How to Build the Perfect Chicken Coop

The first time I became the owner of three small chickens in Portland, Oregon, I had no idea what I was doing. The mission was to build the perfect chicken coop in our backyard.

The backyard was perfect: Large enough, fenced in, a small lawn and garden beds partially shaded by cherry and maple trees. But when my boyfriend and his 6-year-old son brought three chicks home, we hadn't even built a coop for them yet.

Welcome to owning urban chickens. For the first few weeks, the baby birds needed warmth and safety. Solution? A large Tupperware storage box in my bathroom, filled with clean hay. A space heater kept the temperature at or slightly above 90 degrees. Showering quickly became less pleasant, and the smell something I'd rather not discuss.

More convenient solutions than this exist, of course. An infrared heating lamp and a proper brooding cage, available at any feed store and most pet stores, would have been preferable. But this worked - and what I knew about chickens back then mostly concerned how to cook their eggs.

The three little birds grew rapidly over two months, during which time we still had not figured out how to build a proper coop. The existing shed became their home after the outdoor temperatures rose and the chickens grew large enough to jump out of their home in the bathroom (a disaster on the floor!).

Since I lost my garden shed this way, I continued haranguing my fiancée to build some form of permanent home for the chickens. We argued over the definition of a chicken tractor one day, the specific dimensions required on another day. Soon chicken ownership started looking more complicated than we thought, and our chicks were too young to even provide any eggs yet.

Finally, after much debate on building that perfect coop, a friend gave us a former iguana cage. The cage consisted of a light wood frame with a wood top and bottom, built for portability in spite of its size by making each side removable. The structure was six feet tall and each four-foot side consisted of netting appropriate for a lizard. OK, I thought, and what do we do with this?

My fiancée added a shelf about 4 feet off the floor with three old desk drawers for the birds to roost. We put up cheap cedar fencing for the walls. Plenty of clean straw on the floor and the roosting shelf, and then the chickens moved into their new home.

As I learned online and through books, chicken coops can be built any way I wanted. As long as the coop provides a warm enough place and roosting boxes, the chickens care much less than I about the shape or color of their home. While the coop definitely did not win any awards for beauty, soon the chickens grew large enough to lay one egg each per day.

The key to a successful chicken coop is simple - a roosting box per bird, with a minimum total space of about two cubic feet per bird. Loads of clean straw help the birds stay warm and comfortable in most climates, though a heating lamp may need to be incorporated in the design if temperatures regularly drop below freezing.

A constant supply of clean water and food should of course also be provided.