Special Issue: Raising Small Animals — The Homestead Chicken, Housing Your Flock
By Rhonda Crank
What is a Chicken Coop?
It’s simply a structure which gives your flock shelter from weather and predators. Have you ever picked up a chicken when it’s asleep? Then you know they’re true zombies. They are helpless. So it’s important to give them a place to roost where they can feel safe and be safe. No matter what your choice for design, there are a few basic things to consider on how to build a chicken coop.
The amount of space for each bird also depends on how much outdoor time they will have. If your flock will free range during the day, they really only need a small shelter in which to sleep and get out of the weather. If your birds will be totally confined to your coop, including the yard space around it, they will need more space to avoid overcrowding. Of course larger breeds require more space than smaller breeds.
A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 5 square feet per bird if your flock is fully confined and few in number. If you have a large flock, you can figure 8 square feet per bird. Again, this is for birds confined to the building proper. If you have a yard for them to be in, you can adjust the room needed for your building. When allowed to free range or access to an open yard, you can easily house a dozen chickens in the space as small as 7 x 8′ because they’ll only be sleeping, laying eggs, or seeking shelter there.
When looking at how to build a chicken coop, think about food storage and cleaning out the coop. Besides knowing how to clean a chicken coop, you’ll also want to be sure the roof is high enough for you to stand up in and work with a shovel. The pitch of the roof is also important as this will allow rain and snow to run off.
Placing the coop a short walk from your home to the chicken yard is a nice thing. Besides being able to hear predators and gather eggs, the birds will be close for visits.
You also want to find out whether or not you need to have a building permit especially for those who live in town. Your area may have other building restrictions for chicken coops so be sure to check on those.
If you’re in the South or any warm climate, you won’t have to worry about insulation. Your main concern will be providing protection from storms and a place for them to keep cool. In colder climates, you will need to have a well insulated coop tightly constructed to keep your birds warm.
If you choose to put a window in your coop, be sure you have enough roof overhang to keep the summer sun from beating through it. You’ll also want to consider putting the window on the south side if you live in a cold climate. Lighting is important for the fertility of the rooster and the hen since they are both affected by the amount of light they are exposed to. The more, the better.
The debate on whether or not to have electricity in your coop lighting is a hot topic. Whether or not you choose to use artificial lighting in your coop be sure you do your research and provide for the safety and welfare of your flock. It’s always a good idea to talk to chicken keepers who are keeping their flock in ways similar to how you want to do it.
Ventilation is of the utmost importance. The more chickens you have in your coop, the more moisture there will be in the air because of their respirations and poop. Chickens have a high respiration rate because they can’t sweat. Instead, they exhale excess moisture.
If there isn’t proper air circulation, litter will get wet which will result in a buildup of ammonia. The buildup of ammonia in your coop can cause health issues with your birds including ammonia poisoning, damage to their respiratory systems, foot damage and more.
Ventilation is important even during winter. Coops should be ventilated on both ends and the door. This allows for excellent ventilation especially in the hot summer months. In the winter, plastic sheeting can be put over the doors to block the cold air, but leave the ventilation in the roof open. Regular window screening does not allow enough air flow which is why hardware wire is preferred.
If you plan on keeping your birds confined, then a dirt floor is probably not ideal. It’s hard to keep clean and dry. It’s also easy for critters like mice to tunnel in! There’s also the parasite factor. It can be really difficult to remove parasites from soil.
If you go with a wooden floor, you may want to consider building it off the ground to prevent mice from living underneath and gnawing through. This will also allow your floor to dry from underneath. The drawback of course is that wood rots over time especially when exposed to moisture.
Concrete is another option. Although it is expensive, it would last a long time and could be hosed out. You would probably want to be sure your floor had a slope in it from under the roost toward the door to make cleaning out easier.
You may not think about nests when planning how to build a chicken coop, but they are a vital part of what your chickens need. You can make your nests out of anything you want as long as it’s about 10 inches tall and wide. A good rule of thumb is one nesting box for every four layers.
Chickens roost. This means they fly up and perch curling their toes around the chicken roosting bar. Because of this it’s important to use a pole or round the edges of whatever you choose to use. If you don’t provide them with a roost, they will fly up into the trees if at all possible. Their instinct is to do this because they are such sound sleepers.
The roost can be made out of anything that is at least 2 to 3 inches in diameter and set from 2 to 4 feet off the floor. You don’t want to use anything that’s smooth because they’ll lose their grip and slip. Remember, your birds poop during the night so don’t place your bars too close together. In cold weather, your flock will crowd together, but under normal circumstances you want to allow 18 to 24 inches per bird on the roost, depending on the size of your breed. Be sure you place litter under your roost to make cleaning out the manure easy, such as straw or hay.
Remember to consider your breed when designing your roost. Some breeds prefer to roost higher than others. The Bantam prefers higher roosts while many of the feather footed breeds prefer low roosts even one inch off the ground.
It’s important to remember that you will want easy access to your coop so include a people size door. A Dutch door is ideal. The top can be closed during the day and the bottom open for easy access for the flock. When you want to enter, all you have to do is open the top door. This makes it easy to check for eggs or clean out the coop.
If you don’t want the Dutch type door, be sure you have a people door and a chicken door. The reason for this is so that the people door can be shut to minimize drafts and offer extra protection against predators. The smaller door will allow your chickens to get to their nests, get out of the weather, and escape predators. This can be designed in any way you really want.