A Chicken Coop Primer

Published on Fri, 01/29/2016 - 3:04pm

For some people the thought of designing their own coop is another highlight along the path of poultry possession.  This article is meant to be your primer, or guide, to making good decisions when building a coop that meets the needs of your chickens.  Before you let yourself get sucked in on the purchase of the first coop you see, just take a moment and learn how to critique those coops. 

Zoning RestrictionsBefore you buy a coop, or even the first 2x4 of lumber, you will need to know if you are even allowed to have chickens.  I hope that for the sake of your beautiful birds you are willing to pick up the phone and find out if you are zoned to have chickens.  You may be limited on the number of chickens or not allowed to have roosters.  Your city may have setback limits for coops or “accessory structures” that are on your property.  Lastly, talk with your neighbors to get their feelings on your potential new venture.  Perhaps they will welcome the thought of your chickens.  But if they do not, then be sure to take the time to answer all of their questions (even if you need to say that you will need to look something up and get back to them).

Placement The area of your yard where you can put your coop should take into consideration access to shade.  Building directly beneath a tree is not good because wild birds may roost above, thereby introducing potential disease or parasites.  Is the neighbor’s dog going to harass your birds if you build closer to their yard?  Think carefully about where in the yard the coop should be placed.  Do you intend to mow all the way around it?  Then go measure your lawnmower and stake out a spot.  Spend a couple of days looking at the dimensions before you get started to make sure you really like the spot.

                Many coops are stationary while others are designed to move around.  Do you have enough space to move a coop around?  Do you want a stationary coop with multiple runs?  This is one of the best designs as the chickens are moved to fresh grass periodically and owners can plant different grass blends or vegetation in each run.  If you provide just one chicken run, the chickens will quickly denude it and you will likely be left with a muddy mess in the winter. 

Predator Proofing:  Your coop needs to safe and snug for your birds.  You are the one responsible for providing a coop that keeps your birds in good care.  Do not think for one moment that predators do not live in your area.  They are there and they will eventually find your flock.  Bury the wire around your run at least 18-24 inches to prevent digging predators from gaining access.  Cover your runs with a solid top to keep out wild birds and aerial predators.  At the bare minimum, cover your coop with heavy duty double knotted 1 inch netting to keep aerial predators.  If your coop has a wire mesh floor, make sure it is closed off and predators cannot pull your birds through the wire (as raccoons sometimes do).  

The Essential Coop Components

Square Footage:  The amount of square feet needed for your birds to be comfortable within the coop is important to the overall harmony of the coop.  The size of your chickens is the key to the square footage required per bird.  The average largefowl brown-shelled egg layer (e.g. Production Red, Chantecler, Sussex, Holland, etc.) will need at least 2 square feet per bird.  Smaller breeds will also do fine with the space.  Bantam breeds will require even less space, with maybe 1.5 square feet per bird.  Big breeds, like Cochins, Jersey Giants, or Phoenix, will need more space due to their size or special features (e.g. the long tail of the Phoenix should not rub on the walls).  You may want to consider 3 or 4 square feet per bird in that case. 

HeightWho will be caring for the chickens on a daily basis?  The tallest person in the house should be considered in your chicken coop design.  Nobody likes to hit their head on the rafters or doorways when doing the chores, or else the chores may not get done properly!  If you are getting older, consider your physical capabilities in lifting full waterers or feeder in and out of the coop.  Some coops are cute, but would require that you kneel down in the snow or mud in the winter to catch a bird or do a cleanout. 

PerchesYour birds will prefer to perch together at night.  Albeit perching is a learned behavior, but your birds will figure it out soon enough.  Avoid placing your perches above the feeder, waterer, or nest boxes.  You will need 6 inches of perch length for each light-bodied hen (e.g. Leghorn, Minorca, Campine, Hamburg, etc.).  You will likely need 8-12 inches of roost space per bird for larger breeds.  A round piece of wood or a square board with slightly rounded corners will do the trick as a perch or roosting pole.

Nest Boxes You will only need one nest box for every 4 hens.  The easier they are to clean, the better.  Keep shavings in the nest box to keep the eggs clean.  An even better solution is a plastic nest box liner which prevent the chickens from roosting in the nest box.  Roosting in the nest box leads to defecation in the nest box, and that leads to dirty eggs.  Plastic or galvanized metal nest boxes are the easiest to take apart for cleaning and disinfection.

Ventilation Good airflow is just common sense, even in a chicken coop.  Your chickens will not stay in a stuffy coop in the summer.  They will also be gasping for fresh air in the winter if they are “cooped up” during a snow or other weather event.  A window or two will help but place chicken wire over the windows to keep them from flying out (and also keep predators from entering). 

Popholes or chicken doors:  The door through which your chickens enter and leave the coop should be wide enough to let multiple birds in at once.  Why multiple birds?  Well, should a predator panic them, they will all bottleneck at the door entrance if multiple birds cannot enter at one time.  Additionally, some breeds like to dominate the doorway.  That means they will prevent their flockmates from entering or leaving through the door.  If the doorway is wider, or more than one doorway is provided, then the dominant bird loses its advantage and peace is maintained.  Popholes should also have a lock so that you can shut it at night against predators or the cold.

Bedding The bedding in your coop should be made of soft absorbant material.  Slick surfaces lead to leg problems, so shredded newspaper should be avoided.  Straw is not absorbant and ammonia levels will be higher than if you used wood shavings.  Keep in mind that straw is cheap, but you will need to clean the coop more often if you smell ammonia.  There is debate over the type of wood shavings that can be used.  I recommend pine shavings as they are affordable and readily available. 

Feeders & WaterersYou will need to subtract any floor space from your initial calculations if you place the feeders and waterers on the floor.  Feeders can be hung from the rafters or ceiling using chain or rope.  The newer, modern waterers use closed, nipple drinking systems to avoid the problem of feces or shavings getting in the water.  Companies like Brite-Tap or the Chicken Fountain use the nipple drinkers.  The latter system can also be hung or mounted on the wall so that you avoid losing floor space.

Optional Coop AmenitiesYou may consider insulating the walls and roof of your coop, but is not necessary immediately.  Chickens will eat the Styrofoam insulation so make sure it is covered.  Electricity is nice, but only needed if you plan to use light for your birds or heat in the winter.  It can also be used to run a fan in the summer or a heater for your water in the winter.  Some people will run water to the coop and place a spigot nearby outside and this is another way to save on labor. 

Well, now you have a bit more information to help you decide which coop to buy or build.  Remember, you are not the one who must live in the coop, rather you are the one who must lift, bend, clean, and comfortably maneuver in the coop.  It is not necessarily all about the chicken’s comfort, but yours as well.  A happy chicken owner keeps a comfy and clean coop.  Happy chickens may lay lots of eggs for years to come.