When you own the tools and materials and have the know-how, building your own custom chicken coop can be one of the most rewarding aspects of keeping chickens. But what happens if you don’t have so much as a screwdriver and have no carpentry skills of which to speak? When my husband and I left New York City for his hometown in North Carolina, we were very much those people.
Our carpentry skills haven’t improved too much in the years since, but our knowledge and experience of chickens and their particular needs has. Shopping for a coop that suits both your needs and theirs can be somewhat of an art, so keep these thoughts in mind as you do your research.
1. Is the Coop Chicken-Friendly?
You might be surprised to learn how many chicken coops are constructed with only the chicken keeper in mind. Some coops are designed for aesthetic purposes, while others are made for ease of cleaning. However, the best coops have it all: what chickens need, what keepers need, and an eye-catching design—preferably in that order.
So what does a chicken-friendly coop look like? For starters, it needs to provide protection from the elements: It should be safe, dry and have adequate ventilation. It should have at least 10 inches of roost space for each bird it houses and at least one nest box for every four to five birds in your flock. Preferably, the nest boxes would be lower than the roosts and low to the ground. The coop should have a pop door and a ramp that allows the birds to get in and out with ease.
2. Is the Coop Chicken Keeper-Friendly?
A coop that’s accessible to you, your family and anyone else caring for the chickens is a coop you’ll enjoy using and will care for diligently. Chicken keeper-friendly coops are, first and foremost, easy to clean. If the coop is large enough to step inside, the door should be easy to get in and out of and have a simple yet secure lock system. Any main door to the coop—not counting the pop door, which is rather small—should allow easy access to the entire coop. Cleaning a coop is not pretty business, but the easier it is to clean, the more often you will do it and the healthier your birds will be.
Another consideration of keeper-friendly coops is the ease of collecting eggs. While cleaning may be done monthly, quarterly or even yearly, you’ll collect eggs daily. Make sure you can easily reach nest boxes—bonus points if they’re low enough for young ones to help.
Finally, if you opt for a movable coop, such as a tractor or ark, it should have wheels large enough to accommodate its size and they should move smoothly. Moving your portable coop should be a chore you look forward to, not dread. Make sure you test out these coops by lifting and moving them before you purchase. If the coop can be moved by only one person, even better!
3. Is It Quality-Made?
This tip is rather self-explanatory: Coops made with higher-quality materials will last longer and hold their resale value. Also keep in mind that salvaged or found materials can run the gamut of quality—there’s a big difference between untreated wooden pallets and cedar planks. Always ask questions of your builder or the coop’s manufacturer before making the purchase. I tend to favor coops made with locally or sustainably milled lumber. If this is important to you, too, search for coops made with Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber.
4. Will It Keep Out Predators?
In addition to offering protection from the elements, a coop must protect your flock from predators. In North America, you’ll regularly see raccoons, foxes, raptors, mustelids (members of the weasel family) and particularly domestic dogs as threats to a chicken flock.
You’ll want to test how accessible the coop is to each of these potential predators. What makes this tricky is that each has its own particular set of skills: Some climb, some dig, some attack from above, and some can even open rudimentary locks. A good coop must account for all of these.
A safe coop has a solid bottom, is raised up off the ground or has another deterrent from digging predators, such as a skirt of wire around the perimeter. Admittedly, a coop can sport all three of these features, and I still wouldn’t consider it overkill—no pun intended.
A safe coop also has secure locks that require an opposable thumb to operate. Raccoons have very nimble hands and can easily outsmart simple locks. A safe coop uses sturdy materials—no cardboard or thin materials that can be easily chewed by determined predators. All gaps larger than 1 inch in size, including windows, should be covered with heavy-duty mesh wire, such as hardware cloth. Chicken wire, despite its name, is too flimsy and has openings too large to be a suitable predator deterrent.
5. Can It Grow With Your Flock?
It’s no secret that the hobby of keeping chickens is addicting. Many sage keepers will tell newbies to purchase coops much larger than they think they’ll need or use. While I have found this to be relatively true, most backyard flocks top out between nine and 12 hens, with the average size flock being between six and eight hens. If you begin with a micro flock of three hens, purchase a coop large enough to accommodate at least six to give you some wiggle room to grow. If nothing else, your three hens will appreciate the extra space.
6. Do You Like the Look?
Arguably the least important aspect of any good coop, aesthetics still play a role in the world of backyard chickens, particularly if you live somewhere that neighbors are close by or you have frequent visitors to your backyard.
This is about more than vanity: As chicken keeping gains momentum across the country, more and more cities are legalizing backyard chickens, and anyone who embarks on this hobby is an ambassador to the world of agriculture. Keeping chickens offers opportunity for education about our food, our food system and animal husbandry. At the end of the day, a lovely coop is one that you’ll enjoy visiting and caring for.
About the Author: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart writes from the mountains of Candler, N.C. Follow her homesteading exploits at www.kristinamercedes.tumblr.com.