A good chicken feeder should work smoothly every day, like a well-stocked vending machine. It should be easy to keep clean while also keeping the food dry, and it should be off-limits to feral critters that aren’t paying their rent with eggs.
For four years, my wife and I had been happily using a gravity-fed chicken feeder as our vending machine. It’s a pretty common style: A tube holds the feed and sits over a saucer, which dispenses it. Sometimes they are made of plastic or, like ours, galvanized metal. It holds 25 pounds of chicken feed and resides under the coop where it stays dry and the chickens can’t roost or poop on it.
But gangs of sparrows do raid the feeder’s open saucer now and then. And though we hadn’t had signs of rodents, I was sure some would show up for the grainy buffet eventually. Coming up with a new and improved vermin-proof feeder was on my to-do list.
Weighing the Options
Some people choose to keep wild birds and rodents away from their feeders by enclosing the entire pen in hardware cloth, but it’s heavier, costlier and more unwieldy than the 14-gauge fence wire commonly used for enclosing hen pens. A 3-by-50-foot roll of hardware cloth weighs 1½ times as much and costs three times as much as the same size roll of 14-gauge wire fencing, so I ruled that out pretty quickly.
You can also find boxy, vermin-proof feeders made of either metal or cedar. The chickens step on a treadle that opens the lid on the feeder, which allows them to eat. When the chickens aren’t eating, the feeder closes up, blocking any birds or rodents. But they cost about $200. There are construction plans available, but the angled cuts and the lever arms would be time-consuming to build. And if enough debris gets under the treadle to block it, the feeder won’t open and the chickens learn about fasting, so I ruled out that option, too.
Then I stumbled onto a YouTube video discussing what the creator called the best DIY chicken feeder, promising protection from rodents and wild birds. It’s basically a 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid to keep out the weather and critters, and it hangs from a post at a height that allows the hens to peck at an eyebolt hanging down from the bottom of the bucket. Like a toggle switch, small amounts of feed spill out of a hole as the eyebolt moves. Hens eat the feed, leaving little to nothing for freeloading vermin.
It’s a variation of a similar setup that I’d seen elsewhere on YouTube, but this one appeared to work better. And, of course, I’ve customized it a bit for our coop with the following steps.
Making the Feeder
Buy two 4-inch-long eyebolts with 1/4-inch diameter threads and one 4-inch-long hook with a threaded shaft.
Drill two holes in the bottom of the bucket, putting each hole roughly under the spot where the bucket handle attaches. (The eyebolts’ shafts will hang down through these.) The outside diameter of the eye is about an inch, so use a 3/4-inch spade bit to drill the holes, which is small enough to keep the eyebolt from falling through the hole. Drop the eyebolt shafts into the holes.
Take a drill bit that matches the diameter—not the threads—of the eyebolt shaft; I used a 3/16-inch bit. Drill into the bottom of a wine cork a little over half the distance from one end to the other.
With one hand in the bucket holding the eyebolt’s eye and the other hand outside the bucket, screw the cork onto the shaft of the eyebolt. The hole in the cork makes room for the shaft to enter without splitting it, but the threads will bite into the cork so it stays attached without using glue, duct tape, or other things that could wear out or unscrew over time.
With the eyebolts and corks hanging from the bottom of the bucket, choose a spot to hang the bucket from a post of the pen or wall of the coop. You want the corks to hang at the height of the chickens’ heads; mark the spot for the hook when you find the perfect one.
As with the corks, use a drill bit that matches the diameter of the shaft so there is room for it to enter the wood yet allow the threads to bite into the wood. Screw the hook into place.
Finally, fill the bucket with feed and put on the watertight lid. Hang the bucket from the hook. Make sure the corks are hanging down, and tap them so that food drops out of the bucket. Now, you see that the position of the holes matters: If there’s a hole at the back of the bucket, much of the feed will bounce outside of the fencing.
Remove other sources of food so you can focus the chickens’ attention on their new feeder. They will either learn in a few minutes or, like ours, need a few days to figure out how to trigger the new vending machine. You may need to tap their beaks against the cork until you see them get the idea. Some hen keepers have had luck using a laser pointer to get the hens to peck, but ours weren’t interested. When they got hungry enough, tapping on the corks started making sense to them. Our flock seems to enjoy their new vending machine and the gangs of sparrows have disappeared, too.