the coyotes and the rogue raccoon won’t return.

Having lost all but six chickens and one guinea pullet, I’m going to try raising more chicks next year and maybe a few guinea keets. If I can’t keep the losses to a minimum, I guess I’ll have to give up trying to have a free-ranging flock. I suppose I could get one of those little hen houses with an attached run (it had better be a sturdy one!) and get a few lazy hens that don’t mind being confined all day. But I’m not sure it would be worth it. I really want to breed Icelandic chickens! And I want my birds in the garden, doing pest control and fertilizing the soil!