It was this time last year that we began considering how to build the long anticipated coop. While I had clippings and pins galore, actually deciding on specifics while maintaining some semblance of a budget, proved more difficult for me than I envisioned. I’ve come to realize that I’m quite visual and plans on paper without dimensional life are hard for me (and consequently, my husband).
Fortunately for me, my husband has long recognized this particular flaw in me from other projects and patiently worked with me, even resorting to a Lego model for the most recent modification. He’s maintained that while the coop is a permanent structure, it’s adaptable and that we’re learning as we go, making decision commitments feel less intense for me. I’m fortunate for his fluidity, to say the least, and still delighted with the coop and the many things we did right, like the split doors allowing access to the run without chickens spilling into the yard before work or dinner, the roof over the run allowing the girls outside time despite rain, the lovely copula that provides excellent ventilation in addition to the vented eaves, and the list goes on.
I’ve come to understand that modifications are okay. Early in my gardening I struggled with the concept of moving things that didn’t fit the “right plant, right place” criteria, struggling to keep things alive or properly groomed in an undesirable location for both plant and humans, until the day I finally moved something, saw it flourish in its new spot and discovered an opening in the previous spot that provided new opportunity. Yes, a true “light bulb” moment.
I’m transferring this knowledge to my coop evolution, as it’s becoming, taking a deep breath and remembering that this too is a learning process. It seems each time I think we’ve got the chickens figured out, something changes but I’d not trade it for a moment since these hens bring me such delight.
We already expanded the run to give our hens more room since their free ranging was hampered a bit by intrusive hawks. That has worked out wonderfully for the girls and for me as I watch them use their bigger space.
Now we’ve revamped the roosting area in the coop. In fairness, the coop project was much bigger and more time consuming than originally planned, given work, family and other pressing commitments so when we moved the girls into the coop (or rather, when they balked at being removed from the coop to go back to the brooder in the garage at night), we cobbled together a roosting area in the coop that was intended to be temporary and was working fairly well, until…
It started with Rybeccah, our Wellsummer, having some downy feathers where her full plumage had been that progressed to a few obviously missing feathers and then to a bald spot that became a bit bloody. Having read to keep Blu-Kote protective wound dressing on hand for emergencies, I quickly covered the open area with the blue antiseptic dye to deter the other hen(s) from pecking at the spot which the blood would draw them to, pleased to note that it seemed to help and no more blood was evident, then grappled with the cause of the lost feathers.
Could it be mites or lice, common in chicken coops? I use food and feed grade diatomaceaous earth to limit that and keep a reasonably clean coop so I wasn’t convinced that this was the problem, but I upped my game and made sure there was plenty spread both in coop and run.
Then I considered a premature molt, having read (ah the reading, that both helps and hinders at times with a simple search yielding so many results) that some breeds can molt prematurely. Hm. While I tossed this idea around a bit, it didn’t make sense. Molting generally begins around 18 months and the girls are only 7 months at this point. She was still laying eggs, the feather loss was just on her tail area and it just seemed too late into the season for it with the cold temperatures now upon us.
I did not want to consider that one of my girls was being unkind to her kin, but finally, things started to point in that direction, or maybe they had all along and I was in denial, and I decided I had a bully in the hen house. I had hoped that the blue dye from the Blu-Kote would help me figure out who was pecking Rybeccah’s feathers, but I didn’t notice any blue dye on any of the girls’ beaks, at first.
Having not observed any pecking in the run or while free ranging, I analyzed our roosting set up, recognizing that it did provide an opportunity for a bored or slightly aggressive hen to peck on someone situated in front of her on the roost. And sure enough, I then noticed that Ethel, the silver laced Wyandotte, was beginning to show signs of pecking as well, perhaps the Blu-Kote having deterred further pecking on Rybekkah.
A roost revamp was in order and with some urgency. As a temporary measure, my husband added another perch to the old roosting setup, hoping that some of the hens would go up higher but this was less than ideal and didn’t really eliminate the problem. Seven of the hens could squeeze onto that rung, and did since chickens prefer to roost high, but then someone was left out and that someone had to dodge falling poop at night from the way the extra perch was errantly attached. This would not do once cold nights set in and the hens would need to huddle together to conserve heat.
So I went back to my notes and looked at many pictures online. I decided that keeping the girls in one row would most likely remove opportunity for pecking. I wanted them up higher as chickens prefer high perches that in wild would keep them out of harm’s way since many of their predators are on all fours. I also wanted to better utilize floor space by moving their roost higher.
I decided to utilize the length of the side of the coop facing the windows. I tossed around some different ideas and considered what I’d learned thus far. One of those learnings is that chickens create a lot of poop, particularly at night when they are roosting. This ruled out a ladder type structure I considered because it would allow a lot of poop to hit the floor of the coop where it was more difficult to remove. So I settled on a bar as a roost situated above poop trays. I decided to try Sweet PDZ which is a granular stall deodorizer. The idea being that I could use a kitty litter scoop to remove poop every couple of days and keep the poop in that general area, leading to a cleaner coop which is important to me.
The new roosting bar setup also allows room to navigate for the upcoming colder days when they will spend more time inside. The feeder needed to be moved and we settled on attaching it to the door of the coop, also making filling simple, but care will be needed on inclement days to make sure the food stays dry.
On the day we made the changes to the coop, the wind whipped and the girls spent most of the morning in the coop confirming the benefit of giving them more floor space for indoor time with a raised roosting bar. This way they can use the extra floor space and perching space, perhaps even looking out into the yard when they are indoors.
With freezing temperatures on their way, I changed the waterer as well, choosing a heated dish with a gallon jug. I like this waterer because of the open dish area. I have a big bowl I keep on the patio and it’s the first stop the girls make when I open their run door. They love drinking water from that bowl, sipping it, tipping up their heads to allow it to go down their throats and shaking their heads, splashing water droplets all around. This is fine for a run, but wouldn’t be desirable inside a coop that you want to keep dry. It was at this patio water station that I discovered who the bully was as she tipped her head up, revealing a water clean beak streaked with a tinge of blue dye. Bumble, the Buff Orpington, appeared to be the discontented hen that pushed us to revamp the roosting area.
Changing a waterer is not as straightforward as one might think. They were used to drinking from nipples on the bottom of a one gallon pail. So when the new waterer went in, I put my fingers in the water and moved it, splashing some out. The girls ran over to the splashed out water, then pecked at the bottom of the gallon container. Ugh… I lowered it. Then again, and again until it was just a few scant inches from the ground because they kept trying to peck the bottom of the dish, all the while watching me swish water around in the dish. Finally, Sophia got it! When she tipped her head back with water, the others watched and then figured out how she did it, following suit.
We kept the coop door closed while my husband quickly installed the new roost, having made (even stained) the parts in his shop ahead of time. I kept them busy free ranging for a while, then provided some new treats in their run, but they were curious, pecking at the door a few times.
When we opened the door to the coop, they came inside eagerly but then realized that there were some changes. I left them to figure it out but with approaching darkness, worried that they hadn’t attempted to try out the perch and this would be were they needed to sleep that night.
I went inside a couple of times and lifted chickens up to the roosting bar, but they panicked and flew down. One girl made an attempt to settle into a nesting box and I did not want that to be the option that they saw because ideally, nesting boxes should be for egg laying and remain unsoiled.
Back inside to my husband then. I asked him to build a basic ramp like the one on the door to the run. He obliged and once it was hammered into place, I called the girls in and they came, looking around, even taking a few steps up onto the ramp. So I figured they got it. Not so much.
At dusk, they went in and then came out, over and over again until I noticed all but two were inside the coop and it was relatively dark. I put on my coat and went out. I’m not sure who was more surprised when I opened the door to the coop, the girls or me. They were confused and a little scared, I’m sure. They were perched on the ramp and filled the whole thing! Therefore, the two outside had no where to perch for the night. Oh brother….
So I calmly picked up each individual chicken and placed her on the roosting bar, some with more ease than others. I had to hold down their wings and “shh” them as I did this since they tried to fly, scared from both my intrusion into their space at night and their poor night time vision which limits them. One after another, I placed them on the roosting bar. They seemed fine with this, all except Ethel who turned around and fidgeted, head cocked out to the side and spoke to me. Something wasn’t quite right by her. I looked around and determined that I had picked up each girl. I looked at the roosting bar and counted, seven. Who was missing?
I realized it was LuLu and called for her. She came inside and my “sky is falling” bird let me pick her up too and place her on the bar, but then she panicked as is her style, flapped her wings, and fell off. I felt horrible. She was stunned. I picked her up again and calmly spoke to her, holding her wings down and then tried again, making sure to place her next to Ethel who seemed to be missing her, wondering if they typically sleep next to one another. Fortunately, she settled this time and snuggled up contentedly next to Ethel.
And all was good. I know this because my husband kindly went back out an hour later and shined his flashlight into the coop to make sure everyone was accounted for on the roosting bar, and they were. As the wind continued to howl and shake the house that evening with winds reaching 40+ miles per hour, I rested warmly inside, delighted to know that the girls were lined up snuggly on their new roost, where there was enough room for everyone and no one could be pecked or picked on while they slept. Sweet dreams indeed.