Chicken Tunnel (Chunnel)
My first flock free ranged for two years. The upside was they had a great life foraging in the fields and woods, but the downside was they laid lots of eggs outside the coop, they pooped on my doorstep and I lost two to hawks. In light of the health benefits that come with eating seeds and bugs the risks of not being penned might seem worth it. That particular group of hens didn’t go broody so I wasn’t faced with disappearing hens either bringing back unexpected chicks or being vulnerable to predators while hunkered down in the woods.
Depending on your location and circumstances penning your birds might seem like a good solution. It was for me. I’ve got a flock of @30 in a 30’x 40’ pen that has several fruit trees for shade, three covered dust bathing/shaded/rain proof areas, an open compost bin and plenty of room to roam. All my girls lay their eggs in the coop and since netting the top of my pen I haven’t had many issues with predators. (The main predators in my area are hawks, raccoons and mink).
If you’re looking for a compromise between the two options you might consider building a chicken tunnel. You can purchase pre-fab ones or you can make your own: DIY projects can be either quite simple or something more complex. Some are anchored into the ground, while others are portable like a tractor. You can connect a tunnel from one structure or pen to another or make adaptable components that attach to extend their length. Gardeners might install one at certain times of the year to allow their birds access to a plot in order to scratch up the surface and eat insect pests, but are restricted from digging up and eating the plants.
The priority of most tunnels seem to be keeping birds out of the garden, rather than keeping them safe from predators. If you have predators (including dogs) you need to consider how much weight your wire can withstand. Chicken wire is great for keeping birds contained, but it is no match for most wild animals. Raccoons can easily reach through the opening of fencing and kill chickens.
I’ve seen some examples that have wire mesh attached to a wooden base. Keep in mind that wood rots and is heavy to move. Using PVC that you can form into a half-hoop is both durable and light. Wire can be affixed using zip ties.
One of the worst things about keeping chickens is dealing with parasites. They can carry a number of internal worms, as well as various types of mites and lice. There’s nothing like picking up one of your birds and looking down at your hands to see tiny bugs making their way up your arms. Dealing with an infestation is a serious health hazard for your flock and more than unpleasant for you. It may take repeated treatments with pesticides to get rid of them.
I’m all for employing non-chemical prevention methods that are both effective and free. Having year round access to a dust bath is critical for birds to manage and eradicate external parasites. Birds will naturally make hollows in the ground in order to dust bathe, but I find if you provide a structure it is more effective at containing the substances that will suffocate and kill mites and lice.
I’ve got several dust baths: a large resin planter, a tire, stacked metal BBQ rings and a low rubber stock trough – all that I picked up for free. I fill them with wood ashes (which I also get for free). If you use fireplace or woodstove ashes ensure there are no metal bits (e.g. screws, nails, staples) that could injure your birds, or worse that they could eat. If there’s a chance of metal contamination use a long handled magnet to sift through them.
Some people add peat moss or diatomaceous earth (DE). The former is not a sustainable product and the latter can cause issues with avian respiratory systems if the area is not well ventilated. I use DE occasionally in small amounts.
The important thing to remember is chickens need to dust bath regularly throughout the year. I live on the west coast where it is rainy for nine months, so I’ve placed their dust baths under cover. We do get the occasional cold snap and snow, but the contents of the raised baths don’t freeze if they stay dry. If you live in a snowy area where the ground freezes you can set up a dust bath inside the coop or a shed. This is a simple DIY project that can prevent health issues for your flock and allow you to avoid the unpleasant task of dealing with mites or lice.
And if you have a broody hen ensure she has access to a dust bath or she may become victim to mites or lice. I had a hen get off her egg on day 19 due to a mite infestation and my friend Tracy’s hen died on her clutch of eggs on the day they were hatching. She was covered in mites even though she did have access to an outside area. If you’re not confident your hen is using a dust bath treat her for parasites with a product such as Ivermectin at the outset of her sitting so the chicks won’t also have to contend with them.
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