So you've decided to give it a go with backyard chickens? Congratulations! Once you're all set up and have your chicks settled into their new digs, it's just a matter of time before you start enjoying your own delicious fresh eggs, or perhaps you're there already. Maybe you've even given them cute names. Now the challenge is to keep them alive! Wherever you are in the process, it's not too late to get serious about predator protection.
By now you know that having a secure place to close up your flock at night is a first priority. But how about during the day? Giving your chickens the ideal living environment means providing plenty of outdoor space where they can run around, fly, roll in their dust baths (this keeps the mites off) and scratch around in the dirt for worms, bugs, grubs and the like. These are all natural behaviors that are not only the birthright of chickens everywhere but are the foundation of those nutritious eggs, which is really the point. Is it not? We've come to revere the term "free range" not only for the animal's quality of life but also for the quality of the result, and I'd venture it safe to say that it's the intention for most nouveau homesteaders such as myself.
The conundrum here is that the ideal circumstances for raising chickens are often the most dangerous for them. Even if you are in an urban environment or smack in the middle of a busy suburb, if you have the space for poultry you've also got predators nearby, the most common being dogs (very possibly your own!) foxes, raccoons, coyotes, weasels and hawks. Nature has honed the skills of these creatures so they are quite good at what they do. Yes, foxes can scale a fence quite easily, raccoons have manual dexterity for opening things or pulling an opening in a wire fence and a hawk can strike in broad daylight right before your eyes. It's quite discouraging to go out in the evening to put your chickens up and come upon a massacre scene full of blood and feathers.
So what's a good compromise between keeping them locked up all the time and making your flock easy predator bait? Here are some tips.
1) Purchase or build a coop that has an attached, covered run with 3-4 square feet of floor space per chicken. This provides a protected area when they shouldn't be out, such as during severe weather or when no one is around to keep an eye on them. Make sure food and water are always available in this enclosure. If you are away most of the time, this is a perfectly acceptable setup. Even if your flock isn't free range, it's certainly way better than the conditions in a commercial operation.
2) For more free-ranging, provide an outside area enclosed by a 5-6 foot fence where they can be outside to scratch, run around, take dust baths and flap their wings. How big an area depends entirely on your particular situation. If possible, locate the enclosure under some tree cover, which provides both shade and protection. Chickens can fly and some will be able to get over the fence into harm's way, so having someone around to check on them during the day is best.
3) During times when someone can stay in close proximity, such as when you're working or playing in the yard, letting the chickens out into the garden, lawn or pasture for a portion of the day is ideal. Here they can absorb sunshine and eat the fresh grass, weeds and bugs that add nutrition to the eggs and help control pests by eating live insects and larvae.
4) You can extend the pasture or yard time by using a chicken tractor, which is an enclosure that can be moved around to keep the chickens on fresh ground. Drop cages for one or two birds at a time are also useful and easy to move, as well as wire chicken tunnels that are only a couple of feet high but provide protection over a long, narrow path. A variety of these products are available in farm supply and feed stores as well as online.
5) Never leave them alone with your dog, even if it seems friendly with them in your present. Fido can turn on a dime, and once he gets the taste of chicken there's no going back. I speak from experience here.
6) Wherever they are, always leave access back to the coop so they can run for cover from hawks, owls, etc.
7) Chickens will naturally go inside at dusk. Don't forget to shut the door behind them for the night.
Of course, some might want to go "free range" all the way and just let them out, letting nature take its course. This is certainly an option, but take it from me--if this is what you decide, you probably don't want to name them!