Whether you’re buying a ready-made coop, building one or reusing an existing structure, these tips can help you make good choices.
Know what you need before you begin. Things to consider include:
- the type and number of chickens you’ll be housing
- your climate
- what sort of predators you may have to deal with
- the amount of money you have to spend
If you live in the city or suburbs, ask for housing specifics when you apply for a permit. Where you place your coop and run, how tall it can be and what sort of fencing you can use are spelled out in most ordinances. So are how many hens you can keep and what sort of feed storage may be required .
Keep in mind that aesthetics are typically important to city and suburban neighbors, even if they aren’t to you.
According to Oregon State University Extension’s bulletin, “Backyard Chicken Coop Design,” you should provide at least 3 square feet of indoor living space per bird if you also provide an outdoor run, and 8 to 10 square feet per bird if you don’t. More room is better because crowding contributes to unwanted behaviors such as guarding resources, bullying and cannibalism.
Proper ventilation is important no matter what sort of structure houses your chickens. Without it, ammonia fumes, carbon dioxide and moisture can accumulate, potentially damaging your birds’ lungs.
There are two types of proper ventilation. Passive allows air to flow through windows or through vents in the eves or roof. And active means fans move air on hot and humid days.
Farm-supply outlets carry brackets designed to hold box fans safely in livestock and poultry structures, and these can be a wise investment in sultry, sizzling climates.
If possible, allow enough interior height for a person to easily clean the coop, gather eggs and do routine maintenance. It isn’t essential, but it makes chicken-keeping a lot more pleasant.
If building or buying a standard coop seems daunting, keep in mind that folks keep chickens in an array of alternate structures. These include:
- revamped storage buildings and garages
- large dog houses and wooden shipping boxes
- children’s playhouses
- Quonset huts designed for pasturing pigs
- old cars and vans
A friend made a charming coop for their chickens out of an old two-hole outhouse. Just about anything goes!
Cleanup and egg gathering can be challenging. But as long as coops are weatherproof, well-vented and securely fenced to exclude predators, they can work.
The same can be said for chicken runs. A popular alternative run is a trampoline with fencing around its circumference. Fenced-in satellite dishes work well, and swing-set frames are easily fenced as chicken runs.
Hoop-house-type runs made of bent-over fenced-in cattle panels are easy to build. The coop itself can be a hoop house, too.
It needn’t cost a mint to build a conventional-looking coop. Think: pallet wood. Run an online search for pallet chicken coop and pallet chicken run. You’ll be surprised!
Or look for old umber doors, windows, vents and so on salvaged from demolition projects. Well-built, nicely painted coops made of salvaged materials can be beautiful indeed.
Place your coop and run to minimize weather extremes. Combs and wattles freeze quickly in high winds but survive nicely at temperatures well below freezing when air is calm. Build your coop and run where buildings, trees or shrubs protect it from prevailing winter winds, with the coop’s exterior door on the downwind side.
Consider insulating the coop, especially the roof, in cold weather climates, keeping in mind that proper ventilation is necessary even in the coldest climates. An inexpensive way to insulate your coop: Pile snow deeply along the sides, especially the windward side, as high as you can pile it without obstructing vents and windows.
Or, if there are air leaks anywhere in the coop, wrap it in plastic tarps, again avoiding ventilation features. In the summer, shade keeps a coop and run cooler.
In hot, dry climates, set up a mister in the run or even inside the coop, making sure it doesn’t saturate the coop floor. Insulation in the roof helps, too.
If you live in a temperate climate, consider a portable arrangement you can move season by season.
You’ll need a chicken-size door between your coop and run. Choose one that can be securely closed at night. A good size for standard-size chickens is about 10 to 12 inches wide and 10 to 13 inches high. It should be placed at least 6 inches up off of coop floor level inside the coop so that bedding doesn’t block the doorway.
Chickens appreciate an outdoor ramp if their coop is elevated off the ground. For heavy, awkward breeds, it’s essential.
There are wonderful automatic models available that run on batteries or solar power and that have programmable timers that open, close and lock the door whenever you choose.
If you make your own, design it so it swings outward and has a strong lock to keep predators at bay. Create an inexpensive and cute door by installing a toilet seat over a hole cut in the coop, with the hinged cover at the top, where it can be fastened open or shut with a sturdy hook and eye closure.
A Good Night’s Sleep
Every coop needs places for chickens to roost and sleep. You’ll need about 5 to 10 inches of roosting space. But chickens love to flop their wings as they fly up to roost, so more space is even better.
A simple solution: Lean old wooden ladders against one wall so chickens can roost on the rungs. A bonus: They’re easily moved at cleanup time. Choose ladders with flat rungs. Using roosts that are too slick, too round or too small in diameter contribute to foot problems.
If making roosts, consider using small logs 2 to 4 inches in diameter. Compared to roosts made of shower rods, wooden doweling or PVC pipe, chickens appreciate logs’ rougher, natural textures.
Nest boxes are another consideration. You’ll need one box for every three or four hens. Ideally, a box should be about 12-by-12-by-12 inches if frequented by standard-size hens, preferably with a rounded top so chickens don’t roost on it.
Consider stacking milk crates with their tops open to the side, lidded plastic totes with an entrance cut in one end, round or square 5-gallon buckets placed on their sides and covered cat litter boxes.
Or buy some. That works, too.
Build a Bath
Build your chickens a dust bath, in the coop, outdoors in the run or in both places. Dust bathing helps chickens deal with external parasites such as lice and mites while keeping their feathers and skin in prime condition.
Plus, they love dust bathing.
Left to their own devices, they’ll create their own dust-bathing areas outdoors but possibly not where you want them. Instead, give them a container low enough that they can easily climb in and out of it but tall enough to contain bathing ingredients while they bathe.
A small-size, plastic kiddie pool is ideal. But sandboxes, old tires, shallow plastic bins or totes, litter boxes and the like work well, too.
All you really need to add is sand (if you don’t have sandy soil, try builders’ sand and sandbox sand), topsoil or peat moss, but additives such as wood ash and herbs can be welcome additions. If using ash, choose clean ash resulting from burning nontreated wood but not from coal, trash or charcoal fires with unburned particles in them.
A few handfuls of food-grade diatomaceous earth added to the mix helps keep bad bugs at bay, as do bug-repelling dried herbs such as lavender, lemon balm, mint, rosemary or sage.
If you can, make the bath big enough to accommodate more than one hen. Dust bathing is a social activity so it’s best shared with a friend.
Chicken palace or funky, alternative housing? You decide. But buy or build a coop and run that keeps your chickens comfy and productive. Your happy hens will love you for it.