Domestic chickens as we know them are descendants of wild jungle fowl, Gallus Gallus, native to the Jungles of Asia. Singer. (1979) The Backyard Poultry Book; Your Complete Guide to Small-Scale Poultry Farming. New York, NY: Arco Publishing Company, Inc.
As Singer describes, the jungle fowl live in flocks complete with a dominant male, and a pecking order. The Jungle fowls’ diet consists of small insects, worms, seeds, and shoots. The wild birds spend most of their day searching for food. When they take breaks they can preen and bathe in the dust.
My personal philosophy is that our birds should be permitted to behave instinctively as much as possible. Our set-up includes a large hen house which houses ample roosts for all the chickens, three nesting boxes, food, and water. We open the door at about 8:00 A.M. after most of them have already laid for the day, and close it around 8:00 P.M. to keep them safe from predators. Our hens eat insects, scratch for seeds and roots, and dig holes in which they dust bathe. They have free immediate access to about an acre of pasture, as well as the entire rest of our place.
I notice a huge difference in color and taste of our eggs. Our eggs are a deep orange/yellow in comparison to traditional store-bought eggs. The flavor of the egg is stronger and they are noticeably fresher. We have observed when the Hens have more room they are less likely to pick on one another or peck the eggs.
We intentionally started off with more chicks than we actually needed, in part because they are less protected than they would be in a run. We expect a certain level of depredation. However, if we were suffering great losses I would reevaluate. (As it turns out most of our loss has been due to our own dogs.)
The other cons of free range chickens include the following:
- Difficulty finding the eggs! We have two hens that are awfully sneaky with their eggs.
- The poo! When your chickens are everywhere, their poo is everywhere.
- As discussed above, chickens like to dig and dust bathe. Our chickens do tend to scratch up areas without much grass. They dig holes and do make some messes.
For us, the pros far outweigh the cons. If circumstances were to change, we would most likely move to a middle of the road system where we have a chicken run, but either move it around or regularly let the chickens out of the run.
Another important note is we have the space. Our particular set up allows it as an option, but not everyone’s space is necessarily well situated for free range birds.
Of the greatest surprise to me, was observing the sense of companionship between our chickens and our goats. They truly seem to enjoy hanging out together!