Anyone considering keeping hens in their backyard must give them a comfortable, clean and secure house. Your hens need protection from weather extremes and predators — remember that predators will fly into, dig under or gnaw at any hen house if at all possible.
Hen houses bought from produce stores are usually wooden enclosures or metal A-frame coops. However, you can make your own and choose from a number of designs. For example: a deep-litter system with an enclosure at ground level, usually on concrete, and a deep layer of litter (rice hulls, sawdust or wood shavings) that is changed regularly to ensure it remains dry and friable. Hens love scratching around in the litter. It absorbs manure and the mix of manure and litter makes great garden compost.
If your yard is suitable and other pets are safe around hens, letting them range freely during the day is ideal. Then at dusk put the hens in their house — often they will be there waiting for you!
Position the hen house so that the morning sun warms it but it is not too hot in the afternoon. If possible, shade it with trees or buildings on the west side. It must have good ventilation and a draft-free, enclosed nesting area with a soft floor. Hen houses require regular cleaning and this should be considered during design and construction of the coop – build it from non-porous material in such a way that all surfaces can be easily cleaned. If you choose metal, remember that it gives no protection from the heat, and hens prefer cooler temperatures and can experience heat stress if temperatures are too hot (if they are panting they are feeling hot). Make sure the door is big enough for you to get in to check and clean the house. A sloping floor towards the door helps cleaning and drainage.
Hens love to roost on perches. Allow at least 200 mm of perch for each hen. Make them from 75 mm x 50 mm timber (preferably square in shape, with enough space for the hens to rest comfortably on the perches) and position the perches about 500 mm from the floor. Do not put them above food or water as these will be contaminated with bird droppings. Food and water containers should be above the ground at hen-back height. You can make your own or you can buy water containers and automatic seed dispensers from produce stores.
Hens also need boxes to nest and lay eggs in. Provide one 300 square mm nesting box per four to five hens. Mount the boxes on the cooler side of the house about 600 mm off the ground. It is a good idea to have an opening outside, just behind the nesting boxes, so you can easily get the eggs without disturbing your hens.
Before you decide on building the hen house, it makes sense to ask your local council if there are any regulations on its size or location. It can be helpful too if you contact your local poultry fancier’s society. Agriculture departments (e.g. in New South Wales https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/animals-and-livestock/poultry-and-birds) often have good information on various types of hen houses suitable for backyards as well as general information on hen care and management. An alternative to the traditional chicken coop is a moveable pen that allows hens to eat insects, grass and seeds. The pen is moved every day or two, so both the hens and the garden benefit.
Also make sure there is a local vet available who you can take your birds to if needed, and that you or your vet are competent in humane euthanasia if this is necessary.
No matter what type of housing you decide on, the bottom line is to have happy, healthy and well-protected hens. You will be proud that you provided the environment they need and will enjoy sharing the backyard with your delightful feathered friends.