WRITTEN BY CATRIONA TUDOR ERLER
As more people search for a sustainable, self-sufficient way of life, the population of suburban neighborhoods is changing. People aren’t necessarily moving out, but chickens are moving in. In addition to providing fresh eggs, free-range chickens help control insects, add nutrients to the garden, and can even make affectionate pets. But to keep your little red hens safe and comfortable, the perfect coop is key. Most chicken coops are humble abodes hidden in a discrete location in the garden, but that doesn’t have to be the case. With a bit of creativity, you can craft a practical and attractive setup worthy of being a central feature in your garden.
At her country home in Connecticut, the internationally renowned decorator Bunny Williams has an outdoor chicken run with swooping rafters to support the netting that keeps her flock safe from predators. The hen houses that flank this spacious aviary are built in the style of colonial outbuildings with clapboard siding and a pyramid hip roof. Williams-Sonoma featured a charming coop on wheels that allowed the chickens to be moved around your property—creating a modified version of free-range chickens—priced at $1,300. In its 2012 fantasy gifts catalog, Neiman Marcus offered a $100,000 chicken coop inspired by Le Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Those who fancy a chic coop but lack the Neiman Marcus budget can retrofit a prefab playhouse or garden shed to satisfy a chicken’s needs. Online, you’ll find playhouse “cottages” in styles such as Victorian, Cape Cod, log cabins, farmhouses, summer lake cottages, and more.
Like humans, chickens get testy, resorting to tension-induced behavior such as pecking and aggressiveness if they are crammed too close together. Birds with access to outdoor foraging require a minimum of two to three square feet per bird inside the coop. More spacious accommodations are even better, especially if the flock will be kept inside during the winter. In that situation, five to ten square feet per chicken is required. Birds that live in a chicken tractor (a coop on wheels) need about five square feet per chicken. Once the minimums have been met, plan for as much roominess as your space and budget will allow.
Once you’ve met the requirements of your local building codes, zoning ordinances, and, where applicable, homeowner association restrictions, you must meet the chicken’s requirements. Good ventilation is essential, as is protection from predators. Shade is important, too, as are areas of dry soil or dirt where hens can dust bathe to control parasites. If you don’t have a dusty spot in the chicken run or coop, provide a box filled with dirt or sand.
Laying hens will need nest boxes that are at least two feet off the ground and about one square foot. Prefab boxes such as milk crates or plastic tubs lined with shavings or straw and nailed to a shelf or directly to the wall work fine. For community nesting space, allow the same one square foot per hen.
Chickens instinctively seek high ground when they sleep to keep them safe from predators. Perching keeps them off the ground where they are more susceptible to pathogens and bacteria in the litter as well as parasites such as mites and lice. Unlike other birds, they do not wrap their feet around a perch; they sleep flat-footed. Thus, they need a two- to four-inch wide surface on which to roost. On the blog Fresh Eggs Daily, author Lisa Steele—a fifth-generation chicken keeper— suggests using the four-inch side of a two-by-four as a roost to help protect their feet from frostbite. Whatever the season, create an inviting coop for your hens to keep a happy flock.
If you’re ready to get started or revamp your on-site chicken abodes, turn to these books for guidance.
Hentopia: Create a Hassle-Free Habitat for Happy Chickens; 21 Innovative Projects by Frank Hyman
“I wanted to possess the least expensive and lowest maintenance chicken compound in world history,” writes Hyman. “A Hentopia for chickens and chicken-keepers.”
Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard by Jessi Bloom
“More and more, chickens are becoming part of our gardens, providing us with fresh eggs,” writes Bloom, “but their strengths as garden helpers are often overlooked.”
The New Rules of the Roost: Organic Care & Feeding for the Family Flock by Robert Litt and Hannah Litt
“Distilled in these pages are our twenty-five years of combined personal and professional experience keeping chickens . . . ” write the Litts.