Chick Dispatch No. 3: Preparing the Coop

chicken coop emily peterson

The chicks are almost here! I’m beside myself with excitement and spent the weekend getting the coop ready for my peeping new arrivals who will arrive soon!

If you are still excited about having chickens after Dispatch No. 2, huzzah! You are awesome and I am thrilled you are forging on! If you are reconsidering, may I suggest rental flock? I haven’t done this myself (though if I need another stream of income I might consider it) but there are companies like The Growing Seed that specialize in seasonal chickens so that you can have eggs all summer long and none of the snow removal I’ll face. Of course, I’m not sure if you can still call yourself apocalypse-buddy worthy, but fresh eggs might just be worth the title sacrifice.

Either way, when the chicks arrive you’ll need something for them to live in. For the first few weeks, you’ll need a big cardboard box, lots of newspaper for lining the bottom, chick feed, a watering solution they can’t drown in, a food solution they won’t poop in and a heat lamp with a source of electricity.

The process of getting baby chicks ready for the world is called “brooding.” There’s actually a thing you can buy called a brooder if you plan to become really adept at raising large numbers of chicks. Otherwise, a refrigerator box with a heat lamp will do.

Finally, one day you’ll come in and they’ll be sitting up on the edge of the box looking at you (or running around on the floor) and lo and behold they’ve learned to fly. Time to move outside.

If possible, I recommend brooding the chicks in the coop where they will eventually live, but this may not be possible for you. If it’s not, the basement or the garage is best, provided you don’t have indoor house cats/snakes/free-ranging ferrets or particularly excitable dogs that can’t be isolated from the chicks for about eight weeks before they can go outside. They also make a bit of a dusty mess, so you’ll want to choose a space you don’t mind downy feather fluff floating all over. Finally, one day you’ll come in and they’ll be sitting up on the edge of the box looking at you (or running around on the floor) and lo and behold they’ve learned to fly. Time to move outside.

Regarding the coop, we built ours out of old pallets based on a drawing I made. I knew I wanted it to be big enough to stand up in and spacious enough to house about 25 birds. Each bird needs about two square feet of indoor space (assuming there will be ample outdoor space,) a roost with one-foot of length per adult bird, and a nesting box for every five birds. Ours has a large hinged old window to let in light and fresh air and door with an antique brass handle and a carabiner for a lock. There’s a chicken-sized door as well and a gangplank for them to run up and down before they figure out how to jump. They can also get under the coop because it is built up on cinderblocks. It isn’t ideal because sometimes they lay eggs under there but the plus side is they can escape hawks and the summer sun so until I have a better idea, I’m going to leave it that way.

Read all of Emily’s Chick Dispatches here.

Once you’ve procured your big box, cut one side off so there’s a seven-sided cube. Put the cut side up and line the bottom with a couple layers of newspaper. Hang the heat lamp so that it is at one end or in one corner of the box and plug it in. It should hang about 18 inches above the chicks’ heads. If you have a thermometer to lay on the paper under the light, it should read about 95ºF. If they are too cold, they huddle under the light. If they are warm they’ll move out of the way. Each week for about six weeks you’ll raise the lamp about six inches until they don’t need it anymore.

Remember hens are not rocket scientists and they’ve figured out how to do this successfully and so will you.

There are huge variables here and you need to follow some common sense. If you are brooding chicks in a drafty barn in February, they will need more heat and development time before being let outside than chicks who arrive in April. Check on them in the evening. They should be loosely huddled together in a ring around the warmest part of the heat cast by the lamp. If they are all huddled directly under the light, they are too cold so lower the light a few inches and check again in an hour. If they are all spread out in the shade, they are warm enough and you can leave (or remove) the lamp. Remember hens are not rocket scientists and they’ve figured out how to do this successfully and so will you.

Here’s a handy checklist for preparation:

☐ Box

Heat lamp with a spare bulb

Waterer

Feeder

Chick Feed

☐ Old newspapers

☐ A safe space

OK, and now I’m off to get my spare bulb and a bag of feed! See you when the peeps are here.

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