Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In my part of the United States, you can't drive down a back road without seeing the remnants of an old chicken coop near a barn or house. Quietly decaying as time passes, they are visual markers of a time when almost every rural family kept chickens close at hand.
No matter where you plan to keep chickens, consideration must be given to housing. Chickens need a place to be protected while they grow, eat and sleep. Chicken housing may be as simple as an existing shed or garden shack, or as big as a poultry barn, housing hundreds.
The single, most popular small-scale housing solution today is the chicken tractor, a portable coop designed to house a small flock. I use the chicken tractor only during summer months as a method of starting young birds safely on open range. They benefit from fresh forage daily but are not free to roam, nor are they easy prey for hawks or stray cats and dogs. No matter what housing system you use, there must be a roosting space where the birds can be securely locked up at night.
If chickens are to be kept throughout the year in a colder climate, your plan must be large enough to provide them room to move when they are cooped up for several months at a time. A good standard for coop floor space is 4 square feet per bird. So, if you have an 8-by-8-foot shed, you can house 16 large birds throughout the year comfortably.
Nest boxes are necessary if you want your hens to have a place to lay in a predictable location. One nest box for every four hens is all that's necessary. Decoy eggs help to educate your chickens as to where you'd like them to deposit their own eggs. If there is a window in your coop, the nest boxes should be on the same wall as the window, as this is the darkest location. Elevate the nest boxes above chicken eye-level so they don't notice eggs and peck out of boredom.
Covered water and feed bins are also something you need to plan for in a coop. Keeping these things inside will greatly reduce the chances of wildlife or other animals sharing your chicken-dining facility.
A coop should not be air tight, but should reduce drafts and provide adequate shelter from cold, wind and rain. A coop properly sized to the number of residents will be warmer when closed simply from the body heat of your chickens. The coop should be ventilated well enough to keep the inside dry. Adult chickens do not require auxiliary heat sources in winter, so save your money on those heat lamps and other energy-consuming heat units. Chickens that are well watered and fed are capable of generating their own heat as long as they are draft free.
If you want to get your creative wheels turning and need some chicken-housing ideas, consider picking up a copy of Chicken Coops by Judy Pangman. The book contains samples of chicken structures from simple and recycled to completely-out-of-control demonstrations of architectural artistry.
You can also visit my website for more coop information.
Photo by Frederick J. Dunn.