Why I Like to Keep Free-Ranging to a Minimum

One morning not long ago, after we built Fort Clux and went through about a year of keeping the chickens mostly contained, I went out to milk and found a very large caterpillar. Some internet research revealed it was the green form of the fifth instar of the imperial moth. Apparently the instar also has a brown form.

The imperial moth lives only to breed and then dies. The caterpillar “can feed on dozens of kinds of trees but seem to prefer pines, oaks, maples, sassafras, and sweetgum. Cedar, elm, persimmon, hickory, beech, honeylocust and cypress are other less common hosts as well as a slew of other plants.”

The green form, I’ve read, are less common than the brown form, and are indicative of caterpillars feeding on pine. However, it has been reported that larvae can also switch from one color to another. The caterpillars themselves are rare.

Free-ranging my chickens, no doubt, has made them even rarer on our little homestead, so finding this fellow was out of the ordinary, for sure. He was apparently looking for a soft spot in the ground to burrow in and pupate. I could see that he was already beginning to form his shell.

“When the caterpillar is full grown, it crawls down the tree to pupate in the soil. It does not spin a cocoon, but forms a large naked pupa that is dark brown to black, nearly two inches long, and about three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The tail is pointed and the head is rounded. The pupa will remain in the soil through the winter and the adult moth will emerge in June or July.”

I picked this little guy up and put him under the milk stall, where he might avoid being eaten by a bird. The next day, he was gone, but since I didn’t really know what I was looking for at the time, I’ll check again for the chrysalis, which may be underground.

I love to find interesting critters, and free-ranging the chickens makes it a very rare occurance, since they pluck up anything that doesn’t get out of the way, including grass and leaves, within a 500 yard radius of their coop.

Even though it’s a little more work, I prefer to grow their food and bring it to them. I make manageable piles of cow manure, hay and straw which I often let sit for awhile to really get a good population of insects going. Then I scoop a pile into a wagon and drop it into the chicken run. I also bring the chickens weeds from the garden as well as scraps from the kitchen. In the warmer months, I grow duck weed in small ponds and scoop this up for them. Inevitably they also get a snack of snails and tadpoles. In the winter, I grow rye grass, which I cut and carry to them. In all, I don’t mind the extra work, as it’s good exercise, and I certainly enjoy not having a wasteland around the coop.

Does this mean I never let the chickens out? No. Occasionally, especially if we are being bothered by flies in the warmer months, I will let them out to free range about an hour before dark.

I’m also considering how best to employ a mobile coop in the pasture during the warmer months to contain a different set of chickens for breeding. I’ll keep you updated.


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