I’m not a camera guy. I like to keep my memories in my head instead of in albums, and someday if I’m too old to talk to anybody or do anything I’ll just sit and look at them. But, I do wish I had pictures of that slab wood chicken house. That was a real triumph of skill and creativity over lack of money. I built it in 1982, on a budget of less than $50. I raised chickens in the slab wood house until 1995, and in 2003 when I went back to the old farm for a visit, I pushed my way through the underbrush and rotted poultry netting to where the old chicken house was, and found it in remarkably serviceable condition. Probably it needs some repair now, but I expect that with a little effort it could go back into service for a few more years. I do wish I’d taken some photos so I could show it to others, but I see it in clear detail in my own eyes.
If you want to raise chickens, you have to understand that chickens aren’t just wild creatures. They aren’t like cows and horses, able to live outside in all types of weather. They’re sort of like little edible people, not adequately equipped to survive in the regular world although they do try. Chickens evolved in tropical climates and only go wild in those same regions. In temperate climates where temperatures drop far below freezing in the winter, chickens are only a little more hardy than tomatoes and peppers. Chickens can survive a hard freeze, and even temperatures below zero, but only if you give them shelter and extra care. Toy chicken coops set up in exposed areas in a northern winter will make chicken popsicles out of chickens. You’ll need a chicken house, something better than a coop, if you live farther north than northern Florida.
Winter becomes a difficult time for social reasons as well as weather. Chickens need space. They don’t like being cooped up in a house when the weather is too bad to let them out, and unless they have a little elbow room and plenty of litter to scratch, they might turn on each other and start to pull each other apart. Chickens in cramped spaces can do horrible things to one another. The white breeds are the worst, because any speck of feces stuck on feathers entices other chickens to peck at that spot, eventually drawing blood and more specks and more pecking, until the victim chicken has a huge hole in the rear and walks about the house with intestines dragging behind them. Chickens who learn to eat one chicken continue the project with others. Giving your flock a little extra space in the winter can prevent the kind of nastiness you’d ordinarily see only in zombie flicks. Whatever minimum space an extension agent says is needed, double it, and provide entertainments in the form of hay and sawdust and other scratchable debris.
In the summertime, the house is a haven for hens looking for a safe place to lay eggs, and a convenient place for egg gathering if you build it right. It’s the best place to locate the feeder, since it will at least prevent night-time rodents from carrying all the feed away. Put together properly, the chicken house protects your flock from all the nocturnal predators that love to eat part or all of your chickens. If you’re not a good craftsman, you’ll have trouble making a chicken house that works right. A gap of more than a quarter inch between any planks in the structure can admit a dangerous carnivore such as a weasel. Weasels find the killing of chickens very entertaining and will go through the whole flock, even though they only eat a few ounces of meat. They actually need a gap of about a half inch for access, but a quarter inch gap expands and contracts with the weather and could become a half inch or more wide in extreme conditions.
Building a chicken house is quite a challenge, actually, and there are quite a few good kits on the market that will eliminate some of the problems involved. Most aren’t heavy and need anchoring that doesn’t come with the kit, otherwise the first strong wind will tumble them across your property. Small coops get too hot if placed in direct sunlight, so you’d need to locate them in shaded areas in the summer. In the winter they won’t protect the birds adequately from the cold, so you’ll need to move the small coop to a sheltered space like the unused half of a garage or against the sunny south side of the house.
Building a chicken house becomes nearly as complicated as building a house. The easiest way to put one up is with good lumber, plywood and standard roofing materials. Or, you could try to do it cheap. I’ve always gone for cheap.
The first coop I ever built was designed as a temporary shelter for a flock of 25 chicks, and I thought it would be good enough for a couple of months at least. I built it from some castoff window shutters and the case of an old piano, plus some odds and ends of scrap lumber I had laying around, and I connected the doorway to a fenced run. The whole thing was fairly portable and I could drag it about the yard so the chickens could get new grazing every few days. I did not remember how fast chickens grow, because I hadn’t raised chickens since I was a kid and watched other people deal with the problems. Chickens grow really fast, so you’d better have space available quickly.
The second coop I ever built was a temporary measure built to increase the piano coop’s size while I built the third house, the real slab wood chicken house. My second coop attached to the back of the piano house and was a modified 55 gallon steel drum with three wooden crossbars for roosts. It almost doubled the space of the piano house. I cut a semi-circle of steel out of both ends and bolted wire mesh over the openings, with a doorway at the one end that abutted the modified piano. The chickens quarreled a lot but it kept them safe enough while I worked on my masterpiece.
Since I had no large amounts of money, I built the main house with what I could scavenge or harvest. I gathered rocks for a piled rock foundation, cut and hewed timbers for sills, posts and beams. I cut straight persimmon saplings for rafters and purlins. What I didn’t have handy was the casing of the house, and buying enough plywood to make walls and roof just wasn’t financially feasible.
Buy it or build it from scratch.
You’ll need something like this
to protect chicks or unguarded
Instead, I went up to Schaeffer’s Sawmill and made a deal for a bundle of waste slabwood, the outer surfaces of logs that are left behind after sawing logs into lumber. Usually the Schaeffers sold them to the local charcoal mill by the semi-truck load, but because I asked nicely one of the boys dropped a bundle off at my farm for twenty bucks including delivery.
To me a bundle of wood in any size or shape is a pile of ideas. I have tools and skill and imagination and if I want to build something, by golly it will happen. Many people don’t have the skills and tools to work with slab wood, however. It has one sawn flat side and one curved side with the bark still on it, and might be two inches wide and a half inch thick at the small end, and twelve inches wide and six inches thick at the fat end. Somehow you have to make that into a waterproof roof , tight walls, a strong floor and the essential furnishings.
I don’t particularly like to work with adzes, but I do acquire them anyway. I know that somebody must have found adzes useful sometime, and it might happen to me, too. For this job, my lipped adze turned out to be essential. To make flat boards for the roof I adzed wide grooves across the grain in the round faces of the slabs of pine I found in the mix, nailed through the grooves into the purlins, and built a very reasonably peaked roof with a flat surface. Some scavenged shingles made the structure watertight.
For the walls, I trimmed the edges of the best pieces straight, nailing the slabs up alternately like logs. It worked surprisingly well. The same system built a solid although irregular floor, rounded sides of the slabs facing up, that I covered with shavings collected from my woodshop. The slab wood door allowed human entry and exit, but at the bottom I built a trap door for the flock that raised with a pull rope and latched shut with a tight hook-and-eye that coons couldn’t unravel. On the west side of the house I installed a large, screened window, because I know I don’t like to be shut up in a building with no windows and I don’t think chickens feel any differently about that.
Taking care of chickens is an on-going project. You have to watch the weather and respond to it. I’ve suffered frostbite only twice in my life, once while processing in at a new Army duty station in Alaska, walking around post without winter issue gear; and once while putting up extra protection for my chickens during a hard winter in the Ozarks. I lost the tips of several fingers but nothing important really, and all the chickens survived.
I don’t know if chickens are smart enough to be grateful, but they at least liked the chicken house enough to make it home. Two sassafras saplings across one end of the interior provided night roosts and convenient steps for the hens when on their way to the double tier of nest boxes on the back wall. The boss rooster supervised the entire project closely, eying every step I took, and while I worked we argued peaceably about hawks. The rooster would cock his eye at the sky and announce, “Hawwwwkkkk!” and I’d look up and say, “There’s no hawk out there! You’re just nuts.” Then a few minutes later I’d hear the drone of a jetliner approaching, and the rooster would scratch some dirt and glare at me until I admitted he was right. I wish I’d had a rooster’s eyesight at least for awhile in my life, they must be as sharp as eagles.
I’d do lots of things in defense of the chickens, bringing them hot water on cold winter mornings, getting up at sunrise to let them out of the house even if I was sick and felt like crap, and stopping whatever I was doing in the evening to go make sure everybody gets home and the door’s locked shut. One hen liked to stay out late, and would sometimes get trapped on the ground in the dark, far from home. I’d track her down and trail a pool of flashlight behind me so she could walk to the house in the tiny piece of daytime and find a safe spot on the roost. I’d shovel paths through the snow in horrible weather so the flock could get out and stretch their legs for a few minutes on a nasty winter day.
The automatic opener raises
and lowers this door at dawn
and dusk. You won’t have to be
up at dawn every day, forever.
Every now and then I’d eat one, a little tearfully, with salt and pepper and a rubbing of sage. One of my favorite stories from China is about a rooster that studied his farmer using the Scientific Method that westerners find so important. Every day, the farmer would extend an open hand with some grain in his palm, and every day for a hundred days the rooster refused the gift. On the hundred and first day, the rooster concluded the farmer lived only in service of the flock, and pecked at the grain. The farmer wrung the rooster’s neck and ate him for supper. People are crazier birds than chickens are.