How to Keep Your Chickens Happy When You Can't Let Them Free Range

A collage of gold and brown chickens in a fenced run.

I can't let my chickens free range. Can you? Here's how I keep them happy and entertained while keeping them safe from predators.

There are many risks in free ranging your birds: stray dogs, coyotes, foxes, hawks and more. 

My birds are in constant danger, mostly from coyotes but also from hawks. We even have bobcats in the area.

A young possum
Possums are lazy hunters but they will definitely kill and eat chickens if they have the opportunity.

We also have lesser predators, such as skunks, possums and so on.

You may have a safe backyard, with a high fence to keep out critters and stray dogs. But if your flock is in danger like mine is, your chickens are probably confined to a coop and run, at least when you're not outside keeping an eye on them.

A gold hen with a black head in a fenced chicken run, with a weed in her beak.

My grandmother's chickens were never confined. They spent their days searching for tasty bugs to eat and laying eggs behind the hay bales in the barn.

I regret that mine are confined to their coop and have never had these pleasures. But it is for their own good.

Because my hens are in their coop and run all the time, I try to keep them as happy as possible. Here are some tips and ideas that might help you too.

Start with a great coop

Easy Coops carries plans you can use to build your own backyard chicken coop no matter how many hens you have. 

There are a wide range of styles and sizes of coops available, from free plans to paid plans that include material lists, cutting lists and detailed instructions, so you can choose the one that will work best for you and your yard.

Easy Coops' shop plans include a complete list of materials to make shopping at the lumber yard easy, step-by-step instructions and detailed illustrations. 

Chicken coops can be built in a variety of styles and sizes to fit your flock, and your neighborhood.

On their website you'll even find plans for five different mobile chicken coops (also called a chicken tractor) that you can move around your backyard, which would be a great solution for confined chickens.

You can move the chicken coop every day or two to give your hens a change of scenery, new grass to nibble, and to fertilize your lawn.

In the chicken run

To keep my hens entertained I piled some large rocks in their run where bugs could hide. Finally, my hens can enjoy searching for the bugs as well as playing King of the Hill on top of the rocks.

I moved a fallen tree branch into the run that they can perch on, and they've been pecking at bugs in the bark of the branch.

Every so often I move the branch to a new spot; it usually has pill bugs underneath that set the rooster calling to his hens to "come and get it!"

After about a year, not much of that branch remains intact. I need to pick up the pieces and find them another branch to peck at and perch on.

Three gold and black chickens in a fenced pen, near a large rock..

I even made a chicken swing in the run by tying a branch to the roof supports with rope. You'll find the directions further down in this post.

A black and gold rooster in a fenced pen with brush and weeds on the outside of the pen.

Dust bathing is an important chicken pastime. My hens scratched out a depression in the hard dirt, so I filled it with sand and soft dry dirt. It's their favorite hangout spot in the afternoon.

We covered the top of the run with shade cloth so the chickens have shade on hot summer days and some protection from rain.

Provide some "extras" inside the coop

Your coop needs the basics, of course, but you can add a few extras to help keep your hens happy. You can find all your poultry needs in my Amazon storefront.

The perch in front of our coop's large window is a favorite spot where the chickens like to sit and watch for me to come feed them or bring them a treat.

A brown Americana chicken in a fenced run with her beak open.

A mirror hung at chicken-height inside the coop is a fun boredom buster. Try an unbreakable mirror made to hang in bird cages, or a thrift store mirror that leans up against the wall for a full-length view.

Treats and goodies are a good way to keep boredom at bay, as long as you don't overdo it. Ours really enjoy corn cobs and melon rinds, beef and pork bones with bits of meat on them, and weeds I pull from the garden.

A head of cabbage or lettuce hung with string will keep your chickens entertained until the food is gone.

An orange buff Orpington hen in a fenced pen.

How to build a chicken swing

You probably already have the supplies on hand to build a chicken swing, which means your swing project won't cost you a dime.

You'll need something to hang the swing from: a beam across the top of the chicken run, an overhanging tree branch, or a roof beam inside the coop. 

Since our chickens' run has a wire top with several 2x4's run across the top from side to side to hold the wire fencing taut across the top, I attached the swing to one of the 2x4's.

You'll also need the following:

  • a 1x1" or 1x2" board, a branch, or a piece of rigid PVC pipe
  • twine or rope

Choose a relatively straight branch, about an inch in diameter, to use as your swing. Or perhaps you have a 1x1" or a 1x2" board or a piece of PVC pipe leftover from another project. 

The length of the swing is up to you. Since the branch I used was about two feet long, that's how long my swing is.

You'll need some twine or rope to hang the swing with. 

I used hay twine, since we have plenty of it. The hay twine is made from plastic so I know it won't rot as quickly as string might. Clothesline rope or whatever you have on hand will work. 

You'll need two pieces, one for each side of the swing. Allow extra length for the knots at top and bottom.

A piece of hay baling twine tied around a board on the top of the chicken run.

(In case you're wondering, I have a shower curtain on top of the run for shade.)

If you wish, you can screw some eye hooks into each end of the swing and/or to the beam the swing will hang from. 

Or just tie one end of the hay twine or rope around the beam you'll hang the swing from, and the other end of the twine around the branch or PVC pipe. 

Do the same with the other piece of twine at the other end of the swing.

A tree branch with a piece of blue hay baling twine tied to it. The branch is a chicken swing.

Adjust the twine or rope so that the swing hangs level, parallel to the ground. About eight inches off the ground is a good height.

A chicken swing made from a branch hanging from the roof of the chicken pen.

I tried very hard to convince my hens to model the swing for you, but they said it was too cold and windy to come outside. So there you have it, an empty chicken swing.

With a little imagination you can provide a playground to keep your chickens amused and entertained. 

Move things around

Rearranging the coop and yard occasionally will make old things seem new again and might unearth a few bugs too.

An orange buff Brahman chicken standing in a chicken pen.

Start with the basics: a chicken coop that will protect your chickens from the dangers of predators and the elements. 

Then keep them entertained with objects as simple as a homemade swing or a pile of rocks to keep them happy and content.

It's a good idea to evaluate the chicken coop and the run to make sure your hens are safe from predators every fall before winter arrives. 

21 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed

When your chickens are confined to their coop and run due to predators, you have to supply all of their food. Are you wishing you could save some money on chicken feed?

My digital guide Feed Your Flock, 21 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed offers suggestions and solutions to save money on feed, oyster shell, grit and more. Most are simple, several are even free. And if you purchase my ebook using the code FEEDFLOCK50, you'll also save 50% on the price of the guide!

Images of ebook "Feed Your Flock: 21 ways to save money on chicken feed"

Always offer a variety of foods to keep your hens happy and healthy.

You'll find all of my articles on raising chicks and chickens as well as my chicken FAQs here.

How to keep your chickens happy when you can't free range.

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Chicken Coop Guides
The opinions in this post are my own and have not been influenced 
by Chicken Coop Guides and/or any other parties.

This post has been shared at some of my favorite blog hops.


My hope is to inspire you, and to encourage your homesteading plans and your dreams of a simple, self-reliant, God-dependent life. You can follow me at:
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