“If I let my chicken range freely, how far away will they wander? Can I get then to come when I call?” ~ Terrie Travers
Hi Terrie thanks for the question.
Chickens will indeed wander but not like a dog. Where you might find your dog on the other side of town, your chickens may wander only a few hundred yards. If you want your free ranged chickens to stay close to home, and more importantly come home at night to be safe, there are a few things you can do to encourage that;
First and foremost, your chickens need to know where “home” is. They will associate home with the place they receive food, water and shelter. In most instances, home will be a chicken coop. Feed and water your chickens inside the coop if there is room or just outside the chicken coop if space is limited.
Provide perches with enough room for the chickens to comfortably roost at night.
Each chicken needs about 18 inches of space on the perch. It should be 2 – 4 feet off the ground and at least 18 inches from the wall.
It may take a little time for new chickens to understand just where home is.
I’ve heard of people keeping a new flock in the coop for a few days when they first bring them home. By doing this, the chickens learn to identify this place as the spot to return to in the evening once you’ve released them to roam about during the day.
The second way to keep your flock closer to home is to make sure they have something to do when they are at home. Chickens are naturally curious foragers. They will seek out foods that are required elements of their diet. The more they have to scratch and nibble within the immediate surroundings of their coop, the closer they will stay to home. If you live in a sparsely vegetated area with few bugs and worms, expect your flock to wander.
Always keep in mind that when you free range chickens, you need to be especially aware of predators.
The further your chickens wander, the more likely they will come into contact with a predator. Animals that would prey on your chickens may not be bold enough to come close to your house for a meal, but they wouldn’t think twice about snatching one of your birds if it has wandered 100 yards away from the house.
The last important thing I need to address about wandering chickens pertains to your neighbors; take every precaution necessary to keep your flock out of the neighbor’s garden! Remember that chickens are curious foragers and they will try anything they can get to. If your birds ruin the neighbors flower bed or their prize-winning tomato plants, it’s probably not a good idea to knock on their door asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Do whatever you can to make it right because nothing can ruin a relationship faster than wandering animals.
To address the second part of your question regarding training your chickens to come when you call; it can be done quite easily.
Start making a particular noise when you feed your flock. You could call to them, whistle, cluck your tongue, even blow a whistle as long as it’s not too loud and does not startle them, whatever noise you’d like. After a bit, they will associate that noise with food.
Once that association is in place, go out once a day or so at a time that is not normal feeding time and make the noise.
Give them a little treat or feed, not a meal, just a little something to further enforce that they should come when you call. Continue this for a bit and then start giving the treat only occasionally when you call.
At this point, you should be able to call and they will come running. If you find that they are starting to slack off at responding to your call, start up again with the treats and repeat the process from that point.
To illustrate how easy it is to make these associations, I’ll share two personal stories;
A while back, my eldest daughter decided she was intimidated by all those chickens running around and crowding her when it was time to collect eggs.
On her way to the chicken coop, she’d pull a handful of leaves from a nearby tree. She’d toss the leaves to the chickens so that they would be interested in the leaves while she was collecting eggs. She had only done this for a week or so when the chickens had firmly associated that daughter with leaves.
From that point on, she couldn’t get in the door to the run without a treat because of the crowd waiting to greet her.
The second story is similar.
My eldest son feeds the chickens and uses a blue pail to deliver the feed to the coop. When the chickens see that blue pail, they get very excited.
One day I was out back and decided to check for eggs. Rather than coming all the way into the house to get the basket we use to collect eggs, I decided it was easier to grab something already outside. I grabbed the blue pail and headed for the run. It took me a minute to realize why the flock was climbing over each other to get to me; they associated that blue pail with their feed.
An interesting point to note here is that it had only been a half hour or so since they had been fed, there was still food in their feeder and yet they left their food to crowd around me because I was carrying the blue pail.
You see my point. The key is to be absolutely consistent until the association is made.
I hope that helps Terrie.