Sandy Cryder —
When I got my first small backyard flock, my choices for how to keep them were few. I had a small coop given to me by my neighbors and a fenced in backyard. I was ready!
The gift coop was a good size for 4 hens. It was portable and so fairly easy to move around the yard. On the other hand, it had some problems I wouldn’t understand for quite a while. Big double clean-out doors were the only way to give the hens freedom to free range in the yard. They also allowed wild birds to fly in and hang out in the hens’ bedding. Was this the source of the black mite and lice infestations I fought repeatedly? The small run was attached and completely enclosed, but the portability of the coop meant we couldn’t bury a wire apron to keep out rodents and other predators. The result? Rats constantly tunneling in to eat dropped food and chicken droppings.
Fast forward 2 years and I have a better idea as to what keeps a flock safe and happy: a secure coop, plenty of space, an interesting environment, and occasional entertainment.
Re-Starting and Building Up
As I prepared to replace the flock I lost to a fox, I knew it had to be easy to ensure the new coop was locked up tight at night, and the design needed to prevent wild birds and rats from entering the coop. I was ready to make an investment in a “Fort Knox” of a coop. My bottom-line criteria included: a buried wire skirt to prevent critters from digging in; an attached run with a wire top; coop access points easy to lock with mechanisms not easily undone by a racoon; and a place to keep the feeder away from wild birds and spilled food from attracting rats. I found lots of options to meet these needs, from commercial kits and custom builds from the Pennsylvania Amish, to plans for DIY coops. I settled for a coop kit purchased from an on-line source.
With a coop kit on hand, my husband and I prepared a foundation of treated 4 x 4s. We dug a sloping trench around the outside of this base and lined it with ½” hardware cloth that we attached to the 4 x 4s with screws through washers so that it extended 18” out from the coop at a 45-degree angle. For a video how-to of this, visit this link. Once the coop and run were put together and placed on this base, I anchored them to the 4x4s with angle brackets. All entrances to the coop, including the nesting box lids were outfitted with hasps. I added carabiners, which are easy for humans to open and close, but not for racoons. Now I was sure my hens would be safe. It was time to add the other ingredients for happy chickens! Here is my checklist:
___ Plenty of space: The nine baby chicks rapidly growing in my 3rd floor studio needed space – lots of space! Most sources I consulted suggested 2-3 sq. feet inside space, plus 8-10 sq. feet per hen for outdoor space. The new coop met these requirements. In addition to the wire enclosed pen, we provided a fenced outdoor space for the chickens to roam during the day.
___ An interesting environment: Hens are active, curious birds and mine are constantly foraging and exploring. The chicken yard includes areas of sun and shade, small trees, shrubs and rocks to walk around or climb on, and a regular supply of grass clippings to scratch through. My husband also devised a moveable fence to direct the chickens to changing areas of pasture. This means that the hens mow most of the lawn!
___ Occasional entertainment: Varying treats – grapes, green bean ends, overripe tomatoes, apple cuttings, strawberries and more! Let the hens process your kitchen compost. Just be sure to check on what should NOT be offered to them (for example, no dried or raw beans, moldy produce, chocolate, etc.) Places to perch – pieces of wood, large sticks or fallen limbs, over turned plastic crates. Leaping for lettuce – our hens love to leap for lettuce hanging from a garden shepherd’s hook. Check out the video! Humans – our flock follows us around when we work in the yard and like to be petted and picked up (for a little while). Talk to them! I like to practice Spanish by talking to the hens – they never criticize my accent or grammar. ¡Buenas gallinas!
Sandy Cryder is a Central Ohio transplant, happily living in Lauraville, a neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, MD. A descendant of generations of farmers (including her paternal grandparents), Sandy takes great delight in keeping a flock of chickens in the backyard. When not tending to her chickens, she is busy shape note singing, learning Spanish, reading, writing, drawing and knitting. You can follow her through her website or Instagram.