Yesterday I posted an article on extreme free-range chickens.
Today I’ll tell a remarkable tale of genetics, Southern ingenuity and natural selection.
An Unexpected Knock
On Halloween a man and his wife with a couple of young children came trick-or-treating at my front door. Since we are quite rural and didn’t get any visitors last Halloween, we were unprepared for trick-or-treaters.
“I don’t have any candy,” I said, “but I do have a mulberry tree I can give you.”
With that, I sent my daughter out back to get a mulberry. The children seemed a bit confused about it, but the parents just laughed and said they’d be happy to grow a mulberry. I asked if they wanted some farm eggs, too.
I knew I was running a risk here, since I (a), did not give these poor people any candy, and (b), was now offering to give them ammo.
The dad said, “Aww no, we got plenty of farm eggs.”
“What birds are you raising?” I asked.
“They’re actually my dad’s. He has a mix.”
“Do you keep them in a barn?” I asked.
“Naw, they just wander,” he said.
As I had just been talking with Florida Bullfrog about Cracker chickens and extreme free-ranging, I was intrigued. We’ve lost LOTS of chickens to predators over the years, yet here was a guy with chickens that were living in the wild and apparently producing eggs as well.
“Can I come see them?” I asked, sharing further that I’d been in a conversation with a man who was talking about the same thing his dad was doing.
“Sure,” he said, and gave me his number. “You’re welcome to come see.”
Chickens in the Wild
The following Saturday I had some time, so I called him. He said they were home and just hanging out.
“Hey Rachel,” I said. “You want to go see some chickens?”
“Sure,” she said. She grabbed a Seminole pumpkin and I brought a couple of Rocky Patel cigars to give our hosts, then we headed out the door, a couple of our children in tow. It was a cool afternoon, and the sunlight shone gold through the pines as we drove past churches and trailers, farmhouses and fields.
They lived maybe 15 minutes away from us at the end of a rural road. A red dirt driveway rolled up beside a country house with fences and outbuildings and little children playing. A fence beside the driveway held back an assortment of mixed beef cattle who were grazing contentedly on thick green pasture.
I was waved down by Jeremy, the man I’d met on Halloween. He stood with two other men in front of an open garage. All three had cans of beer in their hands, as any respectable Alabamian should on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“Park anywhere,” he said, so I did, pulling up onto the grass. I was met by a pit bull puppy and a grizzled bulldog along with a baby girl with golden curls. J shook my hand and I gave him a couple of cigars. He thanked me and introduced me to his dad, a weathered fellow with a wry grin. His name was Bobby.
“I heard you were keeping chickens without a coop,” I said. “Do you do anything to protect them?”
“Naw,” Bobby said. “They take care of themselves.”
“How do you get their eggs?” I asked.
“I’ll show you a nest right now,” he said, showing me a pile of hay bales in a three-sided storage building. On top of the hay was a beautiful little nest.
“Where do they roost?” I asked.
“They go up in those trees at night,” Bobby said, pointing to some trees along the barbed wire fence behind their garage and a couple of small sheds. “Some of ’em go in the holly, some in that oak, others are up in that one. A few will go in there,” he continued, pointing to a small shed. “Here, I’ll show you.”
We walked over to the little shed. “Here’s a roost I made,” he said.
“I just put a pallet against the wall.”
(In the picture you can see some fencing on the edge of the building, but the front and part of the back were completely open.)
On the other side of the little building were some low nest boxes. They were made from pine boards and were currently empty.
“A possum has been getting in here and stealing the eggs,” he said. “I gotta trap him. There was some shells in here but I guess he ate them too. They like to get the eggs.”
“This is amazing,” I said. “You have predators, but the birds are just wandering around without getting killed.”
“All kinds of predators,” Bobby said. “Hawks, owls, racoons.”
“You want a beer?” Jeremy asked, bringing a few cold cans of Natural Ice.
“Sure,” I said, accepting the can. “Thank you.”
“I throw a little grain out now and again to keep them around,” Bobby continued. “They all hang around here. Sometimes we’ll get a young rooster taking off some of the hens and starting a new flock. I’ve given flocks to all my family around here.”
“How did you get started raising birds this way,” I asked.
“I started with some Buffs,” he said. “Let them wander the yard. But they’re fat and can’t roost in the trees well.”
“Right,” I said. “They’re built for meat and eggs.”
“Too weak,” he said. “I lost half my flock to predators. But my neighbor had a game rooster.”
“Like, a fighting cock breed?” I asked.
“Yeah, a Gray. They’re good fighters.”
The young man behind him nodded. “Yeah, they’ll fly up to face height, then dive on another rooster.”
“Wow,” I said. “So they’re tough.”
“Real tough,” Bobby said. “I let them breed the Buffs and then hatched the eggs. You know those Buffs, they’re bad moms. They like to sit on a nest long enough to spoil the eggs, then abandon them.”
“Yeah, we had one that did that,” I said. “We called her the bad single mother.”
“They need some game in ’em,” he continued. “You mix them, they get tougher and they’re better mothers. So, the first year I lost half the flock, but the second year I don’t even think I lost five birds. They got tougher. They fly up into the trees and fend for themselves. Look – you see that momma with her little biddies? She’s part Buff, part game. You can see the stripes on those chicks, too. They’re half the mother, half game.”
“The other day she beat the bulldog off when he got a little too close to her biddies. She’s tough.”
I noticed she was also a good color, blending in with the ground and the woods. Her chicks were even harder to spot.
Predators and Free-Range Chickens
A couple of children rolled up on a four wheeler and introduced themselves to my kids. Most of my children joined them and headed off to go jump on a trampoline in the nearby field.
“Do you do anything to protect the mothers and chicks when the chicks are little?” Rachel asked.
“Nope,” Bobby said. “I let the weak ones get killed. Only the smart and tough ones live.”
“Do you think Leghorns could free-range like this?” one of my sons asked, getting interested in the conversation.
“No,” Bobby replied. “You know why?”
“Why?” my son replied.
“They’re white,” he said.
“Oh. So the predators will see them!”
“That’s right,” Bobby said. “They’ll pick ’em off.”
“So you don’t lose birds to predators anymore?” Rachel asked.
“Only thing that gets ’em now is an owl. One night I heard them up in the tree making a lot of noise, so I came out with my flashlight. An owl was right there on the branch next to them, right at the end of the row. They’ll grab a chicken by the neck with their claws and take him right down.”
Obviously, though, Bobby and his family weren’t losing enough birds to make a difference. There were chickens wandering in and out of the edge of woods, over wood piles, around the out buildings and into the gloom beneath the hollies.
“How many birds do you have?” I asked.
“I got no idea,” he told me with a chuckle. “A lot.”
“And you don’t really have to feed them or anything,” I said.
“Like I said, just a little grain to keep ’em around now and again.”
I was amazed. They got plenty of eggs and spent very little to get it.
While I was there, I did my best to take pictures. It was hard to take decent shots, as the birds were wary and not interested in being anywhere close to me.
We thanked out hosts and were sent home with a 5-gallon bucket of homegrown sweet potatoes and told we could come back anytime.
More Thoughts on Extreme Free-Ranging Chickens
This, then, was the extreme free-ranging Florida Bullfrog was talking about.
He told me that in the past, his old Florida Cracker ancestors were poor and the chickens had to make economic sense or else they wouldn’t be worth keeping. They weren’t plump pets that needed to be locked in cages. They were scrappy birds, wary, wild, smart. They were fighters – often literally, as cock-fighting was a major sport until being banned in recent decades. The old lines of birds may not have been fat and may not have laid an egg every single day, but they were capable of producing meat and eggs for a farm family without needing to be pampered and fed with bagged corn and soy.
In the third world, scrappy, half-wild fowl are still the norm. In Indonesia I saw chickens ranging without fences at a Lutheran school where I taught a few gardening classes. At night the birds roosted as high as sixty feet up in a huge tropical tree. Down lower their owners had put some baskets in the branches, which they told me the birds would lay eggs in during the day.
Down on the island of Grenada they called their traditional chickens “Yard Fowl.” Yard Fowl were known to be much tougher and predator-proof than the hatchery chicks that were commonly imported from Trinidad.
They too would roost in trees at night. They were a common sight beside the road and scurrying about in the city, snapping up dropped food.
What does this mean for us today, as homesteaders seeking a sustainable flock?
Perhaps it means, as Florida Bullfrog said, that to deal with chicken predators we need to change our chickens.
Seeing Bobby’s farm flock in action, I have decided to get a couple of game roosters to replace my fat, domesticated, almost flightless roosters. Some roosters with fighting cock genes, not placid domesticated egg-laying or meat bird genes.
Then, a few weeks later, I’ll hatch out the resulting eggs.
The game cocks will cross with Brown Leghorns, Production Reds, Australorps, California Whites and Buff Orpingtons.
When the chicks get big enough, I will then release them to face the predator-filled wilds of rural Alabama.
May the best birds win.
After reading this article, Jeremy texted me a shot of his dad’s chickens roosting for the night. Now those are some tough chicks!
God bless Florida Bullfrog! I need this information and more!
I wonder how humans fare against gamecocks. Roosters can draw blood pretty well. Maybe they are selectively keeping fighting cocks that don’t attack people? Also, I could look but from where does someone buy these birds? My wife’s family in Manila can get them from neighbors but that seems problematic.
Florida Bullfrog said game cocks often lack the desire to fight humans.
I would try getting them from neighbors for sure.
Extremely well. Gamecocks have little protection against even low power firearms.
Looks like this is the game plan on all fronts: your food needs to be half-wild, so it can take care of itself.
This gives me hope and inspires me. I’m intrigued by this lost knowledge but also recalling memories of seeing chickens kept like this in all the rural areas of Mobile County. We would visit relatives and there were always chickens and roosters roaming the neighborhood. I thought it was normal and all of this chicken coop stuff is what I was taught later in life. To be honest, the whole chicken coop thing and all the feed, diseases and predator is what has put off my wife and I from doing this. My in-laws are always losing hens even though there’s are in a pretty nice coop. Raccoons, opossums and other things eventually find their way in. So much so that they are giving up once the last two die or get eaten. This is great information.
So how do you keep them out of the garden? And how much will they impact neighbors?
I’m not sure – still learning.
The brown leghorns are a good start because they already have good coloring for blending in.
There is actually a city here in GA that is overrun with a now wild flock of chickens that are much more jungle-fowl than domesticated birds. I don’t worry too much about this in my rural setting but I can see where this set-up could get out of hand pretty quickly elsewhere. That said, I would comment more but I need to leave to go graze my goats in the highway median of our town! Sustainability is definitely the hope of the future so we better get used to seeing “filthy farm animals” in more settings than we currently do.
South Georgia Town Home To Thousands Of Wild Chickens
Wild Burmese Chickens in Fitzgerald, Georgia
This is fascinating. Not only the whole wild birds are tougher concept and why didn’t we think of that sooner, but the sequence of events leading to you writing about it is pretty amazing too. I am wowed by Florida Bullfrog telling you what he did and then bam.. Trick Or Treaters in the middle of nowhere who happen to have exactly that sort of flock all within such a short time span! I’m in an urban setting so the option of wild birds is out for me. I grew up in a rural area in East Texas, we still kept our birds in a coop and run and nobody I knew had chickens they kept totally free like that. They at least closed them in a coop at night. Now I am wondering why. I’m going to have to make some phone calls to relatives and ask about this!
I’ll bet these extreme free range chickens have a lot more flavor. A girl I met from Africa said chicken here had no flavor but the chickens in Africa really tasted like chicken. Alton Brown on the Food Network said about chicken that Americans like bland chicken.
I’m just wondering though how you would catch them for harvest.
Hi Anita, traditionally they’re harvested through shooting. I sometimes harvest mine that way using high powered pellet guns. However it is also possible to harvest them alive and unharmed by using a long wooden pole and inserting the pole under their legs at night while the birds sleep up a tree. The chicken will step onto the pole and can be slowly lowered down to ground level. The bird must be grabbed quickly and forcefully once its within hand’s reach. Many of my birds choose to roost inside of open coops and those I can simply pick up by hand at night.
Florida Bullfrog I’d love to talk to you. I live in Northwest Florida. My wife has family in your part of the state. Please contact me. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org we can exchange information on there.
This sounds like a fine plan. I wonder how they’d do in places that get a winter, like up here in Michigan.
I had a flock of Icelandics here in south-central Kentucky that lived completely outdoors for three years (until the last of them succumbed to some predator or other). They did just fine roosting in trees. We haven’t gotten a lot of snow since we’ve lived here, but we also had tree-roosting chickens for several years in central New Hampshire that did fine there, too. You’ll want small combs and larger-bodied birds, and feed them well when there’s not much for them to forage — if they are hungry, they’ll have a hard time staying warm. But they should do fine.
Yes, I’m in Pennsylvania with cold winters. How do you think it would work here?
There is an Icelandic breed of chicken, so I think you have a good chance.
Even hardy breeds will need some kind of shelter from snowstorms though. Probably doesn’t have to be a coop. We get winter temps down to -40 sometimes and our chickens do fine in an unheated uninsulated shed. We bought some new chicks last year – mixed breeds, some with ear muffs and beards, small combs and wattles. Those are really hardy. Less likely to get frostbite from dipping combs in the water while drinking.
We have a big fenced pen but in February these new birds decided to start flying over the fence to free-range. Quite the bother in the spring time when they started getting into the garden and scratching things up, but laying down chicken wire over the important things helped, and once the plants were established they mostly left things alone. They mostly like to dig up disturbed areas, like freshly planted rows. I think they reduced pests. There was apparently a grasshopper infestation this year. No real problems in my garden (a few here and there).
There’s at least 20 birds free-ranging (many were hatched in the bush). We lost a few to the pigs initially, including a mama with 7 of 9 chicks (piggies broke out of their pen and I guess they wanted a snack). The rest of them seem to have made friends and are always hanging out in the pig pens cleaning up the food. Some mama hens gave our dog a good whooping so he knows to keep his distance from the chickens. Some of them roost in the trees at night. Others hide in the brush piles or go back to the coop for night. We had our first big snow storm of the year and everyone seems fine so far, aside from a few free-range chickens trying to set up shop in our garage. Also not keen on having chicken poop on my deck.
Hunting for eggs is a hassle though. They tend to find little hiding spots all over the yard. When you find one they don’t come back to it. Maybe because they are hoping to hatch more eggs? I will say that some of the free-range roosters that were hatched this spring in the forest grew bigger (and faster!) in the forest just cleaning up bits of pig feed (no corn or soy) and whatever else they find than the meat birds we grew this year in chicken tractors. The commercial variety of meat bird does not seem to grow well on a corn-free, soy-free diet.
Love it. This also reminds me of Greg Judy’s approach to raising sheep. In this case, he’s been breeding them for resistance to worms. For some reason, domesticated sheep, as you may have realized, seem to be incredibly sensitive to the worms that live in the soil and crawl up the grass in the morning – something about the morning dew that draws them up. From what I’ve heard, most people who raise sheep have to deworm them regularly for their entire lives (like once a week, maybe even daily, depending on whether you use the harsh chemical dewormer or the organic herbal one).
That is insane! How did we get to the point where we’ve bred an animal that lives entirely on grass but can’t survive endemic parasites that live on grass without being continuosly treated with chemicals?
Well apparently Greg Judy had the same thought, and he’s been raising hardier sheep for years by point blank refusing to deworm them at all. I don’t know if he had to taper off to get to that point, but he may have the only flock in America that can live on grass without ever needing deworming treatments. Well, him and all the people who have bought sheep from him, which must be a lot because last I heard his waiting list was about a year long.
Yet another instance of the principle: if your animals are dying, you’re raising defective animals.
In addition to breeding Greg Judy is relying on rotation, keeping them out of the field. The parasite life cycle is 60 days so if they stay off for that long the chuckle is broken.
We bought a farm in east Texas 2 years ago. The neighbor had bought some red jungle fowl years prior and these birds were everywhere living totally wild. They would flush out of the ditch like pheasants when we drove by. They survived predation just fine when he was living there full time with his dogs. However after he sold to a weekender the jungle fowl were killed off in a few months. Without the dogs and shotgun bearing farmer around the balance shifted and the fowl could not hold back Mother Nature. 3 hens used to come around my place to piggy back off what I threw out for my fat cooped up domestic chickens but sadly I haven’t seen them in a few months. But definitely totally possible to keep a wild flock.