Your chickens will be completely dependent upon you for food and care. The biggest investment you will make for your chicken is buying the coop. It is essential that you decide on the number and type of chickens you want before committing to to buying a coop (see our article 'Choosing Chickens' for more information). The two most important commodities your coop will provide are shelter and safety.
Overcrowding really should be avoided at all costs as it leads to stress and many unpleasant behaviours including bullying, feather pecking and egg eating. It also increases the risk of infections and, consequently, your vet bills! Most manufacturers give theoretical maximums that poultry houses can hold. Chickens, like us, need space so for the sake of your chickens it is safest to keep about half the number of chickens that houses claim to hold, i.e. if it says 6 then consider no more than 3 or 4 birds. A 1 x 1.2m house (3 x 4 feet) can hold 4-5 birds. Do have a good look at any coop you are considering buying and think if it is fair for the number of chickens you want.
The coop should have some shade from the sun but, ideally, at some point during the day it does need to be warmed by direct sunlight and this can be done by angling the house so that a vent or window faces the afternoon sun especially in the winter. In heavy rain it is important that it is not blowing directly into the house and your chickens don’t get wet.
It is important that your chickens are protected from rodents and foxes. By keeping the house and run clean you will greatly reduce any rodent problems. Regularly check for gnawed holes in the bottom of the house to see if any rodents are trying to gain entry. Foxes are a more difficult problem as a hungry vixen trying to feed her cubs will see your chickens as a handy ready meal. Electric fencing does help but it needs to be kept on as foxes can sense when it is turned off. Traditional fox-proof fencing needs to be 2 m high and buried 30cm into the ground with secure posts.
Chickens should be provided with dust baths – it is a delight to see a chicken having a good dust bath in the summer. You can also enrich a chicken enclosure by tying green vegetables, grasses, or nettles to hang in the run which the birds can peck at. Chickens also enjoy pecking at CDs suspended from run roofs, especially when they catch the sun.
There are many high quality poultry houses available on the market, but there are also many for sale that are flimsy and poorly constructed. If you think a house appears flimsy with gaps or poor construction then do not invest in it as you may simply need to replace it much sooner than otherwise needed. A slightly higher initial outlay could insure a sturdy, safe and long lasting poultry house. The coop ideally needs to consist of an external run, a roosting compartment and nest boxes. When choosing a chicken coop, it is also worth considering whether you are likely to extend your flock of chickens, as the hobby can rapidly become addictive, necessitating a larger house.
The house or roosting area needs to have at the very least one roosting perch about 4-5cm wide (1.5 - 2 inches) with chamfered edges, and ideally they should have a selection. Make sure that the perches are higher than the nest boxes, and are ideally at the same height, as hens prefer the highest perch and securing it can lead to bullying and fighting. Also, try and insure that the perch is far enough away from the wall that its tail feathers aren’t being damaged. Do remember that over half of a chicken’s manure ouput occurs at night while they are on their perches, so any housing that offers a removeable tray for cleaning will make things much easier! The house also needs to have adequate ventilation and fresh air but should be draught free.
Nest boxes should be about 30 cm x 30 cm (12 x 12 inches) and 25cm high (10 inches), although for bantams these should be slightly smaller. Much bigger than this and the birds will try and share them leading to broken eggs. At a minimum you will need one nest box for every 3-4 birds. Again, if you have heavy breeds then consider how easy it is for them to access them. They may need an extra rail to get in and out with ease. External nest boxes are generally very convenient for cleaning and egg collection.
The run needs to provide fresh air and plenty of natural light. Chickens need to be let out daily and they really enjoy scratching and pecking about. The bigger the run, the better it is for your chickens. As chickens can fly as high as 2m the run needs to be enclosed. Chickens do not do well in wet, muddy conditions and the ground needs to be kept mud free in the winter. Deep littering may be needed, however, this will need to be changed regularly and kept clean. If you are planning on keeping 6 or more chickens, then a proper fenced-in enclosure must be built. Traditionally (and ideally) this should be about 18x18 metres (60x60 feet).