If you’re thinking about putting chickens your backyard, there’s a bewildering selection of prefab coops, building plans and advice out there. Unfortunately, many of the coops are poorly designed and are far too small for the number of birds that they advertise that they can house. There’s also been a plethora of “reinvented” coop ideas. I’m all for fun design, but not at the expense of the health of my hens.
Here’s what your laying hens really need:
Interior floor space: A minimum of 4 square feet per chicken of interior floor space. This doesn’t count the nesting boxes (some coops have them on the floor) or the exterior covered run space.
Interior air space: Chickens need to roost at least 30 inches up off of the ground, and have head space to do that comfortably.
Roosts: 6 inches per hen. I prefer rounded roosts. Hens have special ligaments in their legs that lock in place when they sleep. This is how they can sleep without falling off the perch. To do this, they need to be on a round roost. If possible, have roosts at varying heights because that helps with flock dynamics.
Windows: Sunlight is essential in a coop. Hens have very poor night vision. Even if it’s daylight outside, if it’s dark in the coop, your chickens won’t get moving, eating, or laying their eggs if they can’t see to hop off of the roost. Also, sunshine is a natural sanitizer. And, the hens appreciate a sunny spot on a damp and cold day to sit in. Finally, windows allow you to look in, and sometimes you need to know what’s going on in the henhouse!
Ventilation: Soffits in the eaves are not enough. A cupola is best, as it very effectively pulls damp air up and out. Vents near the eaves are good, but must be large enough. Windows that open when it is hot are a necessity.
Pop door: This is the small door that the chickens use to go in and out. In cold weather, they can come and go, but the barn will remain cozy.
Nesting boxes: Plan on 2 or 3 for seven or fewer hens. For a large flock have 1 box for every 5 birds. These can be homemade or purchased. I like these mounted about about 6 inches off of the ground.
Exterior space: Provide at least 8 square feet per bird for the fenced run.
Flooring: You can have anything from dirt to wood to concrete. If you do have a dirt floor, then make sure that you can protect your hens from digging predators and rats with underground fencing. If you have wood, you can add a sheet of inexpensive vinyl to keep it from absorbing moisture and to ease cleaning. I have concrete floors in my coops, which is an initial expense, but makes for secure and clean housing.
You’ll also need an area for dust bathing, and a sheltered place, whether inside or out, for the food and water dispensers. You’ll need storage for grain, bedding and tools. I prefer coops and runs that I can walk into for ease of cleaning and also so that I can spend time with my chickens. Don’t be swayed by the ads that tout small starter coops. Buying one will be an expensive mistake, as you’ll need replace it later on. Design and build the right housing from the start and you’ll have a healthy, peaceful, productive flock.
If you’re looking for ideas, I have a Pinterest board with examples of small coop designs.
Hi Terry, Love the site. I have a question about roosts. We used small tree limbs for this, and while I do see the girls go on them, it doesnt seem that they roost on them at night. Since they were small, they all huddle together in a corner of the coop–which is evidenced by the large amount of poop in the same corner all the time. Have you heard of this before? Do you think it has anything to do with the size of the tree limbs?
Thanks for your help. p.s. our girls are almost a year old–no other issues, health or otherwise that I know of.
I’ve used tree branches, too. Are the branches secure or bouncy? Are they large enough and feel secure to the hens? ARe they too high, too low? Is there enough room for them to roost next to their friends? Look at them from the hens’ perspectives. To get them out of the habit of sleeping on the floor, you might want to replace what you have with better roosts, and gently place them on there each night until they get the hang of it.
Thanks for your help. The limbs are secure, not bouncy at all, and are pretty good sized, maybe 2in? I will start putting them on their “bed” at night and hope they get the hint! Have a great day
I watched a bit of your reading in the barn. You looked so cute with those ladies, who by the way looked like they were attendants to the queen!
My coop does not have enough ventilation or windows. Also, I found out today that I absolutely have to put up a bear fence (electric). I’d better get it up before the mama bear and cubs come out of the woods this spring.
My chickens all roost crowded in a very small length near the south wall, which makes me wonder if there is a draft going through the coop. I don’t feel it myself when I am in there, however. I have windows on the north and south ends which I leave open all the time. They used to roost squished in their baby coop, so perhaps it is out of habit that they squish together at night.
A couple of years ago a bear came and shredded our metal and plastic bird feeders. So far it hasn’t gone near the coops… Yes, chickens will all crowd on one roost when it’s cold, but they will space out when it is hot.
Oh my Gosh! I don’t have to worry about bears getting my feed, I wish I lived further out in the woods, we have little black bears around here in MO but not as many as we use to.
We use 2×4’s and the hens seems to like them because they can rest their bottoms a little. I had a very interesting day yesterday with some bullying that started from “who knows what.” At the end of the day, the old girls allowed the one being bullied to sleep on their top roost with them, which is unheard of since there is a 2-year age difference. Animals never cease to amaze me. Bears? Oh my gosh, thankfully I don’t have to worry about that!
My Blue Orpington has insisted in sleeping in a nesting box up until 2 days ago when she went into the Hen house a little earlier then usual and jumped up to the` high `roost. There is only room for 3 Hens on that roost and it seems to be on a first come basis. I should have known she was a changed woman as the next a.m. I was greeted with 5 eggs….one from each Hen. I had almost given up on her. On the other hand my Jersey Giant who was always on the top roost until she started laying eggs and now prefers the top nesting box. Well it is a girl`s right to change her mind, right?
LOL THATS RIGHT!
Are 2x4s not a.good choice for a roosting bar and why?
There are differing opinions on roosting bars. Lots of people use 2 x 4s. I prefer rounded bars so that the hens can hold on and lock their legs in place.
Re: roosts. I always wondered if it was just a phenomenal sense of balance that kept them from falling off when they went to sleep!
My baby chicks are only a week old and are roosting on rocks and sticks in their cage, I thought I was being silly to put the sticks in the cage at their age but I kept setting them back on the roost and now they are on the roost all the time! Im going to have to start my plans for coop now, they grew wings rite before my eyes! They grow fast!
That’s great that you’ve given them structures to climb over and roost on. And yes, they grow amazingly fast!
Off topic…but I really enjoyed your Skype program at 2:30. It looked like you were having a lot of fun. Lucky kids.The goats put on a good show too while you were working.
The goats would have preferred if I’d done the Skype visit from their side of the barn. Now that would have been chaos!
Im sorry I missed your Skype, I didn’t realize anyone could join in, I have Skype but I don’t have group Skype, wonder if I can watch without group Skype?
I visited 4 classrooms via Skype; it wasn’t open to all, so you didn’t miss anything :) You could see me gesturing and walking around inside the coops while it was going on.
Wish I had known about this site a year ago. My girls are in a hutch type house, I have put wire over the egg collection door and leave it partially open for ventilation. I did realize quickly that this hutch was far from perfect, so I opened the run up to give access to my shed I have put small vents in the shed but want to add windows, and it has a wood floor so this summer I am going to pit down vinyl. They love the shed and they have protection from the elements but they still go to bed in the hutch. I want more chickens but have to make a lot of adjustments first. Do you think they will ever adjust to roosting and sleeping in the shed. I dont want them to right now cause the shed has no wire around it yet. When I bought the hutch the feed store said it could hold 10 birds, glad I started with six cause way too small for 10. Thanks again for your great site. Terry your the best.
Chickens will balk at being asked to roost somewhere new, but since they’re already familiar with your shed, I yours will do it. You’ll have to close them off from their current roosts, and probably tuck them to bed for a few days. Then they’ll be fine.
I wonder if I can feed baby chicks anything besides chick starter? I was wondering about a snack like raisins or sunflower seeds? I sure don’t want to hurt the little girls!
Treats are good, but of a limited variety and not in excess. I’ve written about treats for chicks in this FAQ.
I’m a little late to the party here but I have to add this comment. When building your coop please keep in mind that chicken wire keeps chickens in and very little out. Raccoons, weasels, mink, possum etc. etc. will rip through chicken wire to get at chickens. I recommend a heavy guage hardware cloth for windows and vents.
I’m speaking from personal experience and the experience of many who have told me the stories of eaten chickens they thought were safe locked up in their coop.
You’re absolutely right, Ken. I have chicken wire around my pen, but the girls are locked up at night.
Terry, I printed out today’s post, for my future chicken-keeping adventure. I follow your Pinterest board, too. When the day comes for me to get my girls, I will be armed with experienced advice. Yes, those tiny coops are cute as a button, and I while I want good-looking coops, I am more interested in doing the right thing for my girls. I thank you for this, because I can easily see how happy, clean, and healthy your girls are, young and old. My husband still thinks I am a bit of a loon, wanting chickens, not ever having any animals other than cats and dogs. I’ve told him that I will be the most well-informed new chicken owner, EVER! Thank you, Terry!
Tell you husband that mine thought that I was crazy, too, but now he enjoys the hens as much as I do.
I will tell him that, Terry! He knows, too, that it’s my job in this relationship to expose him to new, fun, interesting things! Bless his heart, he has played nice right along with me on everything!