Housing Your Backyard Chickens
The key to a happy, healthy chicken flock is a secure home.Posted May 24, 2016
So—you’ve succumbed to the dream of a productive backyard filled with happy chickens scratching the turf for bugs, worms, and other delectables. You’ve given some thought to the type of breed you want, and you have an idea of how many birds you’d like to fill out your flock and provide your family with fresh, golden-yellow eggs. The next thing you need to consider is how you will shelter these birds, because unlike some self-tending pets, chickens need protection and regular, careful maintenance. Cats, they are not.
Designing a chicken coop to meet your flock’s needs will go a long way to reducing this workload and making your poultry-rearing experience a positive one. Here are some things to consider when exploring housing for your feathered flock.
1. Location, Location, Location
There’s some truth to the statement that the three most important factors in a property are location, location, location. And while this cliché was coined for human real estate, poultry housing is equally affected by geography.
Where you live—your regional climate and the space available on your property—will go a long way towards determining where you should locate your coop, but general guidelines exist. For example, if you live in an area with hot summer weather, situate your coop where summer shade can keep your birds cool. A deciduous tree provides shade in summer and permits sunshine to filter through in winter—a win-win situation. However, if you live in a mild winter area with rain instead of snow, situating your coop beneath year-round cover will protect your flock from driving rains and winter storms.
Whatever the case, chickens benefit from some sun exposure, so a mix of sun and shade is important. Ultraviolet rays help kill bacteria and dry up ammonia from urea and molds, so flocks raised entirely indoors are not ideal. Chickens also like to bathe in dust, so providing them with dry soil year-round—even a small patch—will work in your favor. Dust baths are a chicken’s way of reducing mites and other parasites, and make for happier birds.
2. Size Requirements
The rule of thumb for standard chicken breeds is one bird per two square feet in the coop and ten square feet in the run. (Chickens spend most of their time outside exploring, returning to the coop to feed, lay eggs, and roost). That means your flock of five will do best with at least ten square feet of living space and another fifty square feet of run space. But what about height?
Even though your chickens don’t need a nine-foot ceiling in the coop, you might appreciate standing room come cleaning time. Building your coop to standard human sizes also means you can repurpose elements like doors, frames, or off-the-shelf screens when building the coop. If you don’t build your coop to accommodate human height, consider elevating the structure two to three feet off the ground. This little bit of height will help make cleaning easier (no stooping) and will keep chicken feet dry during the wet season.
Another thing to consider is whether or not you will ever expand your flock. If that seems likely, building slightly larger than your current needs is worth thinking about. We built our first coop to house 16 birds, but after our daughter’s success selling eggs and her enrollment into our local 4-H poultry club, we suddenly needed something bigger.
3. Nesting Boxes
Nesting boxes are the small compartments built into chicken coops for laying hens. They are generally secluded and private, enclosed on five sides with one side open to the interior of the coop for easy access. Hens will enter the nesting boxes to lay eggs and (if they feel the urge) to sit on them. Nesting boxes should measure approximately 12 to 15 inches in height and width, and about 12 inches deep. One nesting box is required for every four to five hens.
To ensure your nesting boxes stay clean, situate them away from the perches where your hens will roost for the night. This will prevent droppings from soiling the nesting box litter. A popular design has nesting boxes mounted on the outside of the coop with a hinged door on top. With this design you can gather eggs without ever setting foot inside the coop (or chicken yard, depending on your run boundary), something you might appreciate if you have an aggressive rooster. The boxes are also open to the coop’s interior, providing hens with perpetual access.
4. Mood Lighting
As fall approaches, the dwindling daylight occurring in northern latitudes triggers a hen’s internal clock to stop laying. Adding warm, artificial lighting to your coop for a few hours per day will extend your flock’s laying season. This means wiring your coop with electricity or running an extension cord from the house to a handy plug.
5. Critter Proofing
Bringing chickens onto your property means preparing for all manner of predators and vermin. Rats like nothing better than to raid a chicken coop for feed and broken eggs, but their presence brings disease and destruction. To deter them from getting a taste for your operation, secure all openings and vents with ¼” mesh hardware cloth or a similar type of fine wire mesh. Bury the mesh 12 inches down around the coop’s perimeter to prevent rodents burrowing from below.
Deter predators like raccoons, mink, and bears by installing metal latches on coop and run entrances that require dexterity to open (such as a barrel bolt). You can also splurge on automatic latches set on timers to open if you are so inclined (and like to sleep in).
A screened or netted run attached to the coop enables chickens to wander within a defined area safe from ground predators. A light net, such as strawberry netting, stretched across the top of the run will protect from overhead predators. Electric fencing will deter some creatures (not bears, as we found out) and is worth considering. In some areas, digging the wire run fencing into the ground to prevent entry from burrowers is also important.
6. Venting and Air Flow
Proper ventilation in chicken houses is key to maintaining a healthy flock free from disease. Install vents to increase air circulation and encourage a healthy breathing space. In small coops, fans are not necessary and natural air circulation is usually enough. Depending on your region’s temperatures, vents should be situated near the top of the building so that excess warm air can escape in summer and incoming cool air (which is heavier) can warm up before settling to the ground.
Be sure to place metal screening or mesh over all vents to prevent predators or vermin from infiltrating. Good airflow will inhibit respiratory diseases to which chickens are susceptible.
7. Food and Water
Like nesting boxes, you’ll want to locate your food and water sources away from perches to prevent soiling. Hang chicken hoppers and water dispensers from the coop ceiling so they are suspended at bird shoulder height. Larger hoppers hold more food and need less replenishing. However, if you plan to take feed in each evening to discourage vermin, a smaller feeder is more portable and easier on the arms and back.
Another consideration is feed storage, and a well-planned coop will often include a cupboard or metal canister for storing excess feed. A cistern for capturing water is another consideration, providing your coop’s roof is clean and free from harmful chemicals that could contaminate the water. We are partial to automatic water dispensers fitted to a regular garden hose. These hang beside our feeders in the coop, automatically filling up each time they are emptied.
8. Chicken Furniture (Roosts)
Chickens like to be up high, particularly at night, and will roost when the sun goes down. As noted above, be sure to keep your roosting area well away from feed (to prevent birds from soiling their feed—or better yet, bring feeders in at night to discourage vermin). In our flock, chickens jockey for position on the highest roosts, with the losers taking the lower positions for the night. The next night, the contest begins all over again. To keep everyone happy, ensure you have one lineal foot of roost per bird. The diameter of the roost should be between two and three inches so chickens can have a secure grip that is sized to their feet. The height of the roost(s) should be a minimum of 2’ above the coop floor, with additional roosts in 2’ increments, i.e., at 4’ and 6’. Typically, chickens will prefer the higher roosts, but you want to be sure they can fly (or hop) to the top roost, and fly back down, without injuring themselves.
Whether you build your coop from scratch or purchase ready-made housing, your chickens will benefit from a coop designed for their needs. The result of doing things right the first time is a longer, healthier lifespan for your chickens and less work and hassle for you. Your chickens will also thank you (in eggs, that is).
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.