7 Chicken Coop Basics That Your Chickens Need
Essentials for the Chicken Coop Interior and Run
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Chickens have many needs beyond food and water for their comfort, hygiene, peace of mind, and to express natural behavior. Ideally, they will meet these while ranging freely. But where circumstances do not permit such liberty, you can incorporate the following chicken coop basics into their enclosures. With a little thought at the design stage, a chicken coop interior can meet a whole range of everyday needs. Free-range birds also benefit from these provisions if their pasture does not naturally provide them.
What do Chickens Need in a Coop?
Although chickens are social animals, they still need personal space so that they can withdraw to tranquility and avoid aggression. In addition, they need enough room to stretch and flap. Chicken coop layout needs to prioritize such considerations. As well as providing enough space, the coop should be designed so that different areas meet different needs. Chickens want to perform activities together, so each area should accommodate multiple birds.
Have a mind for the future size of the flock, as overstocking can lead to problems. Health issues in crowded spaces include not only disease and parasites, but also behavioral problems that arise due to frustration, such as feather picking.
Researchers have found that activity is important to all chickens, especially particular behaviors, such as dust-bathing and preening. Even plump broiler chicks who appear to sit around all day benefit physically and mentally from items that they can interact with. Studies show that adding daylight, perches, pecker blocks, and straw bales to broiler barns improved the chicks’ confidence and activity levels. Chicks kept in an enriched environment recovered quickly from stressful events. For active laying and dual-purpose breeds, pen enrichment that elicits positive natural behavior is all the more vital.
Chicken Coop Basics To Include
Space, stocking density, and internal structures are important to get right when building your coop and run. With these overall principles in mind, I will now look at seven chicken coop basics that it is important to include in the chicken coop interior and run layout.
Chickens naturally perch on branches at night out of reach of predators. We cater to this need by providing wooden roosting bars or branches inside a shelter that we can close up at night. Bars should have rounded edges and be about two inches wide, so that birds can grip them comfortably. Height depends on the breed: medium to light birds prefer roosts at least two feet high; heavy birds or those with feathered feet may cope better with lower perches. Although roosting is a natural instinct, chicks need to learn how to do it. They may fly up with their mother, or require low perching bars to start with. Adults that have not had access to roosts may huddle on the floor or struggle to reach the roosting bar. Floor nesting exposes them to droppings and an increased risk of disease and parasites. They can be encouraged with ladders or lower perches.
Personal space on the roost is also important. Make sure that there is enough room for hens to get away from their neighbors when required. Some hens are apt to peck their neighbors. Perch space of ten to twelve inches per bird is recommended for medium-sized birds, more if they are larger.
2. Nesting Boxes
Chickens seek out a secluded spot to lay their eggs and can spend some time choosing the ideal nest. They are looking for somewhere concealed but with good visibility. Boxes with three sides and a roof are ideal when they are slightly raised up from the ground. Each box should be at least twelve inches wide and deep and eighteen inches high for medium-sized laying hens, with larger breeds requiring more. Provide several boxes, even though you may find they all choose to lay in the same one. In that way, waiting hens have somewhere safe to lay if they cannot delay. Eggs laid on the floor by those who could not wait can end up dirty or broken. Line nesting boxes with comfortable bedding, such as straw. You will need to regularly change the bedding to keep it clean, dry, and parasite-free.
3. Scratching Area
Chickens have a natural urge to scratch and peck at the ground in search of food. At range they spend half of their day foraging in this way. The urge cannot be fully satisfied by providing food in a container, and a chicken without dirt or litter to scratch will quickly become bored and frustrated. When confined to a pen or coop, it is helpful to scatter a little grain in bedding or sand for them to scratch. Of course, this will need to be kept clean to avoid disease.
4. Dust Bath
Unlike songbirds, chickens do not wash in water. Rather they roll in dirt every few days. This behavior is necessary to keep their feathers in good condition. When preening, they clean and oil their feathers from a preen gland near their tail. When they dust-bathe, they remove the stale preen oil and parasites. In addition, chickens feel a strong urge to carry out the behavior—dust-bathing makes them feel good!
It is important to make a dust bath within the chicken enclosure so they can carry out this behavior at will. The site should be dry, sheltered, and kept clean. Chickens much prefer dirt, sand, or peat to wood shavings, rice hulls, or other litter. You can also add diatomaceous earth or kaolin to enhance parasite control.
5. Sunning Area
Like us, chickens get vitamin D from sunshine. They also enjoy stretching and spreading their wings in the sun’s rays. Like preening and dust-bathing, this is a group activity, so a place in the sun should accommodate all. A sheltered spot in the enclosure could serve as both dust bath and sun lounge.
6. Foraging Area
Free-range hens are busy most of the day running around and foraging. To make sure confined birds do not get bored and frustrated, pens can be rotated to fresh pasture. In this way, chickens get to feast on grass and insects, while avoiding parasites and disease. Static pens quickly get scratched up and fouled. There are coops and pens on wheels that are movable: arcs or chicken tractors. Alternatively, you can set up several pastures that the chickens can be let into in rotation, allowing each run to recover before the birds return. Ideally, if you are able, chickens can be let out in the yard during the day to roam freely, as they are naturally inclined to return home to roost at night. You may want to protect any sensitive areas you do not want scratched up!
7. Hideouts and Shelter
Even free-range chickens need overhead shelter. Otherwise, they may be fearful of venturing out. Bushes and trees are ideal, as chickens can hide under the canopy or within foliage when they suspect danger. Alternatively, you can put up a low-level shelter, which can double as a dust bath.
Within the coop, certain birds may feel the need to hide away from aggressors. While some will take to perches or nesting boxes, others conceal themselves inside a bucket on its side or behind a partition. Providing such recesses can help reduce aggression within the coop.
Combining these features in your coops and runs will help your chickens keep occupied in healthy and happy activity.
- Baxter, M., Bailie, C.L., and O’Connell, N.E. 2018. An evaluation of potential dustbathing substrates for commercial broiler chickens. Animal, 12(9), 1933–1941
- Shields, S.J., Garner, J.P., and Mench, J.A. 2004. Dustbathing by broiler chickens: a comparison of preference for four different substrates. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 87(1–2), 69–82
- University of Bristol. 2018. Research uncovers what increases chicken wellbeing, phys.org
- University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College. 2015. Chicken Behaviour and Welfare MOOC: free online course.
- Zidar, J. et al. 2018. Environmental complexity buffers against stress-induced negative judgement bias in female chickens. Scientific Reports 8, 5404.
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Lead photo by Wolfgang Ehrecke from Pixabay.
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.