Raising chickens has been more fun than I ever imagined it could be. Each member of my flock has its own personality, and if you observe them long enough you can be certain to watch some sort of hilarious drama unfold.
There are a few things to prepare for before jumping into a backyard flock of your own. After determining whether or not you are “allowed” to have hens in your area (not that I think you should even have to ask for permission), the next thing you’ll need to plan for is secure housing for them.
Chickens have many predators, and your birds won’t last long for too many nights without cover. Whether you live out in the country, or in a suburban neighborhood, hawks, raccoons, opossums, weasels, rats, snakes, foxes, and even neighborhood (or your own) dogs will be happy to make a quick snack out of your lovely chickens.
How To Predator-Proof Your Coop:
- Make it something animals can’t dig into. Having a dirt floor makes it easier to clean, however rats, weasels, and foxes can easily dig in and gain access to your flock. A wood floor works well.
- Cover any holes with wood or hardware cloth. Rodents and snakes will quickly discover any open areas that lead into your coop. Snakes will not only eat small birds, but they’ll eat their eggs as well.
- Build walls out of solid materials. Raccoons and determined dogs can rip chicken wire apart, and will quickly gain access to your coop. Do your girls a favor and keep them safe with strong, impenetrable walls.
- Don’t forget the roof! A solid roof will not only keep your chickens from drowning in the rain and freezing in the snow, but will also keep out climbing critters and predator birds.
How Big Should It Be?
Chicken coops can be made of so many different materials, in countless styles. However you decide to construct it, the one main consideration you will need to take into account is the size of your coop. How big you build it depends upon how many chickens you plan on housing.
Some experts recommend that you allow 4 sq. ft. of floor space per hen, for full sized hens. Smaller breeds, such as Bantams, only need half that. Of course, the more space you can give them, the better off they’ll be. Chickens that are too confined will begin to fight, and can even resort to cannibalizing each other.
The Great Outdoors
Chickens need to be able to get outside every day and scratch in fresh ground. If you do not have a yard that they can free range in, you will need to build a run for them. A run is basically a covered, fenced in area attached to the coop where the hens can get out and enjoy fresh air and sunshine every day. Be sure to add a little door to the run from the coop, which you can open and close from the outside.
Another option would be a chicken tractor. This is a moveable, bottomless pen that would allow the hens a protected area to stay in while having access to fresh grass and dirt. You can rotate where the tractor sits in your yard so that the hens don’t scratch the ground bare in one spot.
Remember to make your fencing strong enough to withstand daytime predators, and with holes small enough that your chickens can’t squeeze through and escape. You’ll also want to secure the bottom of the fence so that chickens can’t push underneath it and get out, and unwanted critters can’t get in.
Chickens have a built in defense mechanism that makes them want to roost (sleep) high above the ground. Naturally, they will find the highest place in the coop to perch on before tucking in for the night. You will want to provide a roost for them, which typically simulates a tree branch. A long, wooden rod about 2-3″ inches thick should work nicely. Or, you can do what we did and just go chop a branch off of a tree and use that. Secure it several feet off the floor of the coop.
If you’ll have several hens, make sure you have enough roosting room. Each chicken needs about a foot of space on the roost. They like to crowd together when they sleep, but you don’t want them climbing on top of each other every night.
Keep in mind that whatever is below the roost will be covered with droppings. I would not recommend that you put the nesting boxes below the roost. Some people like to stagger roosts from the top of the wall to the floor, kinda like leaning a ladder against a wall. We have one long roost on either side of the inside of the coop. This way all of our hens are at the same height, and don’t have to fight for the highest spot every night.
The Nesting Boxes
Chickens prefer a private place to lay their eggs. If you don’t provide them with a nesting box, they’ll have to drop their egg wherever they stand. If they free range, you can be sure you’ll find nests in the craziest places around your yard. Eggs laid on the coop floor will encourage egg-eating among the chickens, as they will peck at it out of curiosity and will quickly develop a habit. Not to mention, eggs laid on the floor get very dirty.
Nesting boxes can be made from reclaimed materials, such as milk crates and 5 gallon buckets, they can be constructed out of wood, or you can buy an industrial style set of metal nesting boxes.
Providing Proper Nests
1. You will need one nesting box per 2-3 hens. Some people have 4-5 hens per box, but when you have this many hens fighting for one laying spot, you’ll inevitably end up with multiple hens in one box all trying to lay together, or you’ll have hens laying in obscure places because there wasn’t room in the box.
2. Nesting boxes need to be large enough that the hen can get in there and turn around, but small enough that she feels snug and private. 12x12x12 is pretty standard.
3. They need to be kept dry and clean, so putting a roof over the boxes is a good idea. Sloping the roof at a steep angle is also a good idea to discourage hens from roosting on top of the nesting boxes and pooping them all up.
4. You’ll want to put some sort of bedding in the boxes to cushion the eggs as they drop. Compostable materials work double duty, as you can toss them in your compost bin when you clean out the boxes. Grass or herb clippings, straw, hay, pine shavings, all of these make great nesting box bedding.
5. I prefer to keep my nesting boxes away from the roosting area, so that the birds don’t roost in the boxes (and mess in them) overnight. After experimenting for a couple of years with what works and what doesn’t, I’ve finally settled on securing our nesting boxes to the outside of our coop, in the run under the roof’s overhang. Our eggs have never been cleaner.
6. Position the nesting boxes about 1 1/2 – 2 ft. off the ground to discourage egg eating. While some people may never have a problem with this, I have found that when our nesting boxes were sitting directly on the ground, the hens would discover the sitting eggs and would peck at them. Of course, once they tasted what was inside that white shell it was an all out feeding frenzy. It has been my experience that it’s best to keep the eggs out of direct sight. Be sure to provide a ledge for the hens to fly up and perch on so they can get into the boxes if they seem to have trouble reaching them.
How Much Will It Cost?
Building or buying a chicken coop can range from free to hundreds or thousands of dollars. It really depends on how elaborate you want to go. Our chicken coop is made from pallets, scrap wood, old windows, and a salvaged door. Even our metal roofing was leftover from a previous project. All in all, we probably have the cost of a box of screws in our coop. As long as you keep the previous recommendations in mind, it really doesn’t matter how you build it or what you spend. So don’t go crazy with it.
Sure, you could go out and buy a fancy pre-built coop, but what fun would that be? Get creative, use what resources you have available, and create your own one-of-a-kind home for your flock.
You can also check out this graphic for some other ideas:
Do you have any recommendations to add? How have you made the perfect coop?