It’s a common question for those considering getting backyard chickens: how much space will my chickens need?
After all, you don’t want your feathered friends to feel cramped, and so much thought goes into designing their chicken run so it is spacious enough.
But there is another, popular way to raise chickens, one that is easy on bird and owner alike, and that is free-ranging.
Letting your chickens roam where they will on their daily outings is a great way to enrich their life and their diet, and make things a little easier on you.
But it can be nerve-wracking to let your chickens go where they will! So, about how far will free-ranging chickens roam?
Free-range chickens will rarely go farther than 300 yards from their coop. This is because they need to be close to their food and water, and also because they are hardwired to return to their roost when dusk approaches.
Ask any owner thinking about this topic and they will reply with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation. Most flock owners want to free-range their chickens, but they are just scared to.
Don’t worry, you and your birds likely have nothing to worry about. Keep reading and we will tell you everything you need to know on the topic.
What Does Free-Range Mean?
The definition of free-range can be a little nebulous depending on who you ask.
For most purposes, we will consider a chicken to be free-ranging if it has the opportunity to leave its coop and run, venturing out into the big wide world on a daily basis.
It does not necessarily mean that your chickens have to roam far and wide every day, or that they even have to leave your property.
Of course, some chicken keepers take the concept of free-ranging a step further and back the definition that nature intended. They let their chickens out of their coop and into the world and they never look back!
For such people, and chickens, free-range means they can roam where they want, when they want, when they are out of the coop.
Pretty unsettling ideas for people who are caught up in the idea of keeping their birds safely in their runs or tractors at all times!
How Far Do Free-Range Chickens Usually Go?
Chickens that are allowed to truly free range will rarely go more than 300 yards from their coop, and even that is a bit extreme. Most will stay much closer to home than that.
Why? Well, for one thing, chickens need access to known food and water. They will usually not stray too far from these essentials.
Additionally, chickens have a strong homing instinct and will usually make their way back to the coop before nightfall when predators are more likely to be out and about.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. If you have a particularly adventuresome chicken, it may occasionally stray a bit farther from home.
But for the most part, you can expect your free-range chickens to stay relatively close to their coop and run.
Can Chickens Get Lost When Free-Ranging?
This is by far the number one fear owners have when considering whether or not to free-range: won’t my chickens get lost?! It is understandable, but largely misguided.
Chickens, as a general rule like most birds, have excellent direction-finding skills.
You might say they have an internal GPS! They can usually find their way back to their coop without any problems.
In all my years, I have seen a lot of accidents and predation happen to chickens, but I have never heard of anyone having one of their free-range chickens get truly lost.
Get somewhere they shouldn’t be, yes. Get into trouble, yes. But not get lost.
This more than anything is a testament to a chicken’s homing instinct. When night starts to fall, they will usually make their way back to the coop on their own with no issues, no matter what direction they took off in and no matter how far.
But that raises another important question: how does your chicken decide what “home” is?
How Can You Ensure Your Chickens Know Where “Home” Is?
This is another issue that is blown out of proportion by nervous, would-be free-rangers. How does your chicken know where and what home is when it is time to return to roost?
How do you know they know to associate their coop with “home”? Easy: Simply keep your chickens inside their coop and attached run for a week or two.
Once they see their coop has everything they need to thrive and get some quality rest- water, food, roosts, nesting boxes, etc. – they will be more than happy to make it their permanent home.
After this short house warming period, you can start safely letting them out to free range during the day, knowing full well they will reliably return when night starts to fall.
What are the Benefits of Free-Ranging?
Free-ranging is not just a good idea to get your birds living the way nature intended; it has some very real benefits for you and your birds!
Free-ranging allows your birds to get the exercise they need. Chickens that are confined to a small space will often become overweight and lazy.
Allowing them to free range gives them the opportunity to move around and stay active, which is good for their overall health.
Free-ranging also allows your chickens to forage for varied food sources. This is important because it helps them get the nutrients they need from plants and insects.
Chickens that are confined to a small space and fed mass-produced feed will often become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals if they are not given a supplement or access to fresh greens.
This improvement in overall diet combined with more exercise will definitely improve the quality of your chicken’s eggs and meat accordingly.
Additionally, free-ranging allows your chickens to socialize in new and interesting ways.
Chickens that are confined to a small space often become bored and stressed, which can lead to aggression and feather-picking.
Allowing them to free range gives them the opportunity to explore and interact with their flock-mates naturally with plenty of room to roam, which helps reduce stress and keeps them happier and healthier overall.
Are There Drawbacks to Free-Ranging?
There are, of course, drawbacks to free-ranging. The biggest one is predation.
If you live in an area with predators like dogs, cats, coyotes, hawks, or foxes, free-ranging your chickens is invariably going to mean you lose some birds.
There may or may not be much you can do about it, though having roosters in your flock will help ward off at least some attacks.
Another potential drawback of free-ranging is that your chickens might (read: will) get into places they’re not supposed to be.
This is usually not a big deal, but if you have neighbors who are not fond of chickens (or if your chickens tend to make a lot of noise), it could become an issue.
Most people don’t want chickens tearing up their plants or climbing on their roof to cock-a-doodle-doo while they are trying to watch TV.
The best way to combat this potential problem is to provide your chickens with plenty of space to roam, but only in their own yard with a tall fence around the perimeter.
This way, they are less likely to venture into places they’re not supposed to be.
Are Free-Range Chickens More Stressed Out?
This is another common question. People think that because chickens are able to get farther from their humans or know instinctively they are more vulnerable to chickens that they will be more stressed out.
This is not true, and in fact the opposite is: chickens enjoy being chickens and doing chicken stuff, which means free-ranging.
You should notice a definite improvement in their overall attitude and liveliness when they are allowed to free-range.
What Should You Do If Your Chickens Don’t Make it Back by Sundown?
Chickens will instinctively want to be at home and in the coop by dusk, so you should not have to worry about this eventuality too much.
But on the off chance that one or more of your chickens don’t make it home, you can try calling for them or rattling their feeder or other food containers.
Chickens are highly sensitive to all things related to their food, so they should come running when they hear that familiar “dinner bell” sound.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.
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