Setting Up Urban Chicken Coops
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Weatherproof Your Coop
Courtesy Owen Taylor/Just Food
The ideal coop is large enough for you to walk in and clean it out.
Consider heat and cold when erecting your chicken coop. Chickens need shade from the heat and protection from drafts, while still having fresh air circulation. Closeable windows are an obvious ventilation source. A line of screened vents across the top of the north- and south-facing walls provide cross ventilation without drafts.
Chickens are hardy, but need help to survive in extreme weather conditions. As descendants of jungle birds, they manage hot weather well but need shady refuge. Their fluffy feathers insulate them from cold, and their collective body heat will get them through the winter, provided they have a snug house. Some chicken breeds, too, are better suited for cold weather.
Be conscious that wood in contact with soil will rot, but preservatives may be poisonous to chickens. Harrison-Noonan designs his coops so the bottom frame is replaceable, and he does so every few years. Some wood is naturally more durable. Redwood—more economical on the West Coast—and cedar are rot-resistant. Pine is less expensive but requires more treatment to make it last.
Metal, fiberglass and wood with shingles are good options for the roof. Some resourceful urban farmers have even repurposed children’s playhouse roofs for their chicken coops.
Erect Chicken Perches
Chickens are perching birds and prefer to sleep on perches. Figure 6 to 10 inches of perching space per standard-sized bird; 6 to 8 inches for bantams. Use 1x2 boards for bantam perches and 2x2s for large-fowl perches. Be creative, and repurpose broom handles and natural branches—round off sharp edges and sand rough spots first!
Build a Nest Box
Courtesy Evelyn Zanella
Nesting boxes provide a comfortable, private place to lay eggs.
Nesting boxes provide comfortable, private places for hens to lay their eggs. Each hen doesn’t necessarily need its own—they sometimes bunk together and prefer to lay an egg in a nest that already has an egg in it. One nest box for every four or five hens is adequate. A wooden, glass or plastic egg in the nest gives them the idea of where to lay. A hinged door to the outside provides easy access for egg collection, but Just Food’s coops no longer have this feature—Taylor observed that the access through a hole in the wall allowed in light and air, sending the girls to lay their eggs on the floor.
Provide Predator Protection
Predators, such as raccoons, foxes, dogs, hawks and owls, can destroy your flock overnight. An old adage says that the predator-proof coop hasn’t yet been built—but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your best.
Some predators are willing to dig under the coop walls to get to your chickens. Dig out 1 foot or so of dirt around the coop perimeter, line the hole with chicken wire or hardware cloth, and replace the dirt. Or build your coop off the ground so digging under it isn’t an option for the critters.
Fasten the coop door with a latch sturdy enough to withstand raccoons’ agile fingers and children’s eager hands. Hawks and owls hunt from the sky, so fasten sturdy chicken wire or hardware cloth overhead, too.
Talk with local chicken keepers about what kinds of predators are most troublesome in your neighborhood. Adapt your predator-proofing methods based on the animals causing trouble. You may need to use smaller-sized mesh, rubber-coated fencing or galvanized fencing.
Human predators are possible, too. Just Food’s coops are locked at night, and the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden chicken coop in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn has its own guardian angel. A woman who lives next door to the garden watches over the coop and chases away troublesome visitors.
Plan to make your coop easy to clean. Ideally, you’ll be able to walk inside and clean out the manure, which is a valuable addition to your compost pile.
Coops not cleaned frequently will smell bad and attract bugs, undoubtedly also attracting neighbors’ complaints. Don’t allow manure to accumulate. How often you have to clean your coop will depend on how many chickens you have.
Pre-planning how to get inside and clean the coop will help everyone get along. “Even with the best intentions, if it’s hard to get inside, you aren’t going to clean it,” Taylor says.
Harrison-Noonan constructs a pull-out tray for his coops. For coops with less-ingenious fittings, a shovel and bucket will do the job.
A deep-litter system uses material such as pine shavings, leaf litter or chopped corn cobs as bedding on a dirt coop floor. As the chickens scratch their manure into the litter, the carbon and nitrogen mix, neutralize odors, compost naturally and create excellent fertilizer. Plus, the bugs that live in the litter add a tasty protein boost to the chickens’ diet. Add litter as needed throughout the year and remove the dirt/litter/manure compost once or twice per year. Replace it with fresh dirt and litter, and start over.
A chicken coop can be an attractive feature nestled in your landscape. It doesn’t need to be grand, although it can be as lavish as your taste and budget allow. Simple design and convenient materials work just as well; so long as it’s dry and secure, your coop will be a place of comfort and refuge for your flock. Like Dorothy, they will return there after their daily adventures, reassured that, “There’s no place like home.”
About the Author: Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens: Everything You Need to Know (Voyageur Press, 2007) and How to Raise Poultry (Voyageur Press, 2009). She also serves as historian for the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, for which she maintains the collection of antique poultry books and magazines at her home on California’s Central Coast.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Urban Farm.
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