The Chicken coop

My hens in their shed coop.

What is the coop and what does it do?

The chicken coop or hen house is a small house where chickens or other poultry are kept safe and secure. Inside there are nest boxes for egg-laying, and perches on which the birds can roost for the night. The coop is where your hens will spend at least a third of their lives. It is the first buy you make before getting your birds and is likely to be the biggest investment you make whether you build it yourself or buy one.

If the chickens are not happy they will not use it and will end up roosting outdoors and laying in hedges.

Simplicity is the key, it makes things easy to look after, clean and repair.

This coop above is one of mine, it is made from a modified shed a currently filled with Barnevelder and Welsummer growers.

There are so many options that choosing can seem overwhelming. For urban homesteaders and hobby farmers with small flocks and aesthetic considerations, buying a pre-made coop might make sense.

You should make every effort to keep chickens outdoors, the mess they make indoors is terrible.

For small farmers with a few dozen hens building a coop is a better economic choice.

Plan your coop:

Check city or council ordinances or town planning regulations -  Before you buy your coop and chickens check with your city ordinances to see if your town or council has any restrictions.

There has been a lot of urban chicken advocacy with the local foods movement so many towns are becoming accepting of chickens within city limits. You may be limited to six and not allowed to keep a rooster.  Some cities need a permit, limit the size of chicken coop or it’s location and appearance.

Above: Everybody wants fresh eggs in a nest every morning.

Go and see someone else setup first. This is by far the easiest way to get an idea of what you are going to need. Do not forget to ask them what they like and do not like about having chickens in their backyards.

Find your local club and join. There are a great many Poultry clubs all over the world and they are not just for fanciers. Find plans and ideas from Facebook groups or the internet.

Smell and cleaning - Chickens can be dirty and smelly and will need cleaning on a regular basis. They poop everywhere and it accumulates. Chickens have a habit of turning areas into dust baths in dry weather and mud holes in wet. They can bring flies and rodents as well if you are not careful.

A simple rule is bigger and better ventilated the better. If you look at this image above of a chicken coop in winter you can see the moisture freeze as it ventilates out of the top.

Where will it go, it will need some protection from the elements especially if you live in a wet, wild and windy spot like I do.

Building a chicken coop takes time, some skills, and a lot of careful planning. Before you start hammering and nailing get some paper and make sure you address everything a chicken needs to stay healthy and safe. The sizes below are smallest sizes and should be bigger especially if birds are kept indoors and not allowed to range or pasture.

Size of Flock – How many birds and what type or size are you wanting.
1.    For bantam chickens 1 square foot per bird for inside coop/ 4 square feet per bird in outside run.
2.    For laying chickens 1.5 square feet per bird for inside coop/ 8 square feet per bird in outside run
3.    For large chickens 2 square feet per bird for inside coop/ 10 square feet per bird in outside run
4.    If your birds will be cooped up (pun intended) all winter or all year long aim for 5 to 10 square feet per chicken.
5.    If your birds will live in a chicken tractor that moves with them then 5 square feet per chicken is about right.

These are general guidelines. The bigger the chicken, the more space it needs - so meat birds need more space than laying hens, and full grown pullets need more space than baby chicks.

Roosters -  Many times roosters are not allowed and unless you plan on breeding you will not need one. They are the noisy and having more than one is like having out of control teenagers around the house. A hen is pretty quiet unless there is a predator or she lets out a cackle as she or another hen lays an egg.

Cockerels can be nice to have around and are stunning to look at but they are hard work.

Portable Chicken Coops - The movable coops are sometimes called chicken arks or chicken tractors. Backyard chicken farmers that are gardeners or interested in permaculture will like this design.

The bottomless chicken run is part of the coop and the chickens always have fresh ground. Every few days  you can  pick up the coop by the handles and drag the coop a few feet. You do not need to clean the run, you move the whole thing. 

The hens roost and nest in the waterproof triangle at the top of the ark.

Climate - Consider your climate when selecting a chicken coop. I live in North Yorkshire where it tends to be cold , wet and windy. We also get snow. If you live in a warmer climate, make sure the coop you choose has great ventilation.

Light - The coop will need light. Chickens lay based on daylight. On shorter winter days chickens often slow down or don't lay eggs at all. To lengthen the daylight hours, some chicken farmers will hang a light in the coop.

An easier way is to make sure the coop has windows to allow daylight into the chickens. My Spangled Hamburgs (below) have a row of glass panels at chicken height all along the bottom of the shed.

Design - Know what type of chicken coop you'll want. Do you want one that can move around your yard, or do you want a stand alone chicken coop? Both have their advantages. The next step in the guide will give you the details on different types of coop.

All the different types of coop have their advantages and disadvantages, a simple list of the pluses and minuses will help you decide.

Always go for the biggest you can afford and accommodate.

Chicken coop basics:

Every abode will need certain basics. These are not in any particular order as they are as important as each other.

Size and shape – Each chicken needs at least 2 square feet of indoor space and 6 square feet in an outdoor run. 

Durable - Make sure to build it from quality materials. Chickens will lay up to four years of age so they are an investment. Your structure will need to last. Paint or stain on the chicken coop will protect it from weathering.

These type of small mass produced coops are not secure against fox attacks.

Ventilation - Chicken coops need excellent ventilation. Windows, roof vents and exhaust ports. Cool fresh air enters near the base near the top as it warms up. Taller coops will need both top and bottom ventilation points. Certain materials used in construction of chicken sheds may need extra vents. Metal sheds in warm climates for example. Take care not to cause draughts in you shed by avoiding having vents on the windward side.

Roosts – Roosting is important. Chickens will roost at night. As it gets close to dark, chickens will go into the coop and fly or hop onto the perches.. You will notice in the winter months  the chickens will move in close together and huddle on the perches and in the summer they will need their space.

Make sure there is enough linear space for them to spread out a bit in the summer to regulate their body temperature. It keeps them out of the nest boxes when sleeping and makes it easier to clean up after as the poop falls onto the dropping board.

Evidence suggests that chickens which do not roost are more stressed. Provide roosting poles for your girls to sleep on. Roosts need to be 1” to 2" wide with rounded edges. Give birds 10” to 15" of space per bird and  15" between poles for more than one.

Roosts need to be quite strong. A few full grown hens can weigh quite a bit.

Chicken Ramp - A chicken ramp is essential to raised chicken coops. A common chicken injury for heavy or large breeds is leg damage from jumping in and out of the coop. Make sure a ramp provides them a way to walk rather than jumping.

Cleaning - Options for keeping a clean roost area include a slide-out pan or door, a pit, or a flat board that can be removed and scraped.

Easy to clean – A large shed is easy to clean. 

Shelter. A coop must keep chickens warm and dry, and thus healthy. Chickens must have access to a shelter and a windbreak (temporary, natural, or permanent) to protect from winter winds. Chickens are pretty versatile in regards to climate. In summer months, they spread their wings, pant, dust in the cool dirt, and find shade to lower their body temperature. In winter months, they will huddle together for warmth.

These are my White Orpingtons in a temporary chicken run made from two ten foot pallets, some four by two, chicken mesh and a tarpaulin. We have had significant bird flu problems in England and I decided to keep mine undercover.

They don't like rain, and will take cover as it starts. Some birds like silkies and frizzles should be kept out of the rain altogether.

Sturdy floor. Split, holey or sagging floors are uncomfortable for the chickens, look unsightly and will let vermin and predators like snakes in.

Dust baths. Areas where hens can dust bathe, is a nice addition. This can be as simple as a box filled with dirt or sand if there isn't a spot on the floor of the coop. Hens with access to outdoors will find places for their dust baths. In winter, my hens pick a clean spot somewhere in the coop, usually a corner.

Oi! I'm in the bath do you mind!

Protection from predators. Predators are a big problem regardless of where you live. At the very least, the chickens should have a predator-proof shelter at night, when they’re most vulnerable. Chickens are easy prey for Hawks, skunks, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and dogs. While coyotes may not be common in your neighbourhood, dogs and raccoons can break into backyard and kill chickens. Predator proof means from all sides as well as above and below.

BIG TIP - select the right wire mesh. The holes in standard chicken wire are actually quite large and will only keep the chickens in. Raccoons and foxes can rip through and do some nasty things. I recommend one-half inch square hardware cloth or weld mesh. A safe place can also include underneath the coop which provides shelter from overhead. 

Where you live in the world depends on how much work you need to do to keep predators out.

Rodents - The feed will attract rats and mice. Rodents are burrowing creatures, so you need to block them from slipping into the coop from below. If you coop doesn't have a floor, you need to bury small-mesh fencing down into the ground about 12" all around the coop. Rats can gnaw through the wooden sides of a shed with ease. Deal with vermin. How to deal with rats and mice.

Temperature - chickens are most comfortable when temperatures range between 40 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Extremes of cold and hot can be a real problem. They are more suited to cold weather than hot. Select birds that are suitable for your climate  and take advantage of natural resources. I made this mistake years ago when I tried to keep frizzles in the uplands of Yorkshire. In hotter climates provide higher ceilings, extra space, and good ventilation. Chickens can withstand the cold so long as it's not draughty.

Light  - Natural or artificial light is necessary for chickens. To little will mean they will not get enough time to eat and drink and will stop laying and even lose condition. I have to admit to being a purist and do not use any artificial light which means my hens go through a moult in November time and stop laying for a month or two afterwards.

Avoid  using artificial light source at night as it will disturb roosting hens. If you intend to use artificial light then use it to get them up in the morning, never to extend their evenings. At the very least your chicken shed will need a window.

My Barred Plymouth Rocks in a breeding coop.

Surroundings - Good drainage in the outside areas prevents moisture build-up and the ever present pool of mud that most chicken keepers have to deal with. Some keepers install hard surface floors that can be washed or sand or gravel that keeps the birds’ feet clean. Avoid slippery flooring such as tiles and metal, especially for meat birds.

Meat birds like this do not need the long term arrangements of laying hens.

WatererChickens need fresh water at all times and from more than one source. Hang it so that it is 6 to 8” off the ground or attach to the wall at the same height. They are raised up to stop chickens soiling the water with faeces.

There are a variety of waterers for chicks and chickens, and will depend on your size flock as to what kind of waterer you'll need. With larger flocks it’s convenient to have a 3-5 gallon waterer that automatically refills the watering tray. If you live in a cooler climate, you might want to invest in a heated waterer or a heated mat. Regardless what kind of waterer you choose, make sure they’re easy to clean. Chickens will poop in their water

Feeder - Should hang 6-8" off the ground. Keep off the ground and away from vermin and wild birds. With the bird flu restrictions that have been in place it is a good idea to keep feed away from wild birds as well. Chickens eat laying feed. such as pellets or whole seed alternative. 

Nesting Boxes - A 12x12x12 inch box is needed for a chicken to lay her eggs. There should be one nesting box per 3-5 chickens. It should have a lip at the front to contain 1-2 inches of nesting material. This will help prevent eggs from breaking and help keep the boxes cleaner.

Overcrowding the hens in the boxes  can lead to more hen traffic and they can break their eggs. Nest boxes should be a few inches off the ground but lower than the lowest roosting pole. They should also be dark and a little out of the way to cater to the hen's instinct to lay her eggs in a safe place.

Egg breakage can lead to chickens eating their own eggs. Once this starts it is a hard habit to break. The best way to prevent chickens from eating their own eggs is to prevent them from breaking with plenty of nesting space and a cushion of nesting material like wood shavings.

Nesting needs can be supplied in many different ways.

Like the coop, the sides of the attached chicken run, if you have one, should extend 12" into the soil to keep predators and rodents from digging their way in. Once again I recommend weld mesh or half-inch hardware cloth.

It's also our strong recommendation that you secure the top of the run with aviary netting or deer netting. This will keep wild birds which can carry communicable diseases out and provide further defence against sly predators.

Chicken coop Frequently Asked Questions FAQ’s:

Can I use a greenhouse as a chicken coop?

No it gets way to hot in the sun and cold in winter. Chickens are sensitive to heat and will die easily in a greenhouse. I have however used a poly-tunnel for shelter during the winter. they can eat the pests and fertilise the soil whilst there inside.

Should I heat my coop in winter?

Only if the temperature falls below 0F or you have susceptible birds like frizzles or naked necks

Where’s the best place to put my coop?

Prime position for your coop is somewhere that’s half-shaded, half sunny – so your flock can enjoy the best of both comforts.  If you don’t have ready access to shade, you can buy a coop cover or a tarpaulin.  Also take into consideration the amount of space outside the coop, if your chickens are free range you want a decent sized area for them to roam around in without feeling crowded by their fellow birds.  A claustrophobic chicken is a stressed one, and the more birds you have, the more space you need.

How Big Should Your Coop Be?

Next, figure out the amount of space you need for the number of chickens you have. Think about how many chickens you plan to keep on an ongoing basis. You might want to build on the large side, allowing for new baby chicks or more hens added later.
Most annoying chicken problems like pecking and aggressiveness are cured with more space, so plan for as generously-sized a coop as you can fit or afford.

What foundation should I put the coop on?

If you’ve purchased quite a sizeable coop moving it around can be something of an effort.  Set large coops on a concrete slab or solid surface, this makes it impossible for any nasty predators to burrow under and prey on your flock. But as not everyone has a coop sized concrete slab in their yard any flat surface will be more than enough.

What Kind of Coop Do You Need?

The type of coop you choose depends on whether the chickens will live full-time in it, have access to an outside run or larger portions of pasture, or whether it will be a movable coop that can move to fresh ground.

How many kinds of chicken coops are there?

Coops come in all shapes and sizes as well as different materials.  What coop you should choose depends on the lifestyle you have planned for your feathered friends.  Are they going to be free range chickens wandering outside to their hearts content.

If you work 9-5 you’re looking for an option that gives them a decent enclosed grazing space although there are workarounds to keep them in greens. Timber is by far the best and most common building material for a coop.

Like any normal house timber keeps the heat inside the coop when its cold outside and keeps it nice and cool on those hot summer days. Decide if you need a movable chicken tractor or a coop that is going to stay in one place all the time.

What is bedding  or litter and what should I use for it?

Bedding or litter is the material that you sprinkle over the ground of the coop and their roosting area. You must keep it clean as this is what the chickens use for their toilet.  It absorbs any excess moisture which can be a breeding ground for disease.  

There are many different options that are used for bedding. The straw types like hemp, wheat or barley straw and then there is wood shavings and hay. Each is effective and easy to get hold of but vary in cost and availability. Sand is effective in the run but consider your budget and the space you need to cover. As long as its easy to dispose of and replenish in the coop.

It’s essential to the everyday happiness of your chickens that their coop is a hygienic, spacious and as far as possible dust free area for them to enjoy.