After two solid weeks of hard (desert summertime!) work, planting posts in rocky ground, building, insulating, creating and installing windows and doors, and building a predator-proof cage over everything, yesterday we finished the chicken house and coop, received the livestock inspector’s approval (“state of the art,” he said!), paid our fee ($25), and picked up the chickens at night when they would be calm.
Our friend Polly has told us, as do most of our chicken-owning friends, how much they love their chickens and often spend time with them; Polly often has coffee out there in the mornings with her “girls,” she told us. And so we didn’t feel too weird this morning when we also had the urge to pull up our chairs to drink coffee in front of the coop! And I took video.
Afternoon note: All three hens laid eggs the first day by 1 pm! See the video here, and hear me speak quite stupidly.
(Now, don’t get us wrong. Both Greg and I have each kept chickens twice before in our lives, but this is still exciting. And we’ve also both had children, so that’s not it. Maybe we’re getting old and easily amused, I don’t know…. )
Chickens are important! Chickens are a very important part of a sustainable home and garden, mainly for the excellent manure they produce, not to mention the eggs, meat, and entertainment. Read my Permaculture page, or just scan down that page to the diagram about The Egg to see how important they are in our world, evolving (though slowly) toward sustainability.
Below I recount how we designed and built the coop, designed to meet the needs of chickens and the needs of humans who keep them.
We used mostly recycled materials, but the materials we bought still cost about $200 for a half-dozen 2×4’s, 50′ of 6′ poultry fencing, boxes of screws, OSB [God forgive me], and corrugated steel.
Here’s the start: an old hollow-core door became the chicken house floor (3′ x 6 1/2′), laid on top of landscape timbers in front and bricks on the existing stone terrace in back. Raising the house like this gives the chickens more space to scratch on the ground, and more shade; and being higher makes gathering eggs and cleaning the house easier for us humans. We placed the house on the north side of this area so it would get as much sun as possible in the winter; being high also helps solar gain.
Two walls are ready to put up next, fashioned of scraps of 2×4 made into 2×2’s (to go twice as far), with old pieces of house siding and left-over exterior house paint.
Next we made the east wall with window glass scavenged from an old screen door. The large window serves the birds’ need for light in the morning, but may be a little too much on summer days – so I will shade it then.
Beneath the window, we planned a vent with screen and hardware cloth (and three other vents besides this one). Later we learned, too late, that the chicken house floor “should” be covered with 4-6″ of straw or other bedding (according to one writer at least) – deeper than I’d thought. On this first day of chickens, we have just 2″ of bedding on the floor, and it seems sufficient. We’ll report back later on this detail. Still, it seems important for air flow to not only be great enough but also have equal amounts of vents located low and high for optimal circulation, so I hope this vent won’t be blocked by straw.
(Our driveway doubles as work space, with the van serving as lockable storage – very workable and space-efficient for living on 1/10th acre!)
Next steps were installing the screen-and-hardware-cloth vents (both materials I’d actually gone to the trouble of saving from old projects) on the east wall and high on the west wall; stapling left-over bubble-foil for modest insulation; and installing “nailers” where we’d later need to attach roosts and nesting box/es. The books we borrowed (Thanks, Jacque!) told us that chickens want to roost a couple of feet off the floor and have a couple of feet above their heads. And they like their nesting box (1 box per 6 birds) raised a little off the floor, in the darkest corner, and not beneath roosts, so we placed a nailer in the back corner for that.
The fourth wall we would build in place; it entails a large south-facing window for winter solar gain, a door for the chickens, and a door large enough for us to lean into for egg-gathering and house cleaning, and inside that door another large window for solar gain, also openable for ventilation.
Above, you see the finished interior walls – maybe not necessary, but not uncommon either, according to online photos we consulted after the fact, discovering that plenty of folks have built darling “doll houses” for their birds. (We didn’t mean to do that – really!) We created finished and painted interior walls to fulfill one writer’s dictum of making the house easy to clean in the event of disease. You see I caulked every seam and painted every surface inside for easy cleaning, should it ever be necessary.
Here are the two windows on hinges, the large one (also salvaged from the same screen door) held open by a short segment of a tree branch, the other glass (purchased new), hung in the door, held open by a huge nail that also doubles as a locking device with two eye-hooks. Behind both windows are window screen and poultry fencing, trimmed with interior siding overlapping the window opening 1/3″ all around to serve as a stopper. The sliding chicken door is on the far left, held open with a dowel that can also hold it closed. The ramp is an old 1×8 board, with old paint in two colors, crossed with 1/4″ x 1″ strips.
The books say one box per six birds, so we only installed one, but might add another. On the other hand, another friend said all her birds like to lay in the same place for some reason. Greg copied the general pattern from one we found in a local feed store. Notice the “roof” (mostly hidden in this photo) which hens seem to like.
For roosts, we used salvaged handrails. (Yes, we both have a tendency to save “everything!” – and saved many of these items over the last few years, anticipating this day.) We suspended them with clothes bar suspenders (also saved in our huge collection of junk) which were a little too small, so we shaved the ends of the bars to make them work. We attached the bar holders to 2×2’s ripped diagonally down the middle and screwed to the wall and into the nailers. The angle of the bars into the corners wasn’t a perfect 45 degrees, but it is close enough to work! (The books we read said that chickens like bars about 2″ x 3″ in diameter- which seemed far larger than we’d imagined and thought necessary. We felt very fortunate to have saved these old handrails.)
Okay, now for the serious predator control. We erected a cage over the entire thing, using the existing fence, adding a few 2×4’s to make it tall enough for comfort, and poultry fencing.
(The door came from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore – perfect 2-foot-wide, perfect height, with hardware cloth on the bottom half, a handle, and self-closing hinges – on the one day Greg went to shop! What luck! And a great price! Thanks, Re-Store!)
Love my east window shading! The cane (saved, yes, for years!) has turned gray, but is still useful for so many things in the garden. I can see the entire inside of the house without going into the enclosure.
But that’s not all. To deter animals from digging under the fence, we dug 2″ down 2′ out from the fence, laid down poultry fencing which goes under the fence and is secured inside the coop up about 1′.
On the outside corners of the fencing, to keep it from flipping up in some places, I used tent stakes to hold it down (see my finger pointing), then covered the fencing with 2″ of gravel. Other places, I coerced the gravel to stay down without stakes.
Now it’s a pathway again, with an invisible barrier under the ground!
Not easy work, but essential – and easier than the only other remedy I’ve heard: digging 18″ straight down. No thanks. I did this all the way around except on part of one side that had plantings too close, and there I piled large rocks until I feel like doing more of that digging.
Finally, we had these great branches (remains saved from my natural plaster work in the house, previously used for trellises in the garden), so we attached them securely to the fence, so the girls could exercise what remains of their wild natures.
Sure enough, on Day One (today), the boldest was up there on every branch and the roof top!
Most amazing, each bird used the nest box to lay an egg their very first day here! Three eggs! Here’s video of the “harvest.”
I hope I’ve inspired everyone to get chickens. Get back to the Earth. Get sustainable. Support your garden. Eat good food.