by Meredith Chilson
Photos by author
Dusk. I think it may be my favorite time of day, especially this summer. The intense heat has eased a bit, the crickets and tree frogs are tuning up in the hedgerows, and as I head out to close in the chickens for the night, I often stop at the garden to pull a stray weed or snap off a green bean that I missed picking earlier in the day. Small rustlings in the underbrush remind me that birds are settling in for the night or chipmunks and deer mice are scooting through the brush piles with a last cheek full of weed seeds. It’s a peaceful time in the country.
In order to close the door from the hen yard to the coop, I need to enter the coop from the back exterior door and walk through the coop. The yard door is latched open during the day, and I unlatch, close and lock the door from the inside every night so predators can’t enter the coop. Before I enter the coop, though, I always stop and listen. I love the sounds of the girls readying themselves for sleep. There seems always to be a thump or two as the chickens jostle for position at the top of the roost facing the window. I can hear Le-A fussing and chatting as she settles herself in her chosen spot. Sometimes there’s even a soft “purr” as one or more begin to drift off to sleep. I am quiet as I enter the coop, inhale the smell of straw and bird, give each chicken a pat and pet and close them in for another night.
Since the teenagers have begun living in the coop with the older hens, I’ve had to be even more careful when I make the nightly trip through the coop. There’s a piece of plywood about a foot high at the entrance to the coop, placed there to keep the smaller chickens from escaping through the doorway when a human enters. Some of the teens have decided this very narrow board is the perfect spot to roost for the night: when the door is opened, there’s usually a solid wall of feathered bodies at the entrance.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit clumsy, and try as I might; I usually bump one or more of the chickens off their narrow roost as I climb over them to enter the coop at night. This week’s project: exchange the plywood barrier with a shorter board that’s only high enough to keep litter from sifting out the doorway. The danger of small chicks leaving through the opened door is past.
I’ve thought about the young chickens’ use of the narrow board for a roost. When we built the teenager apartment, we included three roosting poles about a foot off the floor. I have seen the chickens use these during the day as resting spots, but they’ve never been used at night. This set-up has to be revisited, too, since there just aren’t enough roosting spots without these extras being used.
When we originally built the coop, we planned to keep about a dozen chickens. For twelve chickens to comfortably roost, our consultants said we should allow at least 10 inches per bird. Our Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds are large birds, so we confidently built a large enough roost that each bird could have 12 inches of space. After all, we thought we might add another bird or two as time went by!
That first year, we overwintered 18 birds. Since then, the numbers have stayed about the same: last winter we had twenty chickens, and right now we have a total of 24. No matter how that happened, we need to make sure we have enough roosting space for the girls!
Chickens need to roost above the floor at night because they feel safer. In the wild, birds roost in trees; chickens will usually roost in branches if left out overnight and trees are nearby. Most books I’ve read say that roosts in a hen house should be at least two feet off the floor. They should be built higher than nest boxes to discourage chickens from sleeping in the nest boxes.
Ideally, roosts should all be built at the same height to keep the chickens from “arguing” about which ones should be on the top roost. Our coop is too small to allow this, so we built a ladder type roost with off-set “steps” about 18 inches apart, with the first about two feet off the floor. This first roost (for the dozen birds we planned to raise!) had three steps, four feet in length. We built it from 2”x2” boards and screwed in maple branches about an inch in diameter for the roosts. We angled the bottom of the boards so they would fit tightly to the floor and again, screwed them in. The tops of the boards were also angled to fit against the wall of the coop, and the roost itself fit under the wire screened window at just the right height for the top birds to peer out. This first roost has always been the favorite. In the winter, the birds snuggle together with their feathers fluffed up and over their toes. They sleep warmly in our unheated coop.
The offset roosts make it easy for the birds to hop up and down from rung to rung, and it keeps the birds on the lower rungs from getting bombarded with night droppings. Every few weeks, I unscrew the top of the roost and pull it back to make it easier to shovel the waste covered litter out of the coop and into the compost.
Within a few months of our first venture into chicken keeping, we realized that we needed another roost. We recycled a shovel handle by screwing it into the wall opposite the original roost and attaching it to the top of the nest boxes on the other end. It’s almost 4 feet off the floor, but the birds have had no trouble reaching it. I noticed several of the hens using this roost for spying on the teenagers when they first came into the coop. Last night at bedtime, some of those same teenagers were roosting on the handle. It’s probably a bit too close to the wall—not only do I have to clean out from under this roost, but the wall needs scrubbing fairly often, too!
A couple years into our venture, we added several smaller hens: a Silkie named Le-A and another bantam type. These girls seemed to need a lower roost, since I often found them sleeping on the floor. We built a two-rung roost for them, basically a miniature of the first roost, and angled it in on a sidewall.
We have always used rounded branches or handles from shop tools for the actual roosts. At one time I had read that squared roosts for heavier hens could cause foot problems. Since that time, I’ve seen many plans and read of wonderful roosts being made from flat sided 2”x4” boards, lightly sanded so that the edges are rounded. Nowhere have I seen a recommendation that roosts be made from metal. They would be slippery, and it seems to me they would be invitations for winter frostbite.
The three separate roosts in our coop have been sufficient. Each hen has her particular roost—and most take the same spot each night. Jimmy and her mom sleep next to each other on the shovel handle; Mavis picks the spot nearest the nest boxes. The Little Red Hen—at the top of the hen yard pecking order—has the coveted spot at the top of the first roost right in front of the window. This is the spot our rooster, Gregory Peck, had when he lived in the coop. This spot does come with responsibilities, though. The chicken in the window watches for predators and visitors, and sounds an alarm when necessary. Le-A sleeps on the left side of the small roost, nearest the wall.
The three new roosts in the adjoining teen room are built about three feet under an existing shelf. I’ve noticed that one of the teens likes to sleep on the shelf itself. There’s also a window in that wall, so this young hen has the view all to herself. I think it’s possible that it’s too dark and scary for roosting underneath at night. I plan to remove the shelf and raise the roost poles at least a foot higher. This will be a good experiment to see if the chickens prefer roosts of the same height. The twelve feet of roosting space (three poles times four feet lengths) should be sufficient additional roosting space for the two dozen chickens.
It takes me a bit longer now to make my nighttime rounds of the coop. There are more backs to pat and it takes me a little longer to move in and out of the coop. In fact, I have to sing “Good-Night Ladies” at least three times through before I leave the hen house these evenings!
Now, I’d like to hear your experience with roosts. Do your chickens have a specific spot to sleep each night? Do you use rounded or flat roosts? Why? Have you tried both and chosen one over the other? Are your roosts angled or all one height?