Tag Archive | free range chickens

Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.

Chick Adventures

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The Ameraucana chicken fledglings are three weeks old in these photos.  They are just beginning to explore the big world beyond the enclosure where they were kept safe as hatchlings.  The chicks stare out from the safety of the barn into the great green world.  The lure of grass, sunshine and tasty bugs helps them overcome their fear of the unknown.

Sunlight streaming through the barn door makes a wonderful place to stretch out.  Chickens originated as jungle birds.  The love of warmth is in their genetic code.  The little guys plop down wherever the sun is bright to spread their wings and absorb the heat.  Their response to sun seems automatic.ck3
Hatched in early May, these chicks are growing fast. Their fully feathered wings and relatively light-weight bodies make them good fliers. I have to cover any buckets holding water to avoid calamity. Chicks have accidentally flown into water buckets in the past and drowned. Because they are not swimmers, they panic, inhale some water and quickly succumb. The same thing happened to a wild turkey poult in my horses’ watering tub last year. Very sad.ck2

These young chickens grow more brave every day.  In a gang, they adventure farther from the barn and discover new places where they can hide quickly if danger threatens.  Soon their sixteen little siblings that hatched last week will join them in the barn.  With plenty of exposure, the two ages of chicks will come to tolerate each other.  When this winter arrives, they will be friendly enough to form one big flock.

Feeding the Chickens

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Follow me, chickens

I train all my chickens to come when I call them.  A loud clucking sound like the noise chickens make to tell each other there is something tasty to eat, combined with a high-pitched call of ‘chicken, chicken,’ tells the young birds it’s time to get their scratch grains.  The chickens are so accustomed to having their morning treat of mixed cracked corn and whole oat grains that they hang around outside the house after they wake up, waiting for the human to appear.  There are always plenty of poultry feed and free range pickings available, but the scratch grain must be so delectable that chickens will wait patiently for hours to get it.

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Running ahead to the barn, obviously very hungry for scratch grains

As soon as I appear at the door, chickens come running.  They follow me in a long line down to the barn and stand around watching me expectantly until I get the marvelous treat out of the grain bin for them.  On days when my granddaughter Lia visits, she very much enjoys helping feed the chickens.  The young birds trail after her now, too, since they have seen her dishing out the precious scratch feed.  We spread the grain on the concrete floors of an old section of the barn that I’m tearing down.

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Nom, nom, scratch feed!

Lia is only two-and-a-half, but she has quickly picked up how to take handfuls of grain and scatter it around for the birds to eat.  Then we like to stand back and watch them.  I take this opportunity to count the chickens, assure everyone looks healthy, and make decisions about sorting them for future breeding or sale.  The hand feeding helps to tame the animals, making them more interested in humans, more trusting and less prone to panic.  Some of the birds are so friendly they will let me approach and gently scoop them up.  They also shadow me during other times of the day and talk to me in their funny chicken language. Perhaps trying to convince me to hand out more scratch grain.c4

Free Range Chickens–Little Dinosaurs

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Here are a few of the young hens free ranging on the farm.  These have come into the door yard and are looking in the window at me.  All five Ameraucana pullets were hatched in early May and are five months old.  They should start laying within the next two months.  The chickens run all over the immediate area of the barn yard.  One of their favorite stops is to eat the drops under the apple trees in the orchard.  Here are a couple shots of several more youngsters hatched in late June.  They are picking at apples.  chick1At the moment there are 29 chickens free ranging.  Sometimes we have 80 or more birds running loose on the farm.  That’s when we need to be hyper vigilant for predators.

Allowing unlimited exercise and access to the foods chickens really want to eat helps develop very healthy, strong birds who produce delicious free range eggs for us.  This time of year when the year-old hens are molting and don’t lay well, and the pullets have not yet begun laying, eggs are in short supply.  My customers complain bitterly about having to buy store eggs. They call them bland, tasteless, stale, pale and anemic.  Which they are.  Even eggs touted as cage-free or all vegetarian do not compare with free range eggs.  That is because the birds are still confined and can’t exercise or eat as they wish.  Chickens are not vegetarians, they are omnivores. They love fruits, vegetables, grains, grasses, legumes, insects, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, eggs, worms and anything else that they can get. Their bright, beady eyes don’t miss a thing and they are very intelligent animals who know how to fend for themselves.

chick2 I think observing chickens has given me insights into the lives and behavior of the birds’ ancient relatives, the dinosaurs.  The structure of their bodies, the way they carry themselves, their habits and methods of producing sounds all hint at what dinosaurs were like.  Especially dinosaurs of the theropod suborder that scientists believe gave rise to birds.  Give chickens long jaws with teeth and soft, downy feathers and they would appear very much like dinosaurs.  Scientists have even discovered a supressed gene present in birds that if expressed would cause development of toothed jaws rather than beaks.  Pretty strong evidence of bird origin. Watching my little prehistoric-like critters is one of the special perks of farm life.

More About Ameraucana Chickens

hens1Every day the hens line up and each waits her turn to lay an egg in the nest boxes of the hen house.  Some hens are co-layers and will sit two in a box together.  Birds often like to use the same nest others use, so there will be five or six eggs in one nest and nothing in another.  Nature makes the hen secretive about her egg-laying.  She will switch between nests over time, satisfying an innate need to hide her eggs.  That is why there are five boxes, to provide plenty of choice.

Ameraucana hens start laying when they are between five and seven months old.  At Phoenix Farm the hens are hatched in the spring, and they start laying some time in October to December.  The eggs begin tiny, size extra small and also are at their very darkest blue color.  As the hens grow, the eggs become larger and the longer they lay, the lighter the shell color becomes.

A laying hen ovulates almost every day and forms an egg in the special ducts inside her body.  The shell of the egg is still slightly pliable as it passes from the hen.  The egg quickly dries and the shell gets hard.  Hens lay nearly daily until their first autumn.  When the length of day shortens, the birds go into their first molt, or shedding of many of their feathers.  No eggs are laid during this time.  Then, after two to four months of rest laying recommences as long as the hens receive at least twelve hours of light each day.  In winter in Maine we have to provide supplemental light for two hours every morning.hens2

A hen ready to lay an egg is a determined animal.  She will not be kept from her nest.  Chickens are creatures of habit, once they are accustomed to laying in a certain area, they always return unless they are violently frightened.  We chicken growers take advantage of the birds’ instincts by training them to lay in the nest boxes of the hen house.  Otherwise, free-range chickens would hide nests all over the place and we’d never get an egg.

The chickens stay locked in the house and hen yard until mid-day because most hens are morning layers.  Then, in early afternoon they are allowed to run free to scratch for seeds and bugs and get the sunshine, green grass and exercise that makes them so healthy and their eggs so very tasty.  You have not had an egg until you’ve tried a free-range egg from a truly free chicken.  Our birds have the run of our entire 75 acres, although they tend to stay within a couple hundred yards of the hen house.  This photo, courtesy of my daughter, shows the difference in yolk color between our free-range eggs on the left and regular store eggs on the right.hens3

In the evening chicken habit kicks in again.  The birds always return to their roost unless some disaster has happened to scare them away (such as a midnight raccoon raid.)  As the light dies, a parade of chickens returns to the house and each bird flies up to its own chosen spot on the roost.  There must be great comfort in routine because these birds are calm and content.

It is the chicken grower’s responsibility to keep the birds safe while confined with strong wire, solid houses and locks to repel the many predators of plump, tasty hens.  The wire fenced yard is lined with logs along the bottom stopping any animal from digging under and covered with net to keep out the hawks and owls.   The underside of the coop is reinforced with wire mesh to prevent any animal from chewing its way in.  The chickens are most susceptible to predation while free-ranging.  I’m sure if you could ask any chicken, you would hear they prefer to take their chances for the opportunity to roam free.flock1