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Keeping backyard chickens is generally quite an inexpensive hobby (it can even be profitable if they lay enough eggs). In fact your chicken coop is likely to be your biggest expense, so you definitely want to get it right!
I’ve listed out the top 12 things your hen house needs to make it nice and easy for when you are deciding which chicken house to buy (or make if you like a bit of DIY).
Honestly if you want healthy and happy chickens the following 12 things are non-negotiable, so let’s get to it so you can find the dream house for your backyard hens!
The 12 Things Your Chicken Coop Must Have:
1) Enough Space
The first thing your chicken coop needs is enough space.
Now legally in most countries chickens can be kept in a very small space (think intensive chicken farming where they can barely move). But we want our chickens to have a happy life, which means giving them enough space to display their natural instincts such as scratching, dusting bathing and generally moving around!
Your actual chicken coop (which is where the chickens sleep at night and lay their eggs) doesn’t need to be that big, but at an absolute minimum each bird must have 1-3 square feet each.
But rather than using a arbitrary number you are much better looking at whether all the chickens have enough room to sit on their roosting bars, and whether there is enough nest boxes. (We will talk more about roosting bars and nest boxes later).
Both of these aspects depend on the breed of course, so the larger your breed the more space they take up on the roosting bars, but ten inches each is a good amount. And the more eggs your hens lay, realistically the more nest box space you need. I like around one nest box to 3 – 4 hens.
Now the outside space is a bit simpler, while inside bigger isn’t necessarily better because they like to snuggle up at night, during the day they will appreciate (and use) all the space you give them. I would recommend around 20 square feet per bird minimum (that’s about 2 square meters each). But the more outdoor space you give them the happier they will be.
2) Portable or Permanent
Okay this is less something your chicken coop needs, but more a decision you have to make.
Will your hen house be moveable or will it always stay in the same spot?
Fair warning, chickens will destroy any ground you put them on. The only way to stop them completely desiccating an area of grass is to literally move them every single day.
Hence chicken tractors were born. A chicken tractor is a chicken coop and run that is moved onto a fresh piece of ground each day. Great if you have a massive lawn. But if your backyard is pretty small then you probably wouldn’t be able to move a portable chicken coop and run enough before the chickens ended up on a piece of ground they had been on, and that hadn’t had time to recover.
When I first started keeping chickens I thought a moveable chicken coop and run was very important so I could give them fresh grass. But the thing is chickens don’t really care about grass. They want to scratch and dust bath, and when let loose in a garden they actually gravitate towards the flower beds where the earth is softer.
So personally I wouldn’t bother with moving a chicken coop and run every day (it’s a lot of work) but instead allot them a permanent spot in your garden where they can destroy the ground to their hearts content.
3) The coop and run must be predator proof
In the UK the main predators are foxes; in America you have a few more predators to deal with including foxes, coyotes, possums, mink, snakes, skunks, large birds, raccoons and fisher cats.
Luckily the same precautions should protect your hens from all types of predators, although, obviously if you know you have an issue with a particular predator in your area, do some additional research to check your coop is secure against that one.
- There must be no holes or gaps in the coop once the external door is closed (pop hole) except for ventilation, which should have some sort of mesh or guard over it to stop predators. (Do not use chicken wire as the wire is very thin and easily chewed through, use weld mesh instead if you want to keep your chickens safe!)
- All openings must have strong locks on them so nimble predators such as raccoons cannot open them.
- Ensure the coop is made well so a larger predator couldn’t chew into it.
- The only run that will keep your chickens completely safe is one with a roof.
- To stop predators digging in you should dig down into the ground and bury the mesh.
- The run should have a skirt, which is where about a foot of mesh is laid around the edge of the run on the floor so if a predator tried to dig in they would just be digging on mesh.
- Like I mentioned above, traditional chicken wire is easily chewed through, weld mesh is much stronger and should be used instead.
- There should be no holes or gaps ever.
- The run door must have strong locks so nimble predators (like raccoons) cannot open them.
- Always pick up chicken food at night to discourage rodents.
The picture above is of weld mesh. Note how much thicker the metal is and how much smaller the holes are. I know it seems like I’m going on about it a lot but the amount of stories I’ve heard about chicken wired being chewed through makes me very wary!
4) The chicken coop must be easy to clean
You will be cleaning your chicken coop out regularly, most likely weekly, so make sure it’s easy and quick to do.
I see so many coops that just look like a nightmare to clean. For example my most hated design is when only the lid will remove for cleaning. That means you have to bend right over and it will be such a pain getting all the muck from the corners.
Personally I love my eglus because not only are they made of plastic rather than wood, so dirt just washes off them so easily. But you can also basically completely dismantle them, removing all the internal fittings (roosting bars etc) which is a must for ease of cleaning.
Not only that but my eglu chicken coop is at waist height, which means I don’t even have to bend down to do all of this.
Now all these things may seem small, but they make cleaning so much easier. And when cleaning is easy to do, not only do you do a better job, but you do the job more often!
Don’t worry eglus come in other colors like green if purple isn’t your look!
5) Your hen house should be easy to check for red mite
Red mite is the bane of chicken keepers lives.
Little tiny blood sucking beasties that hide out in your chicken coop’s crevices coming out at night to feed on your chickens.
They can and will eventually kill your chickens if left untreated, but they are seriously difficult to get rid of once you have them, particularly if you a major infestation.
Which is why your chicken coop needs to be super easy to check for these mites. Their dirt looks like little grey piles of dust, and when they have eaten they are all red, full of blood.
Supposedly if you can see the mites when they are red that means you have a major infestation because there is so many of them they can no longer fit in the cracks and crevices they prefer.
Because they like to hide is crevices, removal of internal fittings like roosting bars is imperative so you can check in the joins. They are less likely to be a problem in plastic chicken coops, but having only ever used plastic coops I can say from personal experience that you can still get red mite. So check every week, and make sure you also dust your chickens weekly with diatomaceous earth.
Top tip; if your chicken coop is made of wood, paint everything pure white, this will make it much easier to spot any red mite.
6) The internal fittings should be removable
I know I mentioned that the internal fittings (roosting bars and possibly nesting boxes) should be removable for ease of cleaning and to check for red mite.
But I decided to give this a section all of it’s own, just to illustrate how important it is!!!
7) It must be ventilated but not draughty
Your chickens will need fresh air in the coop while they are sleeping (you probably didn’t need me to tell you that…) So ventilation holes are extremely important. But like I said earlier just make sure that any holes are covered with weld mesh or proper ventilation guards, not chicken wire!
And make sure there isn’t soo much ventilation that the coop is draughty. A good way to tell is that if it were windy, would the ventilation cause your chickens feathers to move. If it would, then the ventilation is either too much or poorly placed.
8) The coop must be suitable for the chicken breed
For example, Silkie chickens can’t fly very well so a coop where they have to fly five feet to get onto their roosting bar is not suitable!
Most coops, unless stated otherwise, are suitable and built to house a standard hybrid chicken. So check with the manufacturer that the coop will be suitable for your specific breed.
9) Roosting bars
Your chicken coop needs roosting bars. Chickens are naturally forest birds that would sleep in trees to protect themselves from predators.
Whilst we domesticated chickens a long time ago, they still prefer (normally) to roost on a bar (or branch), and if given a choice will go as high as possible.
The roosting bar should be about the width of an average broom handle for the bird’s comfort. In fact if you are building your coop yourself, a broom handle will make the perfect roosting bar!
10) Nesting boxes
Your hens will want to lay their eggs somewhere private, hence why nesting boxes are so important. Like I said earlier you probably want around one nest box to three to four hens.
Some coops will just have one big nest box instead, which can work really well as often hens will all try and lay in the same nest box anyway…
The best coops come with some sort of door that can be shut at night, this stops the chickens sleeping in the nest boxes and making the bedding dirty (which will make the eggs dirty) and discourages them from going broody because they cannot sit all night.
If you watch the video below I’ve made it start just at the point where you can see the closeable nest boxes on my favorite, and the only coop I recommend, the eglu of course!
11) Chicken coop bedding must be chicken friendly
Choosing the right bedding for your chickens is really important for the safety and the health of your hens.
For example hay is a very poor choice because the chickens can (and probably will) eat it, but because hay is in such long strands it will often cause compacted crop and that is normally fatal. Plus hay can easily be a bit damp and grow harmful fungi.
I personally prefer wood shavings (with the dust extracted). It’s inexpensive, soaks up any messy poo and I can add things like diatomaceous earth and other poultry dusts (to stop lice and mites) to the nest box to help keep my chickens healthy.
12) You need some sort of run
Even if you plan for your chickens to be completely free range all of the time you still need some sort of run.
There will be a time when the chickens have to be contained. An excellent example of this is when an outbreak of bird flu happens and legally all chickens have to be undercover and in a designated area.
Ideally the run would be a walk in run because at some point you will need to go in there to either tend to the ground or tend to a chicken (it may be poorly or injured) and crawling into a chicken coop is not fun.
Plus the run should also be covered, not only to help prevent predator attacks, but to also give the chickens some shelter when it’s very sunny or very wet.
If your chickens are going to be inside the run all the times, rather than free ranging, please ensure they have adequate space and things to do. Make platforms of different heights for them to fly onto, hang things like cabbages or cd’s for them to peck and play with and make sure they have access to a dust bath or that the ground is soft enough that they can make one!
Plus like I mentioned earlier the run needs to be fox and predator proof. Do bury that mesh down and add a skirt to prevent predators digging in, put a roof on it, a good lock and use weld mesh over chicken wire which predators can chew through (I’m gonna keep saying it, don’t use chicken wire!)
So now you know the 12 things your chicken coop needs to have, it’s time to buy (or make) your hen house!
There are thousands of different chicken house manufacturers out there. But after ten years of keeping chickens in many different types of coops I personally only recommend one, or building your own so the coop is exactly to your and your garden’s specifications.
The only chicken coop manufacturer that I recommend is Omlet and they produce eglus.
I have had my eglus for well over 10 years now and they are just as sturdy as when I brought them. They are easy to clean, maintain an even temperature, require no maintenance and extremely predator proof.
They are quite expensive, but will last you pretty much forever. Second hand ones are often for sale on eBay or Craigslist, and really a second hand one is as good as a new one because they last so well!
As always if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Happy chicken keeping!