The average chicken is a fairly hardy animal who for the most part will take care of herself. However, she will still need protection from the elements and predators and a quiet place to lay eggs. It is your job to build secure shelter for your hens, and though there a few important things to consider, with so many good design ideas available from your area extension service, the Department of Agriculture and online, it is a relatively simple project to plan.
Before building, find out what local ordinances say about chickens. In the countryside, this is not usually a problem, but many cities and suburbs have strict regulations concerning what they call farm animals or livestock. In some areas, you may get permission to keep a limited number of hens, but may not keep a rooster because of the crowing issue. Some areas may also restrict the size of henhouses or specify a maximum number or hens for a given space. It is easier to check ahead than to tear down or modify your coop later.
If your area allows chickens but restricts the housing size for them, start with that to determine the number of hens you can keep in healthy, stress-free conditions. The University of Virginia Cooperative Extension Service recommends between 1 and 2 square feet per bird inside and 10 square feet outside for each chicken, but many other sources stipulate 4 square feet inside and 10 to 16 square feet outside as a more reasonable amount of space for happy chickens. Of course bantam breeds need less space than larger breeds. Allow 6 to 10 inches of low perching space for each chicken as well. In general, where space is not at a premium, allow as much exercise room as possible while keeping within your city, county or state regulations and guidelines.
If fresh eggs are your goal, you will need to consider the size, design and placement of nest boxes for your hens. A typical nest box is a 12-inch cube, but there is no hard and fast rule. You can use cardboard boxes of different sizes to determine what size your hens prefer before building wooden boxes to that size. Hens will lay in nests of a surprising variety of shapes and sizes, but the one thing they all seem to like is privacy. Build or place nest boxes in an out-of-the-way corner—preferably in dim light—so hens are calm and can concentrate on getting the job done without distraction. It is also a good idea to fashion a lid that opens to the outside atop each nest box, for collecting eggs with the least disturbance to the hens.
Health and Safety
A healthy henhouse needs light and fresh air, and has adequate protection from predators and the elements in all seasons. Put windows with quarter-inch wire mesh screens on at least two sides for cross ventilation and to keep down humidity and odor. Consider insulating the henhouse to moderate the temperature in winter and summer. Size and arrange doors for easy human access to make cleaning easier. Use sliding windows and doors to prevent hens from perching where they shouldn't. Put strong locks on every door and window to discourage theft and predation. Lastly, allow space to arrange food and water away from perches and bad weather, and high enough from the floor to prevent contamination while still allowing hens access to it.
Tips & Warnings
- Chain link fence is heavy and will need strong corner supports. Use metal poles set in concrete at the corners.
- Any dividing fences across the pen middle can be of cheaper wire. Be sure to put the fence tight to the ground so the birds can't go under it.
- While shade trees are nice, having too many will mean any forage crops won't do well.
- A dirt floor will mean the house cannot be washed out because it will hold moisture and wet chicken manure is dangerous. It will give off ammonia gas that can be deadly to you or your flock.
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