To free range or not to free range? If that isn’t THE question, it’s certainly one of the big ones a chicken keeper needs to ask. There are merits and drawbacks to each way of chicken raising; there’s no such thing as a right or wrong decision.
I love free ranging my girls, which is strange, because The Man and I swore up and down we would free range only for very limited periods of time, and only under direct supervision.
The first time I saw them outside, I was finished. There was just no comparing their level of activity and (dare I say it?)…happiness. They are happy outside. And if chickens can’t be actually happy, then let me rephrase and say that they are more truly themselves outside. They are chickenier.
There were adjustments. For starters, there were areas to be avoided barefoot because of the poop. Now, all areas are off limits to bare feet. It’s everywhere.
There’s the getting them back in the run/coop at the end of the day. I could make things simple for myself and just them come home on their own at dusk, but the Angelina Incident has made us all wary of the dusk hours, so I need to tempt them in at 3pm with a heel of bread.
I used to put them in the coop/run each and every time I went out to run errands; now, I leave them to their own devices while I’m out. Risk, reward. Risk, reward.
Then, of course, there was their never-ending land grab. We are so fortunate to have lovely, relaxed neighbours who either don’t care one way or another if my chickens are on their lawn, or who like seeing the chickens on their lawn (and front porch!), or who love that chickens are God’s most efficient tick demolition system. This is not always the case with chicken-adjacent neighbours, trust me.
We reward their kindness with copious thanks, open lines of communication should their minds ever change, and, of course, eggs. (Like any good drug pusher, the first one’s free.)
So, now that my flock is roaming the neighbourhood at will, like a pack of latter-day Jets, a few new complications have arisen.
First, they always come home at night, and they always lay their eggs at home (she said). So, when one of them comes tearing across one of our two roads at a clip that says “I gotta go I gotta go I gotta go!!”, she’s taking herself away from the movements of the flock for an hour, at a minimum. And let me tell you, these girls can travel. You think you know where they are, and you turn around for five minutes and when you come back they are nowhere to be seen.
I’m convinced that the loud song we call The Egg Song is not so much an announcement of accomplishment or an expression of physical discomfort, as it is a call for the whereabouts of the flock, after one has been out of it for a bit.
BukbukbukbukbuhGAWK! means “where’s y’all at??!!” This call can get increasingly distressed in tone if it goes unanswered. I try to unite the flock when I can, but it’s not always possible.
Today, when I returned home about an hour ago, I saw Alexia alone by the driveway. This is never good. You don’t want a chicken to be alone. She’s unsafe because she hasn’t the protection of the flock, and she’s anxious because she knows it. I looked around for the girls (I do this a LOT), and couldn’t see them anywhere. Not in Fox Woods, not across the road on our southerly neighbour’s property, not across the other road to our south-easterly neighbour’s property, or our north-easterly neighbour’s property. Not in the second field, or the third field.
I looked under the pine tree by the furnace to find Pip, alone. At least she had sought protective shelter after emerging from the barn. I reunited Pip and Alexia and went to the barn. Could I have eight hens laying? Strenuously unlikely.
I found Haley in the Hideaway, but that was it.
I have really looked now, and I have no idea where seven of my chickens are. This is not unprecedented; I am not freaking out. Yet. If it were one or two, I might be thinking predator or accident, but seven? There is no evidence of foul play. (I won’t make the cheap joke, I won’t make the cheap joke…)
Haley is now screaming for her sisters right under my window, to no avail; it really is a heartbreaking sound. She’s gone across the road to the south to find them, but they’re not there…
UPDATE 2:25pm: They’re back. Everyone accounted for. It all depends on how much laissez faire you can take…