I so appreciate hearing the different perspectives on this free ranging issue. I'm really conflicted about what to do in the future.
On the one hand, Celeste, I hear you saying loud and clear that if you let them range around, they are going to get killed. Simple as that. On the other, DA, I think what you're saying is that you feel guilty keeping them penned up all the time and have decided that losing one is the price for letting them range around (forgive me if I've mistated what either of you were saying).
I was definitely feeling more of the "guilty about locking you up" side of things before this weekend's incident. Not to anthropomorphize too much, but they just seem so happy out and about exploring. Of course, it's not such a happy thing when one of them is killed, I get that. So, I still don't know where I stand on what to do with these chickens. But I do know it will be awhile before I could let them back out unsupervised.
My husband helped me finish improving their pen area yesterday. The fencing still isn't perfect for protection from spring predators, but the ground is frozen so we couldn't actually sink any posts. So, although it's still a little rickety, it's the best we can do for now. It gives the chickens probably 3x more room to move around while still fenced in. The bonus for them was that they found some non-frozen, soft dirt to roll around in, and they sure went crazy with the dirt baths yesterday- they were really cute.