Anyone considering keeping hens (or chickens) in their backyard must give them a comfortable, clean and secure house. Your hens’ house also need to be able to protect them from weather and predators — remember that predators will fly into, dig under or gnaw at any hen house if possible.
Hen houses bought from produce stores are usually wooden enclosures or metal A-frame coops. Alternatively, if you choose to make your own there are a number of designs that can be used. 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. Litter not only absorbs your hens’ manure but the mix of manure and litter can also make a great garden compost. Another type of chicken coop is a moveable pen that allows hens to eat insects, grass and seeds. This pen is then moved every day or two, so both the hens and the garden benefit.
Whatever type of hen house you choose for your hens it is important to ensure they have plenty of space to walking around, explore, forge, scratch and peck at the ground, dust bathe and flap their wings. Hen houses should provide hens as much space as possible. The exact amount of space each hen needs will depend on their breed, age and size, as well as the type of hen house and external environmental conditions (e.g. temperature and humidity). The minimum amount of space a hen house should provide each hen is 2-3.5 m2 of useable floor space but ideally they should be provided more space than this.
If your yard is suitable and other pets are safe around hens, you can let your hens range freely during the day and then at dusk close them in their house overnight — often they will be there waiting for you! To prevent hens from damaging your garden while they enjoy themselves enthusiastically scratching and foraging around in the dirt, particularly vulnerable areas could be fenced off.
The hen house should be positioned so that the morning sun warms it but it is not too hot in the afternoon. It is important the hen house has shade with trees or an appropriate roof, particularly on the west side. If you choose metal, remember that it gives no protection from the heat; hens tend to prefer cooler temperatures and can experience heat stress if temperatures are too hot. If you can see your hens are panting, they are feeling hot.
The hen house must have good ventilation, be draft-free, and have an enclosed nesting area with a soft floor. Hen houses require regular cleaning and this should be considered during design and construction of the coop such as building it from non-porous material so that all surfaces can be easily cleaned. A sloping floor towards the door can help with cleaning and drainage. Also don’t forget to make sure the door is big enough for you to get in to check the birds and clean the house.
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 (to read more about what to feed your hens, click here).
Rolling spherical wire cages designed to hold an individual hen so she can range freely (sometimes referred to as a ‘chicken orb’) are not recommended as they limit the hens’ ability to perform highly motivated and natural behaviours like scratching in dirt, dustbathing and stretching and flapping their wings. There is also a risk that hens could injure themselves, e.g. by getting caught or stuck in the wire, and they are unable to return to the safety of their hen house when they choose.
Hens love to roost on perches. Allow about 20cm of perch for each hen. Perches should be made from timber and provide enough space for the hens’ feet and keel bone to rest comfortably. Position the perches about 50cm from the floor and 30cm away from the wall. Make sure perches are not above food or water as these will become contaminated with droppings .
Hens also need boxes to nest and lay eggs in, you should have at least one nest box per three to four hens preferably in a dark inside area. Nest boxes should be big enough to allow a hen to comfortably stand up, turn around and sit down. The boxes should be mounted on the cooler side of the house about 60cm off the ground . Nest boxes need appropriate bedding/litter (such as straw, wood shavings or sand) and should be cleaned regularly. 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 your hen house, ask your local council if there are any regulations on its size or location. Agriculture departments (e.g. in New South Wales) or local poultry fancier’s society can often have good information on various types of hen houses suitable for backyards as well as general information on hen care and management.