Just like any living thing, chickens need food, water, and shelter. but to be happy and healthy, they need a few more things as well: roosts, nesting boxes, a place to range (or roam), and protection from predators. Each of these items will insure that your chickens are safe and productive. After all, we certainly want to see them laying a lot of eggs or getting nice and fat with meat, right?
Chickens are really very easy to keep and maintain once you get them set. For the most part, they are happy just to scratch, eat, lay, and sun bathe. But a word of wisdom here... don't bring a chicken home until you are completely set up with the basics. Don't start out with chicks in a brooder with the plan to build a coop as they grow. From personal experience, I can assure you that this will cause tension in your home and a lot of headache and unnecessary stress. Since most feed stores don't carry chicks until spring, now is the perfect time to get the basics set up so you're ready when the time comes and they arrive at the feed store. (You can order on-line year 'round, but consider your climate and the chicks needs before doing so.)
Shelter - The Coop
Chickens need a place to be out of the weather and safe at night, but it does not need to be especially warm or insulated unless it's very large and you have just a few chickens. I've talked to people up in Canada who just keep them in a wood structure and the chickens do fine since the birds create some warmth themselves if the space isn't too big. However, you may wish to select a breed that is cold hardy if your climate is extreme. (See Henderson's Breed Chart).
• Cleaning.You need to think about how you will access the coop to clean it. Coops come in all sizes and shapes, but you must be able to easily get to eggs, feed your birds, and clean it out on a regular basis. So definitely think about this a lot! I had a small coop, much like a dog house and the lid lifted up so I could clean inside. The problem was that the lid was so heavy I couldn't lift it myself, which meant my husband had to be home when I got a notion to clean! Then, because I had to reach over and inside, I couldn't really get it cleaned out like it needed. Thus, my man ended up doing all the work - NOT the original plan! Now I have a coop where we can walk in and do whatever needs to be done.
• Outdoor Access. How are your chickens going to get from inside the coop to their exercise yard or run? This is fairly easily solved, but they need a little door and if it is elevated off the ground, a ramp down. We are in a Zone 7 for the general area, but closer to a Zone 5 or 6 in terms of a microclimate and we have never put anything over this door (heat rises). It just stays open all year long. However, there is a run attached that is secure from predators so raccoons and such can't enter through this door.
• Security. Usually when I hear about someone loosing a chicken to a predator during the night, it's almost always because the coop was not secured. No joke... we actually lock our coop doors at night. No, I'm not worried the neighbors are going to snatch a bird, but raccoons are notorious creatures for figuring out latches and such. Why risk your investment? Keep it secure! And that includes a well constructed roof, flooring, and windows with wire over them in case you want to leave the open for a breeze during warmer weather.
• Ventilation. Yes, you want a secure coop,but you need some kind of safe ventilation as well. If your coop is kept clean and you put down some kind of liter on the floor, you shouldn't have a smelly coop. But sometimes life happens and you just can't get it cleaned out on schedule. Add heat and you have a foul (not fowl!) condition for a build up of ammonia! This is not healthy and should be avoided by venting either by opening a window or small vent up in the rafters and roof.
• Light. A hen's laying cycle is determined somewhat by light, therefore, you don't want your coop to be too dark. Yes, their nesting boxes should be in the darkest part of the coop, but you'll want some windows to bring in as much natural light as possible. Depending on your philosophy of chicken care, you may or may not wish to add a lightbulb during the shorter days of winter to encourage laying. But having electricity in your coop will give you this option, so I highly recommend it... just in case.
• Roosts. Chickens feel safe at night when they are at least two feet off the ground on a roost of some kind. It can be as simple as a thick branch you've cut from a tree or a dowel rod from the hardware store, but chickens will do best on a square bar about 2 inches thick. some people put these at different heights (starting at 2 feet and stair stepping up), but if you put them all at the same height, they will all feel "equal" and not fight as much over the top roost (ever heard of a pecking order?). Be sure to allow 10 inches of roost per bird and place them 18 inches apart. And there should be a pit underneath with plenty of liter to catch excess droppings that accumulate during the night.
• Nesting Boxes. Hens will lay eggs anyplace they desire, but if you give them a nesting box, they will be happier and so will you! And keep your boxes filled with plenty of fresh
Chickens are very particular about nesting boxes. You should have one for every 4 hens, but don't be surprised if you have 10 hens and they all want to use the same box! They definitely have preferences! The easiest measurements for these boxes is 14" x 14" x 14", but you can go a bit smaller if you do not raise the larger dual breeds. If you get the boxes too small or too short, they'll step on the eggs and break them. Each box should be placed about 18-20 inches off the ground and have a roost on the front so they can jump up and walk in the box easily. A slanted roof on top will keep hens from getting on top where they will want to leave droppings and possibly get the eggs dirty. Remember, you want clean eggs!
Whew! I know that's a lot of information, but trust me, some forethought and planning ahead of time will make a world of difference whether your chickens thrive or not. And since this is your biggest investment in keeping chickens, you'll want to get it right the first time. If you plan to build it yourself, books on coop plans can be found at most local libraries or search for plans on line. Otherwise, check out local sources by asking around or looking in the yellow pages. Keep in mind, most sheds can be adapted with a few basic carpentry skills.
Have fun planning!