By Chris Lesley
Building a chicken coop is a daunting task. After all, this will hopefully be your chickens’ happy home for years to come, and it feels imperative that every little detail be correct. Fortunately, hens aren’t particularly choosy, so a good chicken coop doesn’t need to be beautiful or state-of-the-art.
While there are certain requirements that every chicken coop should meet, it can be difficult to figure out what those are. How much space does each bird need? How much ventilation is necessary to prevent disease? All of these answers depend largely on what kind of birds you’re raising where, but the basics of building a chicken coop are fairly universal – and also pretty basic!
Determine your needs
There are a couple of things everybody needs to figure out before they start looking at chicken coops – how many birds they need to house, what kind and size of hens they have, and what kind of weather they’re dealing with. As a general rule, a coop should have at least four square feet of space for each bird, or 10 if the chickens never get to exercise outside.
However, this is where the breed of the birds comes into play: Bantam chickens, unsurprisingly, can get by with less space (about two square feet each), while larger breeds like Brahmas will need extra (as much as eight square feet).
The last consideration is climate. Does the coop need to be insulated against cold weather? Elevated because of frequent flooding? Answering these questions ahead of time will save a lot of time that might be wasted in building a coop that’s inappropriate for your flock.
Find your materials
Although metal chicken coops are available, most chicken coops are made of either wood or plastic. Each material has its pros and cons, and its staunch defenders and detractors. Wood is cheaper, prettier, easier to assemble and repair. People working with wood also have a lot more options for both blueprints and pre-fab coops.
Plastic is lighter and easier to clean, as it can usually just be hosed off or power washed. It’s also great for heavy winters, since it’s less likely to absorb water and warp or otherwise suffer from the cold. That lack of porousness, though, also makes plastic less breathable and more susceptible to condensation.
Despite the popular chatter, plastic is no better than wood at keeping out red mites, the chicken owner’s nemesis. Either material can safely and successfully house chickens; a lot of times, it simply comes down to a matter of the owner’s personal preference.
Pick a plan
Once you’ve nailed down the specifications of the coop, it’s time to figure out the particulars of the design. There are an almost infinite number of chicken coop blueprints available online, all with a variety of useful or helpful features. Many have removable floor trays to make it easier to clean out poop and debris; one thing to avoid is narrow spaces between floorboards, which can collect hard-to-reach layers of chicken poop that will eventually build up an unbelievable odor.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when finding a chicken coop plan, though, is ventilation. Chickens are prone to respiratory infections, and a well-ventilated coop is a must to protect their airways from diseases that could potentially wipe out a flock.
Chicken coop, assemble!
This is the fun part. Maybe. It’s definitely the part where all the planning and searching of the first three steps starts to pay off, and you start to have a tangible product from all that work and expense. One of the things to keep in mind when assembling your coop is location – Where is the coop in relation to the house, to certain plants, to the sun?
An ideal coop spot will be flat and have relatively few plants around it – tall trees can house hungry hawks, and lots of undergrowth is the perfect hiding place for foxes and other predators. Depending on the climate, though, it might be necessary to build the coop in the shade, so it doesn’t overheat in hours of direct sunlight, and cold-weather chicken owners might want to maximize sunlight for the same reason.
It’s move-in day
Transitioning your chickens into a new coop can feel more like a covert operation than a housewarming party, but it fortunately doesn’t involve any Mission Impossible-style dangling from the ceiling. Instead, the trick is to transfer them into the new coop without them noticing – usually at night. Most hens are deep enough sleepers that if you move them from a roost in the old coop to one in the new one, they won’t notice much until the next morning.
Once they’ve moved, though, the key is in getting them to stay there. The easiest way to do that is to lock them in the new coop for a few days, until they’re relatively used to the new space, and make sure not to let them back into the old coop for a while, until they’re fully settled in their new digs. For chicks graduating to their first coop, no subterfuge is necessary, but it helps to give them that same transition period of staying in the coop for a few days, until they’ve realized this is the new place where they sleep at night and they stop pining for the safety of their old cardboard box.
The process of building a chicken coop can be exhausting, painful, and full of stress. It can also be fun, exhilarating, and full of promise. After all, the world of chicken coops offers a dizzying array of possibilities, and the excitement of successfully transferring a flock to a more suitable home can last for weeks. As always, the trick to any successful chicken-keeping activity is patience, planning, and a readiness to change the plan. Oh, and a nail gun wouldn’t hurt.