Chickens are probably not on your radar when you think of birds that fly, but quite a few breeds are actually very good at it! There’s nothing quite as frustrating as chasing after one of your favorite birds that has “flown the coop” in an effort to protect her from being eaten or run over by a car.
Hens can be pretty quick and agile, especially when you’re in a hurry. Chasing one down and slipping in mud is embarrassing and being outmaneuvered by something so small can be humbling. Even worse: they get better at it.
Of course, chickens don’t truly fly around like your typical bird. They use their wings for extra lift to get into trees to roost for the night – just like their junglefowl ancestors!
That being said, this extra lift is nothing to laugh at! Chickens have been seen jumping onto 7-foot fences or flying even higher to reach roofs or tree branches! While most of your lazy, plump hens won’t think twice about flying during a normal day, hungry or frightened chickens are capable of a lot!
Chicken Breeds and Flight
Certain breeds of chicken are known for their ability to fly more so than others. The easiest way to tell is based on their overall bulk. Heavier birds have more trouble getting the lift they need to clear a fence, but the lighter, more agile birds can easily get into trees.
Bantams are known for their ability to fly, which is understandable because they’re so lightweight. Araucanas, Ameraucanas, Polish, Sumatra, and many of the Mediterranean breeds can reach considerable heights.
Chicken breeds that don’t fly well include Orpingtons, Australorps, Silkies, Wyandottes, and Sussex! While they still have the ability to jump up and may be able to scale a 4-foot fence, many won’t even attempt it.
Why Confine Chickens?
If you live in remote areas or have decent acreage you may choose to allow your poultry to free range during the day. Chickens are known for returning to their home coop every night to sleep. This makes it very easy to let them out during the day without having to search for them at night.
Chickens will roam, though, so if you have a smaller property they might wander into the road or into your neighbor’s yard to scatter their mulch and poop on their deck. You should be a considerate neighbor and keep your birds in your yard to avoid hard feelings!
Even if your small yard has a fence and you feel tempted to let your chickens loose, keep in mind that they can fly onto the tops of chain link fences or even privacy fences! If your chicken flies into your neighbor’s yard and is killed by their dog it is ultimately your fault.
Another risk of letting your birds wander is losing them to predators. The most common daytime predators are dogs and hawks, but coyotes, foxes, and weasels occasionally come out to hunt when it’s still light. A secure, locked coop is usually enough to prevent predators like racoons, skunks, opossums, or owls since they hunt at night.
To prevent daytime predators from killing your birds the absolute best way is to build a secure, covered run. Chickens need at least 8-10 feet of run space, so this can get very expensive very fast!
Free Ranging Chickens
If making a secure run is too pricey for you, or you really just want to allow your chickens to free range, you will have to accept that there may be some losses. There are many advantages to free ranging poultry! They are happier and healthier, they eat lots of bugs, they can find their own grit, it reduces feed costs, and there is less poop concentrated in one area. Their eggs are generally tastier and have more nutrients and their meat is often said to be more delicious due to lower cortisol levels and improved diet.
If you want to “free range” your chickens in a certain area, how do you keep them from flying to their freedom, and possibly to their death? You can clip their wings! Without as much lift most chickens can’t get enough distance to get over the fence.
How to Clip Wings
First, you need to catch the chicken! If your birds are used to be handled it probably won’t be hard, but if you have a neurotic, spastic bird it can really be a challenge!
If you have a chicken that isn’t interested in being caught you can herd them into a corner to make grabbing a bit easier. You can also lure them over with an irresistible treat if they’re more docile.
If this is your first time clipping wings a helper can make the whole process safer and more pleasant for everyone. With one person focused on carefully holding the chicken you can be focused on cutting feathers!
Before you start hacking away, stretch out the chicken’s wings so you can see all of the flight feathers. The only feathers you will cut are the large ones that don’t overlap the others. Also take this time to check for any blood or pin feathers. These are the new feathers growing in and are still attached to the blood supply. If you cut one of these the chicken will bleed A LOT.
If the feathers all look good, you’re ready to get started! You will cut the flight feathers back to where the smaller feathers overlap. Once you finish cutting you want carefully let the chicken go and monitor her for a bit. Once she’s back with her friends and relaxed your work is done!
One Wing or Two?
Some people suggest only clipping one wing with the idea that it’s enough to prevent flight. One clipped wing may throw the bird just enough off balance that they’re unable to fly well enough to escape. Cutting both may allow the chicken to adapt to the change and just “flap harder” to their freedom. You also reduce the amount of time you need to restrain the bird which reduces their overall stress!
Other people recommend cutting both to prevent this confusion when they try to fly lopsided. Being off kilter can throw off their aim and might result in crashes. Other people suggest leaving the first three flight feathers intact, so your chicken doesn’t have that “clipped wing” look, but that’s just cosmetic.
The biggest consideration if you find yourself thinking of clipping wings, is that if your chicken can fly out then predators can get in! Birds of prey live in both rural and urban areas and will gladly swoop down and grab a chicken.
Birds of prey are protected, which means it is illegal to kill or trap them no matter how much they annoy you! This can be extra frustrating when they’re picking off your favorite hens and chicks. Once they learn that your chickens are an easy meal they’ll be back – especially if they have a nest oof babies that need fed.
The best thing you can do for your poultry (and for the hawks) is keep your birds safe and protected! If you eliminate the predator it will be replaced with another one and the whole process will start over again.
In addition, the whole handling, restraint, and clipping process can be stressful to the bird. While they will recover just fine, they often can adapt and still find ways to escape. Ultimately, if you can’t cover their run, or they free range and have been getting into things they shouldn’t, clipping is a good way of limiting their abilities!