By the winter of 2012, I’d spent about six months in my new house. I’d learned that the dirt in my yard was hard clay that stuck to my shovel like peanut butter, that roaches appeared in surprising places during warm weather, and that I really enjoyed working outside and taking care of animals.
So I started planning for chickens.
Things I knew, starting out:
- My backyard is fenced in, and I planned to let the chickens free range while I was home. Therefore, the size of the run could be a bit smaller than if the chickens were in there 24/7.
- Everything needed to be enclosed. I wasn’t sure what my predator situation was yet (see a few paragraphs down), but I didn’t want to risk a chicken to find out.
- Since heat is more of an issue in south Louisiana than cold, the coop needed good ventilation.
The feed stores wouldn’t have any chicks until February or March, so I fumbled my way through building my first coop in January. It was my first major build, the previous largest being storage bench. I researched and sketched and researched more. Finally, I ended up with this happy little blue number perfectly sized for two chickens:
I couldn’t find any good pictures of the run, but it folded up small enough to fit into the back of my car. At the time – keep in mind I was in my initial year of living in a hurricane-prone area – I was very worried about how and where to take my chickens should we need to evacuate, so a transportable run seemed like a good idea. But I’d also overbuilt it out of heavy wood, so it was really unwieldy for everyday use. I hated run.
A few months after my first chickens arrived, I decided to get another pair of chicks. Halfway through 2013, I returned to the sketch pad.
This new coop would not only be larger, but it would have a fixed run. I was worried about the chickens scratching one spot of grass to mud, so I read a lot on chicken tractors. With some good wheels and mechanical advantage on my side, a heavy coop would be easy to move around the yard every other day or so, right?
In that first picture, you can see “levers” connected to the wheels. The idea was that the coop would sit squarely on the ground until it needed to move. Then, I’d pull those levers and engage the wheels.
That, er, didn’t exactly work. The coop was heavy and – once again – unwieldy. I also have far too little land for a chicken tractor to be effective; my entire lot is less than a quarter of an acre. So the wheels came off and the coop found a permanent home in my yard. I filled the run with sand, and for a short period, everyone was happy.
But it was with this second coop that I learned about my nocturnal predators.
See, the part of my yard that isn’t peanut butter clay is sand. Apparently, my area has many, many raccoons and opossums, and those critters like to dig. I woke up in the middle of many nights to chickens shrieking because something dug under the edge of the coop and squirmed inside. Fortunately, the only victim was the chicken feed. I laid down a perimeter of galvanized hardware cloth and heavy stones, and all was well again.
It was also around this time that I tried using an automatic coop door. The idea was that the coop door would slide closed at sunset and open at sunrise, so that even if something got inside the run, the chickens would be protected. Although now I see plenty of kits and ready-to-go options for sale, back then, it was more reasonable to put my own together with a solar panel, battery, and gearbox. Technically, it worked, but with the expansion and shrinking of wood, the door got stuck and trapped my chickens in the coop. I eventually gave up on it and resolved to put my energy towards making the coop and run like a fortress.
I was happy enough with that coop, until in 2017, I decided to get ducks.
So here’s another obvious mistake I made: even if you think you’ve sealed your wood, don’t let it sit directly on the ground, especially somewhere with humidity and insect issues like Louisiana. As I dissembled the coop and run, some of the wood on the bottom crumbled. Of course, the pressure-treated pieces held up better, but still: don’t let wood sit directly on the ground.
I had some experience behind me, and I’d gathered some tools since my first coop back in 2013, so the 2017 edition went up more quickly and was more solid than ever.
Okay, so what do we have different than before? The whole thing sits up on leveled concrete blocks. All of the lumber is pressure treated and painted with exterior-grade paint. I actually built this in two stages – you can see the separate chicken coop to the left is actually finished and sealed off.The ducks have their own separate house, lower to the ground for stubby little duck legs (although one or two have already shown off that they can awkwardly waddle up the ramp into the chicken house).
Finally, this much larger run is easily tall enough for me to walk around in so I can clean. This is particularly important because the bathtub for the ducks requires a regular water change. The height also allows easy access to the feeder, the houses, the water reservoir, etc. And when the ducklings first moved outside in 2017, it was easy to cordon off an area and keep them separate from the adult hens until the ducks grew large enough to hold their own (which didn’t take much time at all – maybe a few months – ducks grow very quickly).
For anyone interested, I do water changes using a submersible pump that can handle large chunks (little pebbles and sticks often wind up in the tub). I swap out the water three times per week and sprinkle a few mosquito bits to prevent larvae in the standing water.
This coop has performed well. Zero predators have gotten inside. However, I’ve [grumble grumble] started having some problems with mice. I’m currently trying a treadle feeder to see how that helps the problem. And in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve also laid out poison (protected from the reach of the ducks and chickens). I don’t like using poison, but mice and rats are not only expensive (they blow through feed), they carry disease and can chew on and damage wooden structures.
Another change I made with this coop is the substrate. Previously, when I only had chicken, I used sand. It’s easy to rake and keep clean-ish. The chickens seem to like it for scratching around and dust bathing. But while preparing for ducks, I knew wetness was going to be an issue. Not to get too graphic, but while chicken poo is solid, duck poo is more like diarrhea. Yum. Therefore, in this coop, I used pea gravel almost everywhere; it’s easy to hose down and rake. There’s still one corner of sand for dust baths.
Alright, so what I have learned from building and rebuilding and building again?
- Never let wood rest directly on the ground; set it up on concrete blocks.
- Build a run big enough for an adult human to stand up in and move around.
- Bury hardware cloth around the outside and secure 1/2″ or smaller hardware cloth to all openings using fender washers (they have a large diameter); assemble that coop and run like a fortress.
- Given tools, time, and the ability to understand your mistakes, you can always rebuild.
- Sand for chickens; pea gravel for ducks.
Every time I was preparing to build, I’d also visit the BackYard Chickens forum for ideas and instructions. The trick is, though, understanding your environment and building (or rebuilding) to that. My chicken-keeping friend in Colorado has no roof on her run – it’s basically a fenced-in patch of yard – but she doesn’t have the same predators that I do. Understanding your environment might mean that your first stab at a coop sucks, and that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you never do anything to make the situation better.