Before bringing your chickens home, you do need to make sure that you have a safe and good home for them. They don’t need wall art, but they do need bedding, a place to roost, a place to lay, and a safe place to sleep.
What do I need to do to prepare for getting chickens?
Before you buy chickens, you should have a secure coop ready. And if you are starting with baby chicks, you need to make sure you have a safe and proper set up for baby chicks as well.
What is a secure coop?
A secure coop means a structurally sound coop that is fortified to the best of your ability against predators. This means that there shouldn't be any openings larger than half an inch. The perimeter of the coop should be secured to prevent animals from digging their way in. Some people recommend laying down welded wire around the perimeter and beneath the coop floor (if you have a dirt floor). Guy Human and I chose not to bury wire because wire can erode over time. Instead, we butted up our coop against a retaining wall on one side, dug a twelve inch trench around the perimeter of the exposed sides, and poured in concrete.
Why should openings be limited to half an inch?
Because rats, mice and weasels can actually squeeze through openings any larger. Also, raccoons are able to reach into relatively small openings and will drag out the heads of any chickens they can grab. You wouldn’t want to find the gory aftermath.
Seriously. Predators, even in an urban environment, are a hard truth, and one you have to be aware of if you want to raise chickens.
What kinds of predators or animals will go after chickens?
Opossums, raccoons, mice and rats are common predators and pests in both urban and rural areas. Mice and rats won’t go after grown chickens, but they will kill baby chicks, and they also steal eggs and chicken feed. Aerial predators can include crows, hawks and other raptors. Ground predators can include foxes, coyotes, skunks and weasels. They can also include your dog and the neighbor’s cat.
A note on weasels: Weasels can come in the little slinky furry form, or in humanoid form. Yep. Humans have been known to steal other peoples’ chickens and eggs. Truly a weaselish act.
What are the main things I need to consider in a coop?
There are many options and designs online, and more at the local feed store. But there are important points to consider, whether ordering a coop kit for assembly or building your coop from a plan or from your own design.
Any coop should have good ventilation, roosting areas, and nest boxes.
You should provide a minimum of four square feet per hen in a coop.
If your chickens will be mostly confined, they will need ten to twelve square feet minimum per bird in the run. (The run is the area where they will hang out during the day, and usually attached to the coop.)
The more space you can give them, the better. Make it bigger than you think you’ll need. You will succumb to chicken math.
The coop should be soundly built, with a roof to shelter chickens from rain and weather. If you live in an area where the winters are harsh, you will need a coop that will also keep them safe from freezing winds.
I highly recommend having the coop ready and in place before you actually get your chicks. Despite thinking you’ll have plenty of time to build a coop, you will always have less than you think. I may or may not be speaking from first-hand experience.
See Chapter 3 of my book for some coop and run plans and building instructions.
Why don’t you recommend pre-made coops?
While there are many prefabricated coops available, they generally are poorly built, and certainly not built to last. Also, many pre-fab coops are too compact, and will be hard for you to get into and clean. It’s best to custom build a coop that is human height. Your back will thank you for it. If you’re not handy, you can hire someone to build for you, or you can purchase and modify a storage shed.
Likewise, you can MacGyver a dog kennel, kid’s playhouse, or some other structure. In my opinion, those are better options than cheap pre-fab coops that often advertise that they fit more hens than they actually should.
I’ve known several people who bought cheap pre-fab coops that ended up only fitting half of the chickens they claimed to, had leaky roofs within a year, and a number of other issues, including a shabby roof that was easily broken into by raccoons.
Again, do your research. Look at plans, books, and other resources. Think about the needs specific to your region and your property. Talk to other chicken keepers. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Then do some more homework.
How did you build your coop? How big is it?
Guy Human and I built our coop mostly with recycled and upcycled pallets we obtained for free. We did have to purchase some support beams, hardware cloth (welded wire), roofing material, and a few other things we scrounged from our local Habitat for Humanity Restore.
Our coop is roughly six feet wide, ten feet long, and seven feet high. Because our chickens free range daily, this size suffices for them at night. They have many roosting levels and options, including a two-story nesting box area with eight nesting boxes. However, if we confined our chickens, I would not put more than five in there.
Our coop is well ventilated, with no solid walls, though we have lots of slats to protect from winter winds. Our design would not work in a snowy region, but is great for the dry, hot climate of Southern California.
How many nests do I need to provide?
Ideally, you’ll want one nest box for every four to six chickens. But one thing you’ll
quickly discover is that despite having more than enough nest boxes, many hens will still fight over the same favorite nest box, despite having plenty of others available. This happens daily, even if temperatures are 100°F outside. Nest wars are real!
What do you do for the coop floor? How do you clean the poop?
There are many methods for building and cleaning the coop floor. Some people have solid floors lined with linoleum, and they scrape the poop off. Others use sand, and scoop the poop like you would with kitty litter.
There’s also a method called deep litter. This is the method we use and recommend. The deep litter method is low maintenance and lets the chickens help you make compost.
How does deep litter work?
We lay straw or natural mulch ten to twelve inches thick on the dirt floor of the coop. The chickens poop in the straw. Their natural propensity for digging covers their coop and turns it.
Over time, all the litter and poop break down into partially finished compost. The straw is the carbon-rich “brown,” and their fresh poop is the nitrogen-rich “green.”
The act of turning and scratching also removes stinky poop odors and keep flies down. It’s the best method for those who want to manage poop as lazily as possible, and for those who don’t relish scooping poop daily or even weekly. Let the chickens earn their keep! I only clean out the coop and remove all the litter about three times a year. All the litter goes into the compost pile to finish transforming into gardeners’ black gold.