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!