In case you hadn’t noticed, backyard chickens are all the rage lately. Even in town, it’s become trendy to have a few hens.
In addition to providing fresh eggs and adding a touch of “Green Acres” charm to suburban yards, chickens are great at controlling bugs, including mosquitoes and ticks.
According to the Marion County (Florida) Zoning Department, you can have up to six hens (sorry, boys, no roosters allowed) in residentially zoned properties. Just be sure to keep your poultry “at least 150 feet from any residence other than that of the animal’s owner.”
Once you’ve decided to jump on the chicken bandwagon, you need a place to put them. Spend a little time online and you’ll find more ideas for coops than you can shake a chicken leg at. You can pick from simple and rustic to elaborate designs with ornate trim and fanciful architectural details that elevate the plain “chicken house” to a work of art.
If you possess basic carpentry skills, you can download plans to build your own. You want the structure to last, but skip the pressure-treated lumber, which contains chemicals that can be harmful to chickens. Instead, choose naturally rot-resistant lumber; cedar and redwood are good choices.
If your DIY skills are limited, or you don’t have the right tools, you can choose from numerous ready-made coops or models that require simple assembly.
Include The Basics
Whether you build or buy, every good chicken dwelling has certain necessities. Your birds need two main spaces, and they should be connected: an enclosed coop where they’ll sleep and lay eggs, and a run where they can get fresh air, exercise, socialize and take the occasional dust bath.
You’ve heard the horror stories of how factory farm hens live their sad, short lives in a space not much bigger than a sheet of 8-1/2 x 11-inch paper. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or expense to provide far more spacious digs for your chickens. But before you decide what size coop and run to build or buy, you need to have a general idea of how many chickens you plan to keep.
According to the experts at mypetchicken.com, a Connecticut-based business that sells chicks and all the chicken supplies you can imagine, the minimum amount of space inside the coop is two to three square feet per bird, and four to five square feet in the outside run. Bigger is better; for happier, stress-free hens, allow for more space than the minimum.
Ventilation is crucial; otherwise, your girls might come down with respiratory problems. You don’t want the coop drafty, nor do you want it snug and tight, which will make it too hot and a breeding ground for bacteria.
While the run is obviously at ground level, the coop should be off the ground two feet or higher.Because it’s your chicken’s “house,” the coop needs some basic amenities. There should be an opening about 12 x 12-inches square with a gradually sloping ramp (no less than eight inches wide) that leads down into the run so the hens can come and go as they please. You’ll need a larger door on the side so you can clean out the interior and access the water and food.
Speaking of which, hang the water and feed sources about six inches above the floor to keep chickens from walking into them and spilling the contents.
The coop is also where you place nesting boxes (one box for every four to five hens). You can buy ready-made wooden nesting boxes, but plastic kitty litter boxes also work great and are a breeze to clean. Whichever you use, fill them with clean straw.
You don’t want the chickens to sleep in their nesting boxes (too messy), so you need to provide places for them to roost at night. Poles (or tree branches) two inches in diameter are ideal and should be installed higher than the nesting boxes, at least a couple feet above the floor of the coop. Make sure there’s enough roosting space for all your birds, allowing about 10 inches when they’re roosting side by side.
Screening on the floor of the coop under the roosting poles allows the droppings to fall through to the ground below. (Think of this not as manure, but as free fertilizer for your yard and garden!)
Ideally, you will situate the run so it has shade from a tree. If no trees are available, drape shade cloth over at least part of the top of the run so your chickens don’t get too hot in the sun.
Protection From Predators
If you’re going to keep chickens, you’ve got to think about predators. Unfortunately, hawks, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, opossums, bobcats—not to mention dogs—all look at chickens as part of the food chain.
Make sure your coop/run is secure and predator proof—not just from all sides but also from the top and bottom. Despite its name, chicken wire isn’t the best choice for penning your chickens in. It’s flimsy, and the holes aren’t small enough. For much better protection, opt for “hardware cloth,” which isn’t cloth at all but resembles stiff wire screen. It comes in different size increments; your safest choice is the one-half-inch squares. You’ll need small fence staples (sometimes called “poultry staples”) to attach the wire securely to the wood.
You’d be amazed what raccoons can open, so use latches that can be locked; a snap or carabiner clip should do the trick.
For ultimate safety, use the hardware cloth as a “floor” on the ground of the run, as well, so predators can’t dig under. Otherwise, you’ll need to bury the screening down into the ground at least one foot deep on all sides of the coop.
For extra protection, you can buy wolf urine or coyote urine (no, we’re not kidding) and use it around your chicken coop to deter predators. Available online (mypetchicken.com has both wolf and coyote urine in liquid and granule form), it will keep away a variety of critters.
Stocking Your Coop
Local garden/feed stores sell chicks in the spring, but you can order throughout the year from suppliers. If your heart is set on specific breeds, however, there may be some wait time.
Given our typical fall weather, this is actually a good time to order your backyard chicks. Young hens start laying when they’re about 6 months old, so if you order your pullets (girl chicks) in the fall, they’ll be ready to start producing next spring.
Chicks aren’t expensive (expect to pay anywhere from $2.75 to $4.50 (higher for more rare breeds), but suppliers usually have a minimum order, and there are shipping costs, as well.
When your chicks arrive, they’re too small and fragile to head to the coop. You’ll need to keep them indoors; a cardboard box and heat lamp will be home for the first few weeks. And watch the weather as you transition them outdoors. Young chickens can’t handle the cold.
A healthy, well-cared-for backyard hen can live for eight to 10 years or longer, so build her a house she’ll appreciate and you’ll be proud of.
Order Chicks, Supplies:
My Pet Chicken
mypetchicken.com (888) 460-1529
Find Coops and Plans:
Or just type “chicken coop plans” into an Internet search engine.