With interest in urban farming picking up steam, many homeowners today are being faced with the challenge of setting up a backyard chicken coop. Like any pets, chickens require a few basics to stay happy and healthy, including food, water and shelter from the elements. But poultry also need some special considerations, from predator protection to places for dust bathing.
Locate a site for your chicken coop. Scan your yard for a quiet spot that gets both sun and shade. Make sure to take the local climate into account. If you live in a place with hot summers, consider placing the coop under a shade tree. If winters are particularly brutal, make sure the coop is somewhere where it will be protected from drafts. Keep in mind that some cities have laws about how far the coop must be located from adjacent properties. Measure to make sure your coop location meets these requirements.
Purchase or build the coop. Buying a pre-made coop and/or run is quicker and easier, but it is more expensive than building one on your own. If you do choose a DIY coop, there are many coop plans available online. Some chicken owners opt to modify a doghouse or garden shed into a simple coop by attaching a run --- usually a wood frame stapled with wire cloth. Whether you buy or build your coop, make sure it provides access to the outdoors, adequate ventilation, such as a screened window, a ladder to allow chickens to easily enter and exit and at least .4 square metres (4 square feet) of space per each free range chicken (up to 1 square metre (10 square feet) if the chickens are to be confined). Overcrowding can lead to health and behavioural problems in chickens.
Make sure the chicken coop is safe from predators. Chicken wire is cheap, but its wide holes do not offer much protection. If you live in a rural area, you should consider using 12.5 mm (1/2-inch) square hardware cloth on all sides of the coop, including the floor and roof of the run, according to My Pet Chicken. This will prevent animals like rats from burrowing underneath and hawks from swooping in from above. At the very least, make sure the fence of the run is buried 30 cm (1 foot) below the soil.
Fit the interior of your coop with roosting perches. Perches should be rounded and approximately 50 mm (2 inches) in diameter. Wooden dowels or pieces of plastic PVC pipe work well. Provide enough perches to allot 12.5 to 25 cm (5 to 10 inches) of space per chicken. Chickens prefer to perch at least 50 mm (2 inches) off the ground, but low enough to be protected from drafts.
Include a removable tray to catch droppings. Some chicken owners prefer to place the tray below a screened metal floor. Others simply fill the bottom of a deep tray with absorbent litter such as pine shavings. Droppings can be added to a compost pile to create fertiliser.
Set up nest boxes in your chicken coop. On average, you will need just one nest box for every four to five hens. You can build the boxes yourself from plywood or purchase them from most feed stores. Attach the nest boxes to the coop wall at least a few inches off the floor, but below the roosting perches. Put them in a dark corner or side of the coop, but make sure you can access them easily to retrieve eggs. Some chicken houses have nest boxes that open from the back so you can collect the eggs without entering the coop. Fill the boxes with a soft bedding material, such as pine shavings or straw.
Place food and water containers inside the coop. Sturdy plastic containers are easier to clean than galvanised metal and won't rust. If a portion of the coop is raised, consider inserting hooks into the floor and allowing the food and water containers to hang from the hooks 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches) from the ground. Chickens are notoriously messy eaters and can knock over containers placed on the floor of the coop.
Provide a place for dust baths. Chickens need to thrash around in the dirt to rid themselves of mites and lice. Ideally, the coop will contain a run with a dirt floor. In the absence of natural soil, consider filling a large plastic cat litter box with clean fill dirt (as opposed to potting soil, which often contains fertiliser granules).
Observe your chickens after moving them into the coop to see if you need to make any changes, such as adding nest boxes, providing more dirt for baths or expanding the size of the run.
If you have the room, consider setting up an additional smaller chicken coop or chicken tractor. This can be used to quarantine new or ill chickens or to separate chicks from aggressive adults.