Earlier today I heard from someone who bought turkey eggs from me last year. She hatched a Bourbon Red tom, of whom she had recently sent photos. He was in full strut – looking just like his sire – and appeared to be a gorgeous bird. Unfortunately the message this morning was that he had died. He looked fine yesterday; today he is dead and she doesn’t know why. This has left me pondering. Her poultry do not free-range. In order to maintain purebred eggs, she pens each breed separately. By contrast I have almost no pens. A hoop coop is my only means to separate birds and I use it sparingly – for a broody hen sitting on eggs, a group of juveniles to help them transition from brooder to main coop, or short-term when I too, need to ensure eggs are fertilized by a particular rooster. Otherwise, my birds all sleep in the main coop at night and have the freedom to range anywhere on our fully fenced property by day.
I do this primarily for ease of care. Fewer pens means fewer feed and water bowls to maintain. Less hassle with heated bowls and extension cords. Less time spent building coops or shelters and maintaining runs. Substantially lower expenses for materials for all of the above. And, in the event I am sick, injured or on vacation, it is easy for someone else to care for them.
I enjoy lower feed bills as a result of the birds foraging. They eat grass, clover, dandelions, burdock, compass plants (to name only a few) along with all the bugs they can find.
In summer they are able to seek out the coolest spot they can find to hang out – under bushes and behind objects that cast shade. In winter they similarly have the freedom to find a place to stay out of the wind so they can keep warm. When keeping birds in pens, it is hard to provide them with the conditions they require due to changing weather patterns and many of the losses of penned birds can be attributed directly to their inability to keep warm and dry or to stay cool.
But over time I’ve started to wonder if having the birds free-ranging isn’t only advantageous to me, but to the health of the birds themselves. I’ve noticed that after birds have been sequestered in the hoop house, their priority upon release isn’t to flap their wings and run or fly. It isn’t to seek out buddies (or in the case of roosters, hens to be mated). Their priority is to eat greens. After the door is opened, they run immediately to greenery and start eating almost desperately.
Clearly there are nutrients in the greens and bugs they find for themselves that are absent in prepared grain formulas. And I believe those nutrients are essential to their well-being. My birds are exceedingly healthy. I haven’t dewormed in a couple of years because I haven’t seen any evidence of the need to. And it has been years since I’ve lost a bird to illness or disease. By contrast, birds raised in pens often don’t thrive – and, as in the case of the turkey who died this morning – their deaths are sometimes unexpected and the cause undetermined.
I’ve always found watching the birds foraging, peaceful. But over time I’ve become convinced that the freedom they enjoy doesn’t just make my birds happy or lucky – it helps keep them alive.