The decision to keep chickens confined or allow them to roam free can be a difficult one. For some people, the choice is obvious–many cities do not allow chickens unless they are kept within small coops or chicken tractors. But for those who are allowed to let their chickens roam, they are often left wondering if they should.
There are some obvious positives to keeping chickens confined. For example, if your structure is secure, there’s virtually no chance you’ll lose your chickens to predators–something that can be very sad for many chicken owners who start to view their birds as pets over time. If your chickens roam loose, they are vulnerable to predators and the elements.
But there are negatives to confinement, too. The most obvious is that chickens truly love to be outside exploring, scratching, pecking, and living a natural life. While it’s certainly possible to keep chickens humanely contained, if your chicken could pick, chances are it would rather be free ranging.
So, how do you decide? I recommend taking the following into account.
How many chickens do you want to have? If you only plan to have two to five chickens, it’s much more reasonable to keep them confined than, say, thirty chickens (though this is doable as well!).
What is your setting like? If you have an unfenced yard and lots of “wild” parts of your property, your birds are more vulnerable to predators than if you have a maintained, fenced yard.
Do you have the skills to build or add on to outdoor coops? This is a big one. Many people buy a small chicken tractor and leave it at that, but I prefer to give confined chickens multiple areas to roam in. Plus, you may be happy with your three hens now… but what if you want to add on in the future? Premade coops can be very expensive compared to making your own, too!
Are you prepared to “herd” your hens in every night if you do free range? Chickens can be much harder to herd into their safe night coop than ducks. You can train them to go in by feeding them in their coop or simply waiting until they go in at night to roost, but it can still be a bit of work chasing opinionated hens across the yard.
Breed plays a factor in free range survivability. I never feel comfortable free ranging breeds such as Silkies or Polish, since their pretty head crests keep them from seeing predators overhead. So, if you have your heart set on some of the more vulnerable breeds, keeping them locked up might be the best decision.
I kept all of my chickens confined for nearly two years. I hadn’t had poultry for a long time and was afraid they would all be eaten by hawks and foxes immediately. I was able to design large, roomy places for the chickens to live, but it still wasn’t the most ideal setup–particularly because I enjoy having so many chickens! If I only had a few chickens in my setup, they would have been in paradise. I still did my best to keep them happy and entertained, though.
Entertainment sources are very important if you plan to keep your chickens locked up. I would always try to to break up the boredom of the hens and keep them occupied with a variety of new “things” added to their pens. I’d scatter scratch grain and sweet feed (which is like candy for chickens!) in small piles, dig up clumps of grass and toss them in for the chickens to pick for bugs and eat the grass, and drag tree branches and stumps in for them to roost on. Chickens truly love variety.
The main issue I experienced with confined chickens were boredom-related vices such as feather picking. It became so chronic that I began selling “suspected offenders” who I felt were the most likely to be the pickers. But the picking never truly stopped until I finally gave in and allowed my chickens to free range. I had some hens that were virtually naked from the neck back–it got pretty bad!
One important thing to remember is chickens always need some form of coop. If you simply let your hens “live wild” in your yard–they will be at high risk for night predators, and good luck finding any eggs! Most chickens kept free range are still herded into a safe coop at night, where they are content to stay until they are released to range again the following morning.
I still worry for my hens who roam free, but I’ve had good luck and minimal losses (knock on wood!). Seeing how happy they are to run around the yard, scratch, and eat bugs makes the risk worth it to me. But if you’re going to keep your hens confined, keeping them entertained with variety will lead to happier, healthier chickens.