Creating a Delightful Chicken Home

Fall is the best season for a family to prepare for the delightful experience of welcoming a small flock of chickens to the backyard. For poultry newcomers, fall gives them plenty of time to research the breeds they’d like to welcome, acquire or build a coop, and read up on chicken care. Perhaps there’s even time to visit other families who already have chickens or take a beginning chicken class at a nearby farm store or nature center.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will detail the construction of a sturdy, attractive coop. It’s not always necessary to build a coop, but construction is a fun family learning experience.

Characteristics of an ideal coop

Whether a coop is made by a family from scratch, purchased as a kit, or crafted from an existing building, these characteristics are necessary for chickens to be comfortable, safe, and productive.

  • Sized right: Be sure to have at least four-square feet of coop floor space per hen. More is even better and attaching an outdoor run to the coop adds living space. Coops can be as small as eight or ten square feet, suitable for two hens. More common backyard coops are 20 to 30 square feet and designed for four to six hens. If space is tight, consider bantam chickens. They only need half to a third as much space as full sized birds.
  • Comfort: Coops should provide plenty of ventilation, yet thwart chilly drafts come winter. Hens enjoy a cool breeze on sultry summer evenings and need to be protected from winter’s harsh winds. Great coops allow opening windows or vents when the weather is warm yet closing them down when frost arrives.
  • Protection: Raccoons, opossums, mink, and a host of other furry predators love eating fresh chicken. Mosquitoes and gnats enjoy a meal of blood. Good coops have heavy duty wire mesh on the outside and mosquito netting on the inside stretched over windows to keep predators at bay. A sturdy door, locked each evening after the chickens go to bed, keeps nocturnal predators out.
  • Furniture: Chickens sleep while standing on a perch. A pole or 2×4 with rounded off corners a couple of feet above the floor, makes a comfortable sleeping structure. Hens prefer to lay in nest boxes, which also keep eggs clean. Coops should have at least one nest per four birds. Many small coops have a hinged door that allows for egg collection without entering the coop.
  • Feeders and waterers: These should be easy for hens to reach and humans to clean and fill.
  • Light: Chickens need light. Windows should be positioned to gather as much natural daylight as possible. In the northern regions, positioning a coop so windows are on the south side helps gather the most sunshine and warmth on cold winter days.
  • The weather: Chickens love frequent drinks of clean fresh water, but a wet coop is an invitation to disease and foul odors. The coop must have a good roof that will always protect the interior from rain and snow.
  • Electricity: It’s not necessary to have electricity to the coop, but it makes care of chickens easier, especially in cold climates. Having electricity allows adding artificial light on dark winter days. That increases egg production. Also, a great convenience is a waterer with an electric heating unit inside it. This eliminates the need to keep replacing frozen waterers with fresh water.

Ideal coops should look great in the yard and be part of a backyard decor.  Access should be easy, so hens can be examined, feeders and waterers filled, and cleaning a snap.

Four ways to acquire a coop

  1. Modify an existing building: Often one of the easiest and least expensive ways of creating a backyard coop is to modify an existing building. A large corner of a garage or storage building may work well. Modification may be as simple as making a frame of 2×4 lumber, framing in a door, and covering the interior with chicken wire. Add a feeder, waterer, nests and roost and, bingo, it’s ready to house the flock. Cut a pop hole door in the exterior, create a fenced outdoor run, and the chickens have a snug home to sleep in and escape foul weather and a pleasant outdoor place to loiter and search for tasty insects and seeds. Many home stores sell pre-built or kit garden sheds. These can be modified into a coop.
  2. Buy a pre-built kit: Most places that sell chicks and chicken supplies sell coop kits, and they are also available from chick hatcheries and online. Most kits are small and lightweight. Many allow the purchase of an attached outdoor run. Some kits seem quite frail and may be best suited for people trying chickens for the first time. If they grow to love their hens, they may graduate to a larger or more elaborate coop. Some coop kits are high quality and durable. Take a close look at materials before buying.
  3. Buy a custom-made coop: Many garden and farm stores sell custom made coops. These are often high quality. They look great and are durable but may be relatively expensive. Well-made coops are heavy, so make sure the seller is willing to deliver it.
  4. Building a coop: This is an ideal way to enter the backyard chicken hobby. Later blogs featured on Scoop from the Coop will detail why and how to build a coop perfect for any yard.

Caring for a Multi-Species Flock

Flock expansion can be an exciting endeavor, especially when you are looking to add a new species or two. It can be a fun and challenging task to meet the needs of varying poultry species. Here are a few tips and recommendations to consider if you plan to take your flock to the next level.

There are three main areas of focus before caring for a multi-species flock:

  • Coop Cleanliness
  • Living Space
  • Management Techniques

Coop cleanliness

Providing your multi-species flock with a clean home is of the utmost importance in preventing sickness. Keep the coop clean and dry, and keep waterers out of the coop area to prevent splashing and playing by waterfowl. Remember, anytime you bring new poultry in, you must quarantine them before mixing with the rest of the flock. Not only will the aid in preventing any pre-existing disease they may bring in, but also is safer for the birds until they are acclimated.

Living Space

Larger poultry need more space, so plan accordingly. Factor in a minimum of 4-square-feet per chicken and even more for larger birds. Failing to provide adequate space can lead to boredom and birds will likely begin to peck at one another. If space is an issue, or the birds are more confined during the winter months, make sure there are plenty of food/toys/distractions to relieve boredom.

Management Techniques

A successful multi-species flock is an environment where there is little stress on the birds. Having a good ratio of male to female poultry will help keep a balance in the coop. A good rule of thumb for chickens is approximately 7 hens to 1 rooster. For ducks or other waterfowl, a good balance would include 5-6 females to 1 drake.

Remember that waterfowl are different from chickens and other birds in that they like wet conditions. So their bedding should have more absorbency like straw, pine shavings or grass from lawn mowing. Additionally, ducks don’t like to roost like chickens, so don’t expect to see them on the perches of your coop! They also prefer cooler weather, are more active at night and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to take a dip in a pool or other body of water.

Another multi-species management recommendation would be to keep chickens and turkeys separate. This is to preventing Blackhead disease carried from chickens to turkeys. Although not extremely common in a small flock setting, it can be fatal to turkeys if contracted.

These considerations and many more should be made before you dive head first into managing a multi-species flock. If you are up for the challenge, undoubtedly much enjoyment of watching them grow and flourish is in your future!

Boredom Busters in the Coop

Winter getting the best of you and your chickens? Cabin fever set in? Then take a look at these boredom busters to incorporate into your coop during the long winter months.

Variety in Diet

It’s important to continue your regular commercial feed regiment during the winter, but other variety in the way of diet can go far. Ambitious owners can sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Additionally, table scraps can serve as an exciting treat for your feathered friends. Among the better scraps to feed chickens are small amounts of salad, greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that is relatively dry. Please remember that MODERATION is KEY when it comes to scraps and treats.

Other treat options can include a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have.

Space

Giving your birds space in the coop is important in keeping peace and contentment among the flock. Four square feet of floor space per bird is the minimum. Include perches and roosts at different heights and angles to offer exercise for hens. Add some stumps to the coop floor as well, to add some variety in perch options for your friends.

New and Different

Your girls will love the addition of something new and different to the coop during those long, cold months. Try securing a mirror in the coop, chickens find their own reflection fascinating! Do avoid if you have a rooster as they may mistake their reflection for another rooster in the flock.

Additionally, just spending more time with your birds can help to break up their day (and yours!) And remember, stay strong, Spring will be here eventually!

How to introduce new birds to your existing flock

 

Birds of a feather truly do stick together. That’s why it can be a challenging task to bring new birds into your established flock – new flock members often get picked on and harassed by hens who don’t want to share their territory. For a seamless integration of new birds into your flock, there are a couple of tricks that work well. All you need is patience – and some ninja-like moves.

To start with you want to make sure that your coop/run setup is large enough to accommodate the new birds that you are adding. Each adult bird will need 3-4 square feet of space. If bringing in birds from another flock, make sure they have been through a quarantine period of at least 30 days and are healthy.

Keeping new birds in a cage will let them interact with the flock without being harmed.

You’ll want to introduce birds to each other gradually and let them interact without the opportunity of pecking or abuse. To do this, place your new birds inside the run or coop in an area where they can see and get to know each other but where they are still separated. A wire cage works well, but you can also put new birds into a dog crate or use chicken wire to fence off a portion of the area and make two separate spaces. If introducing new chicks to your flock, you’ll want to make sure they are fully feathered and acclimated to the coop temperature.  You want to keep new birds in their own area and let everyone get to know each other for at least two weeks. Patience is key here, so don’t rush the “getting to know you” phase.

The ninja moves come into play when it is time to introduce the new birds into the existing flock. Wait until night, when it’s dark and all birds are sleeping comfortably. Moving quickly and quietly, you want to take the new birds from their resting spot and put them on the roosts next to your other sleeping birds. When the birds wake up in the morning they are next to another hen that they are familiar with (because they’ve been in close proximity, although separate areas, for several weeks) and they are often tricked into thinking that they’ve always been together. You’ll want to carefully monitor the everyone during the next week while the pecking order is reorganized, but this approach should give you a fairly seamless merging of your flock.

The right nutrition at the right time for layers

Timing is everything when it comes to feeding your laying hens. Ensuring they have the correct nutrition at just the right time is an important part of having a happy and healthy flock.

Hatch to approximately week 6: Provide free choice access to a quality chick starter ration and make fresh clean water available at all times. Proper nutrition in this critical growth stage will impact the performance of the chicken for their entire lifespan. Use a heat lamp to keep birds warm and provide 1 sq. foot per chick.

Approximately 6 weeks to 16 weeks: Continue to provide free choice access to chick starter and water. If you choose to feed treats (scratch grains, kitchen scraps, etc.), put out what birds will consume in about 15 minutes once per day. This a good guide to follow to make sure treats don’t exceed 15% of the total diet. Add treats only after week 6. If birds have access to anything other than a crumble or pellet, provide grit free choice in a seperate feeder.

16 weeks +: Now is the time to switch to layer feed! Provide layer pellets or layer crumbles and grit free choice along with access to fresh clean water at all times. Treats can be provided at no more than 15% of the diet. At this point it is also important to make oyster shell available free choice to provide supplemental calcium for hard-shelled eggs. Adult birds require approximately 3-4 sq. feet of space per bird in the coop; you also need to plan on one nesting box for every 4-5 hens.

Care Tips for Healthy Hens

Raising layer hens is an investment in fresh, wholesome eggs. Your hens will perform best if they have room to live and roam, nutritious feed, fresh water, and a safe, comfortable coop to nest and roost.

Your coop should have a minimum of four square feet of space per hen, and one perch and one nest box for every four or five hens. Spread a 6-inch layer of shavings or sawdust on the floor to absorb droppings and give the birds a place to take a dust bath. Chickens tolerate temperature extremes but will suffer in cold winter drafts or stifling summer heat. Make sure the coop is free of drafts during the winter and well ventilated in the summer.

Protect your chickens from predators by keeping them penned within good, sturdy fencing and closing the coop door each evening after your flock goes to roost.

Because hens rarely find enough nutrients on their own for a complete, balanced diet, your choice of feed is important. Select one with the protein, vitamins and minerals they need to meet their unique nutritional requirements. Keep feed and fresh, clean water available at all times. Give your hens oyster shell or coarse-ground limestone to help maintain their calcium levels and grit to help them digest their food. An occasional treat of scratch grains will satisfy their pecking instincts and keep them busy.