Sat. Nov 27th, 2021
free range chickens

I posted a few videos on chickens recently and discussed how nature LOVES to eat chicken and why free-ranging chickens does not work for us.

In response to one of them, commenter Florida Bullfrog wrote:

“No no no David. I’m going to issue you a challenge. I assert my chicken videos prove you wrong. If you’ve lost all or most of your chickens free ranging in a high predator environment, you’re raising defective chickens. There are plenty of predator resistant chicken breeds. Its just that the internet permi/homesteading culture is ignorant of them. You’re a victim of a limited knowledge base because many of the Youtube chicken people aren’t coming from a deep south, poor, backwoods culture that raised free range chickens for generations and lived off of them when it mattered. Don’t look to a hipster to teach you chickens. Look to some old man who comes from a backwoods farm. You already have this mentality with your gardening. Why not your livestock?”

Well now. When you get a comment like that, what are you supposed to do?

I took it as an interesting challenge, and asked him to share resources with me. He replied:

“If you want something to read, you’ll have to gleam snippets from old books that reference wild game chickens on southern farms, as I am not aware of any modern chicken books not related to cockfighting that reference the free range keeping of game or certain heritage breeds (as I said the knowledge is lost on the current generation of chicken celebrities). For example, the Florida author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings referenced her flock of wild Florida game chickens very briefly. She shot them for the table just as one might shoot a wild turkey, just as my grandmother hunted our wild game chickens around the farm to feed her family. I won’t post a link lest the link be flagged, but google Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ chickens and the reference will come up. What I know about how chickens were kept this way doesn’t come from anything I read, but from what I saw, having been raised by my grandparents and also being around others who all took for granted that it was normal to raise game chickens free range in the woods with no major human intervention. When I moved to my current woods farm in north Florida I knew I would need game chickens like I grew up with to survive here. It was only then that as I started looking for a flock that I realized the knowledge that bankavoid game chickens live feral on their own hasn’t translated to the current generation of chicken gurus. That, or there’s fear of the stigma associated with raising game breeds and cockfighting. It took me a year and a half of searching to find a flock that was mostly like what I grew up with. 100 years ago most rural Southern farms kept game chickens as their primary producing chickens. There is a free book on Google Books from the late 1800s that offers a history and care of the Old English gamefowl, the progenitor the American gamefowl, and throughout it takes for granted the ease by which they survive free range.”

Here is one of Florida Bullfrog’s intriguing videos:

He emailed me a lot more information as well:

“I’ll provide links below to what reading materials I know of that reference the free-range self-sustainability of game chickens. Specifically, these are going to deal with bankivoid gamefowl. The bankivoid gamefowl are those gamefowl breeds that look similar to red jungle fowl and are closely related to such (named after the red junglefowl subspecies from Java called gallus gallus bankiva). The second group of gamefowl that exist, the oriental gamefowl, aren’t very relevant to this discussion (but know that many of your broiler birds are hybrids with recent oriental gamefowl bred in for muscle and size). It’s not that the oriental gamefowl can’t free range well, but they’re more rare in the U.S. and are more specialized than the bankivoid gamefowl. 
There’s not a lot out there book wise because 1) in the deep south free ranging gamefowl for sustenance was the purview of poor backwoods people, not the kind of people who were writing books about how they raised chickens, 2) the raising of gamefowl is tied in with cockfighting, so what material that is out there is often really about cockfighting and carries the stigmas that go along with it, and 3) it was such common knowledge that gamefowl took care of themselves in free range settings that I don’t think it was ever foreseen 100 years later that people would question it. Cockfighting was legal in much of the US well into the mid-1900s and gamefowl were so common through that time that I think people took for granted that gamefowl would always be common and known. Gamefowl ceased being a staple of Deep South farms about the time cockfighting started dying out. That coincides with the overall end of sustenance farming in the SE. 

Extreme Free-Range Chicken Resources

Florida Bullfrog continues with more resources on extreme free-ranging:

Here’s what I got off the top of my head: 

The Old English Game Fowl: Its History, Description, Management, Breeding, and Feeding

1) The Old English Game Fowl: Its History, Description, Management, Breeding, and Feeding (1891). The Old English gamefowl is the archatype bankivoid gamefowl. Our American gamefowl is basically the same bird with some additional genetics added. Of interest is a brief chapter that discusses their free-range prowess and ability to basically take care of themselves against predators and with minimal feed. 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery

2) Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery (1942). This link has an excerpt from Rawlings’ cookbook that talks about her wild game chickens that she hunted with a gun for table fare. My grandmother hunted our family game chickens in the same manner: https://gherkinstomatoes.com/2011/11/28/24676/

Other Feral Chicken Links

3) Various links about the Fitzgerald Georgia Junglefowl hybrids, Ybor chickens, Key West chickens, and the wild chickens of Hawaii. All of these birds are red jungle fowl/gamefowl hybrids (with varying degrees of common modern breeds thrown in). Some of these groups are more wild and self-sustaining than others, but even the tamest ones would show how good of a survivor a bankavoid type chicken can live in a farmyard with more care than these feral birds receive. Concerning the Hawaii chickens, I’ve heard it said they survive there due to lack of predators. That is false. Hawaii has no native predators. But Hawaii is full of introduced predators, some of them like mongoose are way better chicken predators than what most people have living around them on the mainland:
Just a few links. There’s a lot of info out there about those four sets of feral populations. And there are actually feral gamefowl populations all over Florida that aren’t documented. I am aware of a population of feral chickens on the east side of Lake City that have been there for decades per my local sources. I plan on checking them out soon.  
What I’m asserting isn’t just theory. My family lived this with their chickens throughout the last century. My grandmother who raised me would slip around the woods of the family farm back in the 1950s-1960s  when she was raising her children and hunt the family wild game chickens with a .22. She’d kill about 30 a month and use them to feed the family. She never put a dent in the population. They lived like wild turkeys. The brood cocks set up territories around natural water sources and kept large harems of hens. The brood cocks didn’t cross into rival territories. The broodcocks were left alone by the family. It was their hens that were hunted for food. Although the hens hid their nests, there were so many of the wild games running around that it was easy to find enough eggs to meet all of the family’s needs. The chickens received no care from my family. When I was a child I was given a flock of my own that I raised. I didn’t know they were special. I took for granted all game chickens were of the same breed and that it was a simple fact that game chickens took care of themselves. I didn’t figure out that this method of raising game chickens had been lost to history until about 4 years ago when I tried to find a flock to establish on my farm in north Florida. It took me a year and a half to find a flock of the kind that was like what I grew up with, except that my current flock is smaller bodied than the those I had growing up. 
I’m not saying that raising game chickens semi-feral is the system everyone needs to use. This is for the person who has good habitat for game chickens to forage in and who doesn’t make enough produce in the garden to sustain cooped birds without store-bought feed. I fall into this category. Your milage may vary, where you seem to be able to make enough greenery to feed your coop chickens at will. Also be aware that I plan my garden around my chickens, as they are constantly picking at what they like. I focus on growing a few crops they don’t bother much. My point is that its not correct that chickens can’t free range in high predator environments without sustaining catastrophic losses. They can and its a time-proven method. It requires the right kind of chicken. Think of game chickens as the Seminole Pumpkin and Everglades tomatoes of chickens. Tough as nails birds that survive and thrive when the normal birds don’t. Not necessary in all situations but when the chips are down, it will be the game chickens that are alive after the feed store run dry, not the factory production layers. Or think of them as the chicken version of wild/feral hogs. Just as domestic hogs have within them the ability to go wild and transform into the classic wild razorback after living a couple of generations in the wild, so it is with the game chickens which are genetically close to the wild junglefowl all chickens come from. 
Something else I’d recommend looking into, if you aren’t familiar with it already, is the general principle that most livestock in Florida was free ranged through the early 1900s. Many landraces of Florida livestock existed through that time that were originally animals the Spanish brought which adapted to Florida. The chickens in question were likely red junglefowl the Spanish 
traded for in Southeast Asia crossed with the bankivoid Spanish gamefowl (a bird like the Old English gamefowl but smaller). There were also Florida strains of woods cow, horse, sheep, and of course the wild hog we know today. All animals that came to Florida in a domesticated state but then adapted to Florida woods life and became either totally wild or at the least self-sustaining. No, you can’t free range cattle around your neighborhood in Alabama. I am merely suggesting that animal genetics should be thought of just as you know plants to be, highly moldable and adaptable. I saw your goat video and although I agree with your friend that goats are probably a better choice for you given the habitat you currently have, also know that there are small breeds of cows that can be sustained with only basic grasses and weeds (like the mini-zebu). You could probably establish a Bahia pasture even in your poor soil then move in a versatile, small, grazing cow like a couple of mini-zebus. All depends on how far you want to get into animals. There’s so many different varieties of domestic animals available to us now from all over the world that you can find something that fits what you have just as you’ve done with plants. 
After receiving all this good information from Florida Bullfrog, I asked him for his number and gave him a call. We talked for a while and I realized he has some serious research into the idea of extreme free-ranging chickens and raising them with almost zero infrastructure. I asked him if he would consider writing a book on the topic, and he has agreed to do so. This information must get out!

Meanwhile, I am still raising meat and egg chickens the hard way:

Free-Range Chickens in Alabama Story #1: Greg’s Fighting Chickens

That said, I have a couple of interesting stories of free-range or even feral populations of birds here in Lower Alabama. My friend Greg has a small flock of chickens that he started from a feral population nearby. He told me they were “fighting chickens,” and that there was a man raising cocks for cockfighting who got in trouble and his wife let all his birds go. Now they wander the woods and take care of themselves. When Greg decided to put a little flock of birds in his backyard, his brother helped him by capturing some of these fighting chickens, both hens and a rooster. Once they laid enough eggs in his backyard pen, Greg incubated a bunch of the eggs and hatched out a mess of them. He says they lay “two eggs a day,” and aren’t mean.

Free-Range Chickens in Alabama Story #2:

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.

“My dad has a mixed flock.”

“Do you keep them in a barn?” I asked.

“Naw, they just wander,” he said.

Having just been talking with Florida Bullfrog, I was now 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 JUST what his dad was doing.

“Sure,” he said, and gave me his number.

This Saturday, I had some time, so I called him, then headed our to see the chickens. 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 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.

“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. The man I’d met on Halloween shook my hand and introduced me to his dad…

…and I’ll share the rest of the story tomorrow, along with photos!

 

Extreme Free-ranging Chickens: No Coop, No Fence, No Problem

 

 

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