Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chicken Coop - a simple, elegant if not cheap way to give your backyard chickens a home using a prefab doghouse

Every chicken needs a coop, even backyard chickens, safe in suburbia feel the need for safety and privacy. The normal way they achieve safety is to roost as high up in trees as they can manage. Well, as urban chicken keepers, we deny them this habit as it also leads to wandering into the neighbor's yard and trouble of all sorts. So, it is up to us to provide them security in another manner. The easiest is the chicken coop. Basically a little house for them to roost and nest in peace and quiet.

Their are zillions of plans out there for chicken coops. Some horrors straight from factory farming and some gingerbreaded doll houses that would embarrass any honest hen. Some are large, some small, some are designed to be movable. They call them tractor coops and they can be pulled about the yard to provide the hens with fresh grass - greener pastures as it were. This is a brilliant idea. In fact, I saw lots and lots of brilliant ideas.

One problem loomed before all the brilliant ideas and plans. I hate carpentry. I am inefficient and prone to error - although I must say my table saw may be changing all that. Getting me to buy a table saw was one of the best things my dad RJ Hedley, ever did. But dreams of craftsmanship lie in the future. I needed a coop now.

Solution: convert a prefab dog house into a chicken coop. Now remember I have only a backyard flock - currently, I only have 2 hens - perhaps will rise to 4 in the future. With that few hens, a dog house would be gracious plenty space. I will wait for the applause to die down before continuing on. Yes, yes, the great idea is to take a pre-made dog house of sufficient size and deck it out with the things needed to make it backyard chicken friendly. Namely, get it off the ground, give it a roosting bar, provide nesting space, make it easy to get to eggs and easy to clean.
Start by buying your prefab house. These can be found at pet stores, farm stores and some home improvement centers. They will cost between $100 and $250. Look for the all wooden ones cause they are easiest to modify. I think a fine coop could be made with some of the fiberglass units but I didn't go that route. Remember - hens spend a lot of time in coops and you will want to get as roomy a unit as you can afford
Getting the coop off the ground has to be a relative thing. Your are trying to resolve two needs. One is the Hen's need to be off the ground to reduce predator access, it is their natural instinct to go higher to accomplish this. The second drive for height is based on human need. We like coops to be up higher so we have easier access for retrieving eggs and cleaning the coop. The limiting factor to these two needs for height is practicality. If you make it high enough for the chicken to feel they are in a tree - access is gonna be a problem. Even raising it to an ideal height for access can present a problem and here it is. Chickens get on top of the coop, somehow, someway they will get on top. Your 5 to 8 foot fencing may have been doing a great job of containing the little dears before you raise the coop. But, after you give the girls a 4 foot - or more, headstart, the game changes totally. Especially so, if your coop is near the fence - then all bets are off. After that you can plan on constantly chasing chickens and praying you get to them before the neighbors, the neighbor's dog or cars on the street.
So the optimum limit to how high you can raise you coop is around 4 feet - which is fine if your coop is no closer to your fence than lets say 12 feet on any side. That way they cannot take advantage of the headstart over the fence. But if you have a smaller pen, anything less than 15' X 15', the practical thing is to just get the coop off the ground around a foot. The unit I bought had lovely plastic clad sturdy little legs that got me almost halfway there so I simply placed the 4 legs on concrete pavers and voila: height, stability and water resistance. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that height also helps keep the coop dry. Both from water runoff and by allowing easier evaporation of any moisture that does get it. Well, there you have it. Height is good, 4 feet is ideal if you have large pen, 1 foot is fine and easily accomplished.
Next modification to accomplish is a roosting bar. That is, something they can pretend is a branch while they are pretending the coop is a tree. This is not rocket science. Here are the parameters. You need the roost to be high up in the coop but with enough head room for then to jump up comfortably. The roost should be fairly far from the entrance to make them feel safe. You can make the roost from a wooden dowel or a conveniently trimmed small limb. Either attach the roost directly to the coop walls, or make a stand alone unit that fits snugly in the space between walls but can still be removed for cleaning and repair. This is the route I chose.
I took four 1 foot sections of 2x4 lumber, nailed them into two T units. Turning the Ts upside down to act as self supporting posts, I then took a piece of limb, trimmed in to within 2 inches less than the distance between my inner walls, This was then nailed on top of each upright.
There you have it, a simple portable roost that you can place securely inside the coop but still remove to work on later.
Now we come to providing nesting space. I must confess to some confusion here. You see hens like to be in secluded nests when they lay and humans like them to lay in nest so we know where to look. All good and wonderful - but the solution of a prefab dog house does come with one drawback - they can be limited in space. Honestly, you need to use some individual judgement here. You can fill the coop with pine chips and other absorbent nesting material and just let them make nests in a corner. They will and it can work. But they don't prefer it and the nest can be more easily fouled. Better solution is some kind of small open box that they can climb in either resting on the floor or better yet somewhat raised. In truth, I still haven't found the ideal solution to this and the girls are nesting ala cart in the pine chips in one corner.
The last need is easy access for egg retrieval and cleaning. The answer to this is easy, ridiculously easy for most prefab units. You need to make the top removable. Accomplishing that with my unit was simple - I never attached it with screws at all. I simple rested the roof on top. It is a fine roof with edging and shingled top and it rest securely on the walls with no issues what so ever. Whenever, I need to clean the coop I merely take the top off and have easy open access to the interior. I may install some spacing blocks this summer to raise the roof an inch or two off the wall edges. This should increase air circulation during the hot months of summer and could be taken back down in the winter for a more secure fit - if necessary. Truth be told, cold is not a problem with most breeds - keeping them dry is the issue.
Well, it may not be ideal, it may not be the best design. But it is a fine design if you are averse to cutting and nailing your own chicken shanty. I am happy with mine and have few complaints. More importantly, the chickens seem happy in their doghouse conversion.

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