Shades of muted brown or grey blend well with nature for the author’s chicken coop.
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My plan was to begin raising chickens as soon as I took possession of my 6 ½ acres of land. Over the first couple of years, I built and took apart numerous shoddy cages, after loosing birds to wildlife. Predators are a constant problem for chicken farmers. Everybody loves chicken. I have lost chickens to hawks, fishers, raccoons, the neighbours’ dogs, and even a bear that bent a wall of shopping cart steel mesh in half.
I needed a solid, permanent chicken coop, with moth balls stored safely under the roof edges to deter the bears.
I was a struggling designer (still am) wanting to design buildings. I decided that if I built an awesome chicken coop, using a lot of reclaimed materials, it would be an affordable and practical beginning to my architectural career.
Designing an Architectural Chicken Coop
I designed and built, with the help of my son Jordan, and boyfriend James, a 9-by9-foot wood frame building with an extensive roof overhang. It was built on a 9-by-15-foot reinforced concrete floating slab foundation. The overhang would protect an outside caged area that would be finished with stone and heavy grill work afterwards. The four walls supported the roof, allowing complete flexibility for the interior layout. I could build the cages and make changes without affecting the structure.
I went with what I thought would be best. Months later, it was finished, and certainly more beautiful than the unfinished cabin my son and I were living in. The coop had glass on all four sides, and every cage had great views. I believe that if you’re going to put something in a cage, it better be a nice one.
Over the years, I’ve raised many chickens and quail in that coop. Breeding birds and selling the chicks proved to be the most lucrative endeavour, and certainly the most fun. My most productive year, I hatched out over 100 chicks, with the aid of Silkie hens (as I live without electricity). Broody Silkie hens will incubate any eggs, not just their own. I’ve even had a Silkie hen successfully hatch out tiny quail chicks the size of large bumble bees — although she unfortunately, stepped on a few.
Rain barrels collect the much-needed water for the birds.
Improving an Original Chicken Coop Design
I soon learned that my original coop design could use some improving. A nesting mother needs a private space, preferably under a shelf, that won’t be disturbed by other chickens. Sometimes a few hens will sit together to hatch out eggs, requiring a larger nesting area. Some hens prefer their own cage.
I wanted to encourage the hens to nest on the floor, but when inspecting eggs, one does not want to be on their hands and knees, groping in a dark corner, under a low shelf. I needed cages that were easy to clean, otherwise the job is easier to put off. So, down came the interior walls, and new plans were carried out.
After a few more years of successful breeding, I realized I could improve my poultry venture even further. I learned about the advantages of adding guinea fowl to my flock. Guinea fowl can free range with less threat of being eaten by a predator, as they can fly and will take to the safety of trees. They will let out a piercing shriek if there’s any sign of danger. Many people find their shrieks annoying, but I prefer having the warning.
I usually let the guineas run loose for a couple of hours in the afternoon. While they are out, they are consuming ticks and other bugs, reducing harmful insects and feed costs. Equally important, they are not pooping in my coop, which means less time spent cleaning cages, and less money spent on purchasing shavings. Guinea fowl are fairly large birds, so, down came the walls, and new plans were implemented.
So far, I have re-designed the interior of my chicken coop three times. I have learned to use a lot less screws. I presently have three large, one medium, and three small cages, as well as ample space for feed storage. The wood shavings are stored in the loft. The three large cages have glass sliding doors, allowing the birds to go outside, weather permitting. We can have snow here for up to six months of the year, and the doors are usually closed for about four months, during the coldest weather.
A high ceiling and lots of windows are important elements.
How I Use Chicken Coop Cages
One large cage contains my Silkie rooster and usually five egg layers (at present, Leghorns and Ameraucanas). The second cage is for broody hens. The third cage is for guinea fowl. It also could be used to grow two batches of meat birds a year, which would only occupy the space for eight weeks each. Or, it could be used to breed heritage meat birds.
The medium-sized cage is often called into service while separating birds for inspection, sale or photo shoots. The three smaller cages are for smaller broody hens who prefer to be alone, when on eggs.
I also have three mobile cages (hamster cages) that I bring into my house, when necessary. I have had hens go broody in February, and rather than waste the opportunity, I have brought them into my cabin. I have also used these cages to house many chicks when it’s too cold in the coop. I usually keep a hen with her chicks for up to two weeks. Then the mother is returned to the flock — where hopefully she will want to sit on another batch of eggs.
East view: Potential earth-sheltered or outdoor cage site.
West view: Custom-built, medium cage by Henry Schaly.
Introducing Chicks to a New Mother
In reality, few things go as planned, and I end up moving various birds from cage to cage, trying to keep everyone happy. Sometimes a hen will hatch out a few chicks and then abandon the rest of the eggs. This happened twice this summer.
I didn’t have an available broody hen, so I put the chicks in a mobile cage with older chicks. I introduced the older chicks to the younger ones, one at a time. It takes just seconds to know how they will get along. They will either immediately warm up to the babies and let them snuggle underneath them, or they will peck at the youngsters.
In one case, a six-week-old Silkie/Ameraucana chick (a pullet, I guess) instantly fell to mothering eight newly hatched chicks and protected them when re-united with her siblings two weeks later. In the second case, four one-month old Silkie/Cochin chicks joined forces to raise eight guinea fowl two-day-old chicks. Not all of the older chicks were wanting to participate. I believe this helps in determining which of the older chicks are good candidates to become good broody hens; perhaps it suggests their gender. It certainly reveals their nature.
Having cages in a variety of sizes gives me the flexibility I need — things are always changing. Three guinea fowl went missing a couple of weeks ago. They never returned to the coop. I never heard a thing. On the bright side, their progeny are chirping happily downstairs in my kitchen.
And life goes on, with always something new to be learned, new challenges to overcome and new miracles to witness.
Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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