The common wisdom is that free-range chickens are happy, healthy chickens, and free-range eggs are the best quality.
Free-range eggs taste better and are a tad higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, so letting your chickens free-range is a win-win.
If you raise backyard chickens, you might wonder how far your free-range hens will go and whether they will come home easily.
Chickens roam between 100-400 yards from their chicken coop. They will remember where their food and water are and return to the coop at night. Limit their range if needed by creating a chicken yard with a several-foot fence they cannot fly over.
Heavier breeds of chickens will stay closer to the coop; lighter breeds will roam farther.
Many chickens will stay within sight of the coop the entire time.
Keep reading to find out more about free-ranging your chickens!
Why Should I Let My Chickens Free Range?
Letting your chickens out in the daytime allows them to forage, exercise, find a preferred nesting spot or hangout, take a dust bath and be a more natural chicken than keeping them cooped up.
No matter how nice your chicken run is, it is not comparable to allowing them to free-range and indulges in their natural behaviors on an acre of grass or even weeds, chasing bugs, mice, and lizards.
Free-ranging chickens lay better quality eggs because of the variety in their diet.
Even allowing your chickens to “free-range” in your smaller backyard is enough to make a difference in their eggs and happiness.
How Do You Introduce Free-Ranging?
Ensure you have locked your chickens up inside their coop for a minimum of 3 days to a week to be on the safe side, so they know where their food and water are.
The best time of day to start them free-ranging is late afternoon when they are naturally inclined to stay close to the coop, anyway.
Let them out an hour before dusk, and they will enjoy their freedom but stick close to home.
When you are sure they’ve got the idea, let them out of the coop/run area.
Many backyard chicken owners only let their chickens out for a couple of hours to keep an eye on them.
Chickens learn the routine quickly and will get used to when you let them out, when and where you feed them, and when you lock them back up for the night.
Learn more about what time chickens return to the coop and tips for how to help in our post here.
Protect Them from Predators
While it is impossible to completely shelter your flock from predators while free-ranging, hedge your bets using a trained livestock guardian dog.
It is also beneficial to have a mixed flock with roosters and hens and even other barnyard birds to alert to predators.
Limiting their free-range time to when you are with them will reduce their risk.
If free-range is not safe enough, a chicken pen with a buried fence with netting over it will do for most aerial predators such as hawks.
Mow the grass or weeds along the fence to reduce hiding places for predators.
Building a sturdy coop above ground with a solid floor, a locking coop door, and hardware cloth instead of chicken wire will secure the coop at night and deter common predators such as skunks and raccoons.
Related: 12 Ways To Stop Raccoons From Eating Your Chickens.
How Do You Keep Free-Range Chickens from Your Neighbor’s Yard?
The short answer is you don’t; chickens go where they want.
A chicken’s instinct is to explore and seek out food, roosts, and secluded nesting spots.
Light breeds can do amazing ninja flapping-jumps over 6′ feet high, so be prepared by tilting the fence in or placing something on top of it to prevent them from clearing it.
Determined light breed chickens can fly 10′ feet up and for a span of 40′ to 50′ feet!
If you have a flighty chicken, clip one of their wings so they are unbalanced and cannot fly over your fence.
It is a good idea to position the coop as far away as possible from the boundaries of your property.
Provide food, water, attractive shelter, and clean dust bathing spots close to your coop to keep them more interested in the area.
Have an activity for chickens such as chicken swings; it’s entertaining for them and you!
Most chicken owners share eggs with their neighbors to smooth things over in anticipation of unwanted chicken incursions.
How Do I Get My Chickens to Come Back?
Backyard flock owners have a few tricks up their sleeves when getting their flock to do what they want.
Putting chicken feed in a can and shaking it while you call them will get their attention, and providing delicious chicken treats such as mealworms will train them to come when you call.
Further reading: Feeding chickens mealworms
Most chickens will come home on their own; adolescent chickens may give you more trouble as they are interested in finding their roost and guided heavily by instinct to strike out on their own more.
From How Far Can a Chicken Find Its Way Home?
Given a chicken won’t wander more than about 300 yards away from home on average, finding its way back isn’t hard.
Chickens, like other birds, use the earth’s magnetic field for guidance.
This ability is called magnetoreception and is primarily used by migrating birds, but chickens can do it, too.
They also use landmarks to show them the way home.
Lastly, they can hear their flock and follow the sound back.
If you cannot find your chicken, look in all the nest boxes, bushes, trees, and other regular hiding spots they might have.
If you think your chicken is truly lost, notify your neighbors and utilize the food in a can method to call them to you as you search.