Things to Know Before Building a Backyard Chicken Coop

Before building a backyard chicken coop, make sure you know how to create a safe home for your new flock.
By Lisa Steele
December 2013
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"Fresh Eggs Daily" is author Lisa Steele's guide to raising healthy chickens naturally, which includes feeding them a diet of herbs, flowers, and greens.
Cover Courtesy St. Lynn's Press
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Learn to treat your flock to a diet rich in a variety of herbs, greens, and flowers with Fresh Eggs Daily (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013). Lisa Steele offers dozens of simple and intelligent tips for “going natural” that help you avoid common ailments that plague many backyard flocks. This excerpt comes from the first chapter, "In the Coop," and covers the basic things to know before building a backyard chicken coop.

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Fresh Eggs Daily.

More Fresh Eggs Daily

Properly Caring for Chickens in Winter
What to Feed Chickens in Winter, and Freezing Chicken Eggs       
DIY Chicken Scratch Wreath
Homemade Suet Block Recipe
Green Choices for Chicken Coop Bedding
Easy Green Tips for Refreshing and Cleaning a Chicken Coop

Building a Backyard Chicken Coop: Start Here

Once you have made the decision to start raising a backyard flock of chickens, your first thoughts will most likely turn toward acquiring a coop for them. Coops come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Building a backyard chicken coop is not your only option. You can build your own, buy a kit or buy one turn-key; you can convert a shed or playhouse. Personal preference comes into play here as well as the eventual number of hens you think you will want (do some serious thinking here, because one of the most oft-mentioned regrets I hear from fellow chicken keepers is that they didn’t build their first coop large enough).

All right, so you have decided how many chickens you are going to want, and researched how many your municipality will allow you to have; now you need to multiply that number and then multiply it again because, take it from my personal experience, chickens are addictive. You can’t stop at just three ... or five ... or even a dozen. You will see a pretty hen and want to know its breed and then decide you need one. You will want blue eggs and then green eggs, pink eggs and cream-colored eggs.

You will enjoy them so much and feel such a sense of calm and well-being watching them scratching and exploring your backyard, that you will want to keep expanding your existing flock. Each spring, chick fever will set in and you will be itching to bring home a few adorable, fluffy baby chicks from the feed store, order rare breeds online or even try your hand at hatching some. So plan ahead and design your coop for the flock you eventually want to have, not what you will be starting with.

There is no one perfect coop design. However, no matter what kind of coop you decide on, there are some basic design elements you will want to incorporate. Of course, safety from predators should be your main concern. Everything from raccoons to foxes, owls to your neighbor’s dog will know immediately that you are raising chickens and decide they are on the menu. There are pros and cons to any coop style, but all good coops share certain characteristics. Your coop will need to have:

• Enough room for the number of hens you plan on raising
• Easy access for cleaning
• Adjustable ventilation
• Predator-proof latches on the doors and windows
• Roosting bars
• Nesting boxes

Size

The size of your coop will be your first decision. Rule of thumb calls for 2 to 4 square feet of floor space per bird, more for larger breeds, less for bantams and smaller breeds. You will need more space if you live in a colder climate and your hens will be spending a substantial time inside, although a smaller coop is easier for the hens to warm with their collective body heat — so you don’t want to build a 10x12 coop for just three hens, for instance. But three have a way of turning into a dozen or more.

Ventilation

Good airflow is extremely important in your coop, especially in warm, humid southern climates — but even in northern climates in the winter. Chickens are highly susceptible to respiratory illness, and a coop without enough ventilation can cause a buildup of moisture. This can lead to respiratory distress, as can the ammonia fumes created by decomposing manure, both of which can cause eye and mucous membrane irritation.

Your coop should be well-ventilated but not drafty, with the majority of the vents being above the level of the birds’ heads when they are roosting. That creates airflow but not drafts. Vents allow dust and other particles to escape and allow fresh, oxygen-laden air in. Without adequate ventilation, carbon dioxide levels in your coop will rise and not enough oxygen will flow in to replace what the chickens breathe.

Your coop needs plenty of windows and openings covered in 1/2-inch hardware mesh to keep predators out. One-fifth of your total coop wall area should be mesh-covered vents, with panels that can be opened and closed as needed, depending on the weather and season. Since respiratory illnesses are often the result of not getting enough fresh air, or of breathing moist, humid air, your coop needs to be ventilated year round.

Keeping Chickens Safe from Predators

Raccoons are adept at opening doors with many types of knobs, handles and deadbolts. Locking eye hooks, carabiners or even padlocks, are a much safer option. If your nesting boxes are situated with access from outside your coop, there should be a secure latch on the nesting box lid as well.

As soon as you build your coop, remember that you have also built a lovely new home for any resident rodents: warm, dry, filled with soft bedding, safe from predators and equipped with a nearby unending food and water source. Your coop is a field mouse family’s dream home! You want to discourage rodents from spending time in and around your coop. They can carry disease, injure or kill chicks or bantam breeds, and have been known to chew on the feathers and feet of unsuspecting sleeping hens, looking to supplement their diets with a bit more protein. They will even steal the feathers to make nests.

Any holes larger than an inch should be covered with 1/2 inch hardware mesh to prevent entry by mice. You should make regular inspections throughout the year, especially in the fall as the weather turns colder, to be sure no mice have taken up residence.  

Reprinted with permission from by Lisa Steele and published by St. Lynn’s Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Fresh Eggs Daily

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