We have had week after week of near-zero temperatures during the day and considerably below-zero temperatures during the night. We have also had an unusually large number of snowstorms and the snow on the ground is very deep.

So it is incomprehensible to me that until one day last week, two families in this area were leaving their chickens outside in this cold and snow… day and night… without any access to shelter of any kind.

One group of chickens was confined in a large off-the-ground coop that had chicken wire sides and was completely open except for the roof and corner supports. The other group of chickens didn’t have even that much protection… this family proudly proclaimed that they were raising their chickens “free range” and that, like wild birds, the chickens were able to fend for themselves. By the time the authorities stepped in, several hens in both flocks had already died from hypothermia, and the survivors were in poor condition with frozen and infected combs and feet.

Our icy frozen trees

I find it hard to understand how anyone could be this cruel to a living, feeling creature, but the families involved still don’t think they did anything wrong. I would like to think that these people started with good intentions and were just incredibly ignorant of what free range really means. It probably doesn’t help that much of the “how to” information appears to be written by people who love the idea of “free range” but have never actually raised chickens themselves.

Raising free range chickens is not an automatic first step (often listed with recycling and composting) for everyone interested in simple or green living. No one should even think of getting chickens unless they are willing to make the commitment to care for them properly… and proper care means a whole lot more than just turning them loose into the great outdoors to “free range” and fend for themselves.

Anyone who has actually been around chickens for any length of time knows that they are not at all like wild birds. Although chickens can survive cold temperatures, they need a shelter to go to at night, they need protection from the cold and snow of winter, and they need protection from predators all year round. They need water that is not frozen and a readily available source of food. Providing less than these basic needs EVERY DAY is not only irresponsible, it is inhumane.

Free range is a popular idea these days, and most people think it is the best way to raise chickens. I’m in total agreement with the concept, and we have always given our chickens the opportunity to get out into the fresh air, scratch up the soil, eat the greenery, bugs and other tantalizing bits and lounge in the sun.

We have also known it was our obligation to protect them from the elements and from predators… and this necessary protection is what is missing from many free range scenarios.

Chickens are defenseless. At best they can run away, and at night they won’t even do that. I do not understand the rationale of leaving chickens unprotected and at the mercy of predators… or the easy acceptance of the resulting injuries or deaths as “just something that happens.”

It isn’t just something that happens… it’s neglect.