Chicken coops come in all shapes and sizes. No design is perfect, but all good chicken coops do share some common characteristics. You can buy a prebuilt coop or a coop kit that you put together yourself. You can also build from scratch, or you can even convert a garden shed or other outbuilding into a perfectly serviceable coop.
No matter how you choose to build it, here are a few requirements for every coop:
Make it predator-proof. While some predators such as hawks, dogs and fox will hunt by day, the vast majority are out at night looking for a meal. By far the most difficult predator to thwart is the raccoon. Raccoons can slide deadbolts, undo bungee cords, and lift latches. They are also relatively strong.
This means that all the doors on the coop need to be fitted with locks that are secured with carabiners, spring-loaded eye hooks or even padlocks. That includes the latch on the top of the nesting boxes which has allowed a crafty raccoon entry into many a coop. All windows and vents need to be covered with welded wire (not chicken wire or regular window screen) with the holes no larger than 1/2" to keep out even the smallest of predators such as snakes, mice, rats and weasels.
Provide adequate ventilation. In northern climates, this might mean two vents up high under the eaves of the roof, and then two windows that can be raised or lowered as needed. In the southern climates, more windows will likely be needed to provide a good cross-flow of air and cool breezes to blow into the coop at night. As a guideline, about one-fifth of the coop wall area should be windows or vents.
Provide nesting boxes and roosting bars. These are necessary accouterments inside the coop. Chickens need nests in which to lay their eggs and bars on which to sleep. A rule of thumb is that you need one box for every 3-4 chickens, but in reality, most flocks choose one or two boxes and all the chickens lay their eggs in the same place, so several boxes will be fine for flocks up to a dozen or two. The boxes should be 12-14" square to allow space for just one chicken to sit at a time comfortably, and filled with a soft bedding material to cushion the eggs so they don’t break.
Boxes can be made of wood or metal, or even fashioned from plastic pails or tubs, half wine barrels or other similarly-sized containers. Chopped straw, pine shavings or nesting pads are all good choices for box bedding. Dried leaves or grass clippings can also be used successfully for a more economical option. The boxes can be at floor level or slightly raised. If they are any higher than 18" or so off the ground, a ladder might be necessary to help the chickens get up to the boxes.
A roosting bar should be made of wood. Plastic is too slippery and metal is too cold in winter. A 2x4 board with the wide side facing up works perfectly, but a wide branch is also a good choice. Chickens don’t grip a branch like a wild bird might and are perfectly happy sleeping flat-footed (this also helps protect their toes from frostbite in the winter). The roosting bars should be positioned higher than the nesting boxes. Chickens instinctively seek the high ground to sleep and positioning the roosts up high encourages roosting. Staggered roosting bars allow the chickens to hop from one to the other to reach the top, eliminating the need for a ladder.
Give ‘em enough space. Generally a chicken coop should be large enough to allow 3-4 square feet of floor space per bird. But more importantly, since chickens should really only be inside the coop to sleep or lay eggs, the amount of roosting space the coop provides is critical. Allow for a minimum of 8" of roosting bar per chicken. In the winter, they’ll huddle together for warmth, but in the summer they’ll appreciate a bit more space to spread out.
The floor matters. Coops can be made of wood, metal or even stone – and the flooring can also be any of these materials. A dirt floor isn’t recommended because predators can easily dig underneath the coop walls to gain entrance. Covering the floor material with a piece of inexpensive vinyl floor covering makes for easy clean-up as well as provides a barrier to inhibit poultry mite activity. Bedding on the floor should be used to cushion the chickens as they dismount from the roost and to absorb their manure. This can be straw or pine shavings and should be raked out and replaced as needed to prevent ammonia fumes from building up.
Lisa Steele is a 5th generation chicken keeper, author, DIYer and master gardener. Follow her blog at www.fresheggsdaily.com.