I’ve been told that as long as you provide food and water, chickens will be happy in tight confinement, because “they don’t know what they’re missing”. It’s a popular rationalization. But depriving an animal of the opportunity to express its normal behaviors, like running, flapping, foraging, and exploring, is not like depriving a human of a flat screen TV. It’s more like living in a closet with nothing to do, and nothing to eat but Balanced Human Glop. So I’m passionate about providing a quality living space for animals, and here’s my guide to designing the ultimate chicken coop.
Designing the Perfect Chicken Coop: 15 Tips in Detail
Our first coop was an assemble yourself kit that was advertized as spacious enough for 12 chickens. We used it for 8 hens, but now that I’m more knowledgeable about chickens, I wouldn’t recommend it for more than three. It was also flimsy and inconvenient. So when we decided to expand our flock, we discarded that piece of junk and purchased a 10 x 16 foot shed. My husband put a wall down the middle, and fashioned one of the 10 x 8 foot rooms into a chicken coop. He divided the other half of the shed into 2 smaller rooms, one of which was for storage, and the other for our 2 rabbits. Finally, he built 2 runs for the chickens, and 1 for the rabbits. It works extremely well, though it’s not perfect, and the following is based on what we’ve learned along the way, from undersized, inconvenient piece of junk, to spacious, sturdy, easy-to-clean housing.
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1. Local regulations
Before you even dream about building the perfect chicken coop and populating it with a flock of feathered beauties, check the laws and regulations in your town for restrictions on types of livestock, limitations on number of animals, distance from property lines, etc. Also be aware of your state and local wetland laws, for activity may be limited or prohibited within a certain distance of streams, swamps, vernal pools, etc. Ignorance is no excuse for a violation, and you may be required to relocate your set-up or remove it entirely, even if you were unaware of restrictions.
2. The site
The next thing to think about is where you might put the chicken coop. Here are some things to consider:
- Shade – Extreme heat is a bigger problem than extreme cold (except for birds that are not cold hardy), and a shady spot for the birds is absolutely essential. Our chicken coop is under a large deciduous tree, which I consider ideal for our Massachusetts climate of moderately hot summers and cold winters. It’s shaded in summer and exposed to sunlight in winter.
- Drainage – Mud is not a healthy substrate for chickens, so be sure that they will never be forced to stand in it. Choose your site accordingly.
- Space – Chickens do best with plenty of indoor space and outdoor space, so choose a site where you can fit a spacious coop and run. More on that below.
- Convenience – You will have to tend to your birds all year round, no matter how rainy, cold, windy, or snowy. You won’t want to shovel a 100 foot path to the coop. With the coop conveniently located, the daily care can be a pleasure rather than a chore.
A larger coop is better than a smaller one. You will see various numbers bandied about for minimum square footage per bird, such as 10 sq ft per full sized bird in constant confinement. But in my opinion, more space is always better. Here are some considerations:
Most chickens don’t enjoy snow, ice, high winds, or extreme heat, and often choose to stay indoors in such conditions. Plan their indoor space accordingly. They may have to endure several months of confinement, and that can be a set up for boredom related problems like feather picking.
- Some sources advise a tighter coop, to hold body heat when chickens huddle together to keep warm during winter. That’s a poor strategy. As long as your coop is not drafty, and you keep winter hardy breeds with small, thick combs, they will have no trouble keeping warm and will be at minimal risk for frostbite. It’s not a good idea to keep less hardy breeds and rely on huddling for warmth. Read here about how much space wild jungle fowl, the chicken’s wild relative, prefer.
- Factor in space for a feeder, waterer, dust bath, and nest boxes.
- The coop should be tall enough to not become buried in snow.
- I highly recommend a coop that is tall enough for YOU to enter. That way, you can experience the conditions as the chickens experience them. Is the coop so dusty that it’s hard to breathe? Does it smell of ammonia? Is it drafty? If you can stand inside the coop, you will know what can be done to make their home more healthful.
- Make it large enough for flock expansion if there is any chance of that. Egg production gradually diminishes with the hen’s age, so you may want a few new hens every few years.
Be sure that whatever you buy or build can stand up to severe storms. Those cheap little chicken coop kits are awfully cute, but rather flimsy. Let’s put it this way: The corrugated plastic roof of our first coop blew off in a storm.
5. Storage space
Think about where you might store the feed, the bucket and poop scooper, etc. The little storage room off our coop is a tremendous convenience.
After one winter of toting water out to our flimsy little “starter” coop, I knew I wanted an electric water heater in our new one. A light is also helpful, whether or not you plan to artificially extend day length to induce winter laying.
I don’t use the light to extend day length, but I do appreciate it when I need to handle a flighty bird that I can’t catch during the day. It’s convenient to be able to flick on a light so I can get her off the roost at night.
I mentioned the usefulness of artificial lighting above, but natural lighting is also a huge plus. It makes clean-up a more pleasant and easier task for you. And, even if your birds typically spend the day outside, they may spend entire days indoors during harsh weather. In fact, I consider natural lighting essential, and three walls of our coop have windows.
To insulate or not has been debated numerous times, and everyone has their own preference. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think insulation is a good idea. We insulated ours, and it was a mistake. It has created space for rodents, and there really is no advantage to it, unless your coop is heated. But do you really need a heated coop? I think it’s better to keep breeds that can thrive in your climate without added heat.
I found this one to be a no brainer, but it seems to be an issue for a lot of people, so it’s worth mentioning. Chickens have a high respiratory rate, which can quickly increase the humidity in a tight coop. And they poop a lot, which can create an ammonia build up. Excess moisture and excess ammonia are both health hazards, so adequate ventilation is a must. I almost always leave one of the pop doors open all night, because it leads into a totally enclosed, predator proof run. I close all the doors on extremely windy nights, but there’s a vent near the ceiling that’s always open.
Dirt flooring is an option, but I highly recommend an elevated coop to deter rats. One foot off the ground is said to be sufficient. Wood flooring is fine, since the thick layer of litter needed for hygiene will also protect the floor.
- Length – A minimum of 8 inches per full sized chicken (less for bantams) is often recommended. However, it’s wise to be much more generous with roosting space, so bottom of peck order chickens can avoid bullies. Further, chickens like to spread themselves out on hot summer nights. Once again, more space is always better.
Width – An oft quoted rule of thumb is that roosting bars should be no less than 2 inches wide for full-sized chickens. Tree branches make a beautiful roost, but when fresh, the rough edges can predispose to bumblefoot and provide hiding spots for mites. When smooth and worn, chickens may have difficult gripping branches. Flat boards reduce the chances of all of those problems, as long as they’re sanded to eliminate sharp edges.
- Location – Make the lowest roosting bar no more than 18 inches off the ground for heavy breeds which cannot fly well. They will hop-fly up to the higher bars. Make sure there is plenty of horizontal space between the bars, so chickens won’t be pooping on the birds beneath them.
12. Droppings board
Many people keep a droppings board or poop hammock under the roost, for easy clean up. We don’t have one, but it’s on our to-do list.
13. Nesting boxes
Hens will lay their eggs on the floor if you do not provide nesting boxes, but the eggs may become soiled, buried in the litter, or trampled (which can lead to egg eating). Hens prefer properly placed, comfortable nest boxes to the floor. Here are some considerations:
Number – Many sources suggest 1 nest box for every 4-5 hens, but I suggest at least one for every 3 hens. It’s nice if the bottom of peck order birds can avoid aggressive individuals.
- Location – Place the nest boxes in the darkest part of the coop, for hens instinctively seek a quiet location with good cover for laying.
- Size – This will depend on the breeds you keep. For full sized, dual purpose breeds like Wyandottes, a typical size would be 12-14 x 12-14 x 12-14 inches. Smaller is okay for bantams, and larger is necessary for huge breeds, like brahmas. Smaller birds will use nesting boxes designed for larger birds as long as they are in dark area. Mine are sized for full sized birds, but my bantams use them.
- Roof – This should have a steep pitch, to discourage birds from resting and pooping on top.
- Lip – A lip on the lower part of the nest box entry will keep the eggs and litter from falling out. Ours have a 4 inch lip, as you can see in the photo.
Perch – It’s nice if there’s an easy landing/grabbing spot for hens.
- Curtains – Some people place burlap (or fancier) curtains in front of the nesting boxes to create a sense of safety for the hens. But if your boxes are well designed and well placed, the hens will use them without curtains. Another use for a curtain is to close off the nestboxes just before the hens go to roost. That way, they won’t sleep and poop inside the boxes. But I let them sleep there if and when they want to. Bottom of peck order birds sometimes sleep in the box to avoid bullies. To keep boxes clean, I scoop poop from the boxes once a day. The minute it takes is time well spent, I believe, to allow the birds the choice.
14. Dust bath
Chickens will create dust bathing areas wherever they have access to the ground, but it’s a good idea to provide a box of sandy soil for dust bathing inside the coop. They will appreciate it when they cannot go outdoors, and when the ground is covered with snow.
15. Chicken runs, pens, and yards
Chickens are curious, active creatures which enjoy a varied diet of plants, insects, and small animals. They just love to find their own food, even if commercial feed is always available (as it should be). But on the other hand, true free ranging is a set up for predator problems. A safer approach is to compromise and provide an enclosed run or fenced yard.
- Enclosed runs should be predator proofed with, for example, 1/2-inch hardware cloth. To exclude digging predators, extend fencing 18-24 inches underground, or place an 18-24 inch skirt of hardware cloth on the ground all around the run. To exclude climbing and aerial predators, the run needs hardware cloth (or other protection) on the top, as well. You might also consider a roof that keeps out rain and snow. If you have bears in the area, run electric wires around the runs to deter them. We have electric wires around the entire set-up. I have two runs, and the chickens get much more use out of the one covered with corrugated plastic, because they can use it during rainy or snowy conditions. For details on predator proofing your coop and run, read here.
- Fenced yards large enough to provide a diversity of plant life make for happy chickens (read here about creating an excellent chicken habitat). Choose fencing based on your needs. Our 4 ft fence contains our chickens, but they have plenty of space. Birds kept at higher density may fly a 4 ft fence for greener pastures, so a height of 5 ft is recommended. Chickens in a fenced yard will be particularly vulnerable to birds of prey, so you should provide trees or shrubs for cover, and some sort of deterrence. A guard dog may help. Our chicken yard is near the vegetable garden where we work, and it’s visible from the house. So, we almost always see predators and call the chickens to safety before its too late.
- Damerow, G. 1995. A Guide to Raising Chickens. Storey Communications, Inc. Pownal, VT.
- How to Design Your Chicken Run
- Rossier, J. 2002. Living with Chickens. The Lyons Press. Guilford, CT.
What do you think are the most important elements in a chicken coop? Share your ideas and ask your questions in the comment section below!