The right kind of housing is the first step towards making your chickens safe, happy and good layers
The days of keeping chickens in a rusty old shed are behind us, but what should a modern henhouse be like? Many people see it as an exercise in creativity, designing unusual and exciting accommodation, while others derive great satisfaction in repurposing an abandoned playhouse or old trampoline.
It’s tough on the chooks if basic needs are not adequately met. The family pooch is usually bedded down in a smart, comfy kennel and pet cats are spoilt with plush cushions. Our egg layers, however, may have to endure fierce winds and stifling heat, cramped together on a broomstick at night in weird and wonderful structures.
If chickens could communicate, what would they ask for?
A simple house
Protection from weather extremes, including cold wind or draughts, creates a comfortable environment your chickens can call home. There may be times in winter when the flock needs to be kept indoors or if weekend trips occur, it may be safer to have the girls confined.
So, along with weather protection, the house needs to be spacious. A minimum of 0.37m2 floor space should be allowed per Hy-Line-sized hen, less for bantams and more for large purebreds such as Sussex or Plymouth Rock. Ventilation is a massive issue in Australia and our forebears got it right when they included large sections of netting on the front or sides of the poultry house.
If buildings such as playhouses are repurposed, ensure the window glass is removed and replaced with wire mesh and even insert mesh in the top part of the door. The best henhouse is one where the owner can walk in and examine birds at night or check perch and walls for the presence of red mite.
If your housing choice is a waist-high chicken tractor or coop, consider access and how you will deal with a parasite such as red mite, which can be introduced via wild birds or rodents and lives happily in infrastructure whether wooden or metal. Red mite come out at night and suck blood, the anaemia putting hens off lay. Red mite can become so bad the flock will refuse to enter the henhouse or will sleep on the floor near the door. Crawling inside, if door access is poor, is a ghastly thought!
Another issue governs roof height. When the roof is low, as with chicken tractors and coops, hot air becomes trapped and creates a hellhole for the inhabitants. A high roof height reduces the effects of radiant heat and an overhang of 900mm on the roof front effectively stops the entry of hot summer sun.
The colour of the roofing also has an impact on internal temperature and bird comfort. Matt white is the most effective reflective finish on a roof; it works so well that in winter it limits the amount of heat that’s absorbed!
Double-sided aluminium foil reflects heat as the roofing warms up. It can be installed under existing Colorbond and could be used in tractors and coops to reduce the temperature. The old-fashioned mesh-fronted shed that incorporates many of the features discussed is still a bird-friendly choice. Does it look boring? Cheer it up with brightly painted walls and the use of a mural or mosaic.
Perches with purchase
Perching is a natural instinct and in a henhouse, it offers a healthy, safe place to sleep and a handy spot to hang out if bullying occurs. Forget about rounded, smooth perches such as poly pipe, bamboo or metal; they are slippery and offer poor grip. Rounded perches have been linked to footpad damage so are not without problems.
Wooden perches are suitable provided they are free of cracks and crevices for hiding red mite. Square or rectangular wood (sand edges smooth) 4–6cm wide allows birds to wrap toes around in the locked grip unique to them. With round or oval perches, it’s harder to achieve the locked grip.
Perch height varies with breed. Good flyers such as Hamburgh, Araucana, and Leghorn, which have large wings, will prefer a higher perch than heavy-bodied, small-winged breeds including Wyandotte, Orpington and Sussex.
The ideal is a step-up or ladder perch, long enough for all the flock to sleep on the top rung but easy for reaching because they can flutter from rung to rung. Even poor flyers can roost provided the bottom rung is low.
Single or multiple nest boxes?
In trials, hens have demonstrated that a nest is the top priority in their lives, so we want hens to like their nest. We don’t want floor laying because of faecal contamination and we want clean, unbroken eggs to eat.
First, if the nests are higher than the perch, the chickens will camp in them at night. It’s essential that they are lower or you will be manhandling hens every night. Hens invariably all lay in one or two nests, regardless of the number offered. It’s easier to provide a single communal nest so there can be concurrent use without squabbling.
Nests should be just off the ground and sited in the coolest part of the house. They should also be semi enclosed to provide darkness. Non-darkened nests put layers at risk as they expel their eggs, moist red tissue being everted as the egg is laid, which can attract curious pecks and, at worst, cannibalism.
Don’t forget, too, that laying is a lengthy process — up to 40–45 minutes for some hens. If there’s no ventilation and nests are high up on the wall in direct sun, layers collapse and die.
Light up their lives
Lots of fun-looking henhouses have little facility to let in light. This can make the difference between eggs or no eggs, as hens need 14–16 hours of light to support egg lay. This is why hen housing from yesteryear incorporated mesh fronts.
Of course, a solar-powered door that opens at dawn may overcome this problem, but hens would need to be in a predator-proof enclosure.
This less glamorous aspect of housing always presents a conundrum: solid, raised or dirt floor? Concrete or pavers provide a solid floor that keeps mice and foxes out. But rats often take up residence underneath and are very hard to eradicate. An active rodent control program would minimise this.
Many people build their henhouse up off the ground and use wooden floorboards. Obviously, this suits housing erected on slopes but may also be relevant where floods are likely.
Dirt or gravel floors don’t have much going for them. They are hard to clean and sanitise, the birds scratch soil into drinkers and unless a weldmesh apron is attached outside, foxes will dig in. Rodents have a field day.
Cost, space and the number of chickens influence the choice of henhouse. Recyclers will have their agenda while garden-proud owners may want housing that complements their homes. Other folk will have fun making over a trailer or old caravan that can be transported around the property.
What’s essential is that our feathery friends and their requirements are seriously considered, so your Chicken Hilton can be truly fowl-friendly.
Written by Megg Miller
Originally in Good Organic Gardening Volume 7 Issue 6