Treats! All God’s children love treats, especially when those children are backyard chickens. They love them some treats. And you love giving them treats. Admit it. Which begs the question: How to store treats so they’re always handy? And the obvious answer: Store them in a backyard chicken treats gumball machine.
This idea had been bouncing around in my head for a while. A colleague owns a retail nursery with a very large garden pond. A rocky waterfall aerates the pond for hordes of koi. There’s a dock on the shore.
On the railing of the dock there’s a gumball machine. And the gumball machine harbors fish food pellets. The koi flutter up to the dock as soon as they hear the clacking of the turnkey on the gumball machine.
I asked myself if I could do that with my chickens and have a dry, secure place to store treats outside, near them but not in the coop. If that gumball machine full of fish food could hold pellets made for fish, certainly they could hold dried mealworms, perhaps old garden seeds and even scratch.
The first vending machine didn’t hold gumballs. It dispensed holy water in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. The coin-operated machine was invented by a Greek fellow in Alexandria with the classy name of Hero. He also invented the first machines (toys really) to use steam and wind power to move objects.
A couple centuries later, the Romans figured that if people would pay to get some holy water, they might also pay to get rid of some not-holy water and came up with the pay toilet.
In the 1600s, the English recognized the value of addiction and fashioned small brass machines that swapped your coins for tobacco. Two hundred years ago, London bookshop owner Richard Carlisle recognized the value of temptation and created a vending machine that offered banned books.
In the late 1800s, the English took a turn for the pedestrian and concocted modern vending machines that dispensed gum, envelopes, postcards, paper, etc.
By the 1880s, vending machines were showing up on subway platforms in New York City selling gum. Candy-coated spheres that we know as gumballs rolled into history in 1907. But sometimes, even gumball machines were determined to be illegal temptations.
During the Prohibition Era, gambling was also outlawed. Gumball machines that returned every tenth penny to a buyer were ruled to be “gambling machines.”
Nowadays, snacks, drinks, candy and gum dominate the American vending machine territory. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also get e-gadgets, lottery tickets and even fish bait from these machines. Japan really got innovative with vending machines. Drop some coins or slide a credit card for your sushi, sake, batteries, beer, flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables.
But nowhere have I seen a chicken treats gumball machine.
Get You One
So, a quick tour of the internet brings you to the Gumball Machine Factory, where I bought the Pro Line Candy Gumball Machine. It looked like the sturdiest and most reliable for outdoor conditions. You can buy them with a tough metal stand, but the ground is uneven near our coop, and I wanted to build a small booth to keep rain, snow and ice off the machine, so the turnkey and key slot couldn’t get frozen or rusty.
I chose the version that doesn’t require any coins to get treats.
When you order it, be sure to specify that you want it with the “candy” wheel. The “gumball” wheel will release too many treats.
If you’re mechanically inclined, you may want to check out a vintage vending machine. There are lots of charming opportunities there. But with some age on them, they may or may not work perfectly in the long run.
At first, I thought to put the booth and machine inside the pen. We store a folding chair in there so my wife can visit with the chickens. They sit on her lap—or her shoulder when they’re feeling friendly—while she feeds them treats and hears about their day.
But they might be in the corral. Or they might have escaped from the corral. Or when they’re in the pen, we might not want to get our shoes mucky.
The optimal spot turned out to be hanging it outside the hen pen but right by the gate so we can fill up a bowl on our way in to visit our hens.
Finding everything I needed to build a booth for the my chicken treats gumball machine and mounting it only required making three stops. But all of them were on my property, so it only took a few minutes:
- I found a flimsy wooden crate the right size hiding in our attic.
- Scraps of 3/4-inch plywood would stiffen up the bottom, back and top of the crate. They were neatly stacked in the garage.
- A scrap of copper roofing, scavenged from a friend’s job site, had been waiting patiently for a decade in the shed behind the garage for its starring role.
Throw in some screws and a few copper nails from my bins of fasteners to hold everything together, and I had the makings of a booth without spending a dime.
Build Your Own Booth
You may have a different size machine, or you may be handy and have your own idiosyncratic stash of building supplies. If so, here are the basic issues you’ll need to address.
- Make the floor about 4 inches wider than the base of the machine, so you can reach both hands around it when you need to remove it.
- Make the three sides at least 8 feet higher than the machine if you want remove the lid and refill it without taking it out of the booth. If you don’t mind moving it each time to refill it, you still want about 3 inches of space between the roof and the top of the machine so you can leave the key that opens the top in place. That’s better than searching for it in the house each time you need to refill it.
- Make the roof at least 3 inches deeper than the floor so it overhangs the open front side and keeps precipitation out.
If you get the same machine as I’m using, then you will want the floor to be 10-by-14 inches. The two sidewalls would be 10-by-24 inches. The back wall would be 14-by-24 inches.
The roof would be 14-by-14 inches. Three-quarter-inch plywood will be sturdy enough. You don’t need a huge sheet of plywood. You can buy sheets of plywood that are 1-by-2 feet, 2-by-2 feet or 4-by-4 feet.
Screw the five pieces of plywood together with a dozen 1 1/2-inch screws. Cover the plywood roof with scraps of roofing tin, roof shingles and a handful of roofing nails. If using metal roofing, you’ll need to predrill some holes through the metal.
Whatever material you use, make sure the roofing extends about an inch beyond the front and sides of the booth to shed rain. A couple coats of paint in and out will protect the wood.
Find the spot where you want to mount the booth. Ours is on a post close to the gate to the hen pen, but it doesn’t conflict with the gate when it’s open. We chose a height that made it easy for children to turn the dial and catch the treats.
With one person holding the booth, another person can draw a line on the post to mark the bottom of the booth. Any scrap piece of rot-resistant wood about 6-inches long can then be screwed to the post. The top of the scrap should align with your pencil mark.
Two screws will keep the scrap wood stable. With the scrap in place, you can rest the booth on it. While your helper holds the booth upright, drive three 3-inch screws through the back of the booth and into the post. It’s not going anywhere.
Fill the gumball machine with chicken treats and place it inside the booth so that the chute extends just beyond the floor, making it easy to catch the treats in your hand or in a bowl that can be stored on its side (so it doesn’t hold rain) next to the machine.
Presto! You now have a treat-friendly chicken habitat.
Sidebar: Get a Gumball Machine
If you want to get a gumball machine for your chicken treats, check out these online shops.
Gumball Machine Factory: This online shop sells the gumball machine I used, as well as a machine that holds rubber chicken slingshots!
eBay: The Collectible Vending Machines category on this popular small-business site has vintage machines that dispense just about anything.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.