“Go ahead, it’s OK. See? The sun’s out. Don’t you want some sun?”
Henny Penny cocks her head to cast a doubtful eye at me. Yes, there’s sun out beyond the one-foot high chicken door, but she knows it’s windy, too, and at six years of age my elderly hen does not like an April wind searching through her feathers. Chickens need sunlight to make vitamin D just as we do, but I can’t coax her to go outside with her three nieces, who are blinking in the unaccustomed bright light out there. Finally I scuff some hay into a pillow just inside the chicken door so Penny can nestle down in it and at least get her head in the sun if she wants to do so.The lack of natural light has always been a problem with my chicken housing arrangement, and this year I really have to do something about it.
As I’ve recounted before in this blog ( https://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/04/24/the-news-from-2dits-farm-the-girls-in-the-coop/), I originally built a 4′ x 4′ coop on wheels for my girls, intending to leave it out in the yard and roll it about so the hens could free-range. Then reality intruded. Given the choice between scratching for crabgrass and slugs out in the lawn or dining on tender lettuce and plump earthworms in the vegetable garden, the hens will sprint for the garden every time. (Duh!) More reality: foxes, raccoons, and hawks know a good thing when they see it, and four hens ranging in an unprotected back yard that borders on woods is a very good thing, indeed. (Mama foxes used to bring their kits here to teach them how to hunt because the pickings were so easy.) And the clinching piece of reality: it’s Maine. It snows. Sometimes a lot, as in drifts pretty nearly burying the coop. I already clear enough snow, thanks, without having to dig out a chicken coop to collect eggs, refill food and water, and make sure the girls have survived the sub-zero night.
So, with the help of some yeoman service from my brother Skip, I rolled the coop into the large shed that had
served the previous owners of the property as a barn for their goats. Inside, the coop sits in a large stall, so the chickens have some room to get out of their house on days when it isn’t too cold and kick around in the straw on the floor. In terms of room, it’s a good arrangement. There’s not a lot of natural light, though, only one small window facing south, and a slightly larger one that faces east, a direction unfortunately screened by trees. I have to keep electric lights on both in the stall and in the coop itself in all seasons except high summer, or the girls will lack enough light to trigger egg-laying.
Too, during the good months, I want the hens to be able to go outside in an area protected from predators so they can forage. My solution to this has been a mobile ‘chicken trolley,’ a small Quonset hut-like affair made of chicken wire over a bent PVC conduit frame, that usually stays parked right outside the chicken door of the shed. On summer days, it gets covered with awning cloth and hauled out to a patch of lawn so the girls can get a bit of forage and a change of scene.
The trolley has worked well enough, but it does have some drawbacks. It’s heavy to haul around, especially over my bumpy yard. It isn’t sturdy or secure enough to keep out a really determined predator, so I’ve never been able to leave the chicken door into the stall open on summer nights so the girls can get the air and come out in the morning whenever it suits them. Also, to open or close the chicken door into the stall, I have to go into the trolley, crouching and shuffling in the three-and-a-half-foot high tunnel. I’ve hit my head, snagged my clothing, and slipped in chicken poop often enough at this point. It’s time for a make-over.
So as soon as this changeable spring weather settles, I’m going to tackle some renovations. First, I’ll be removing some of the aluminum siding of the south-facing shed wall and replacing the small window with a horizontal panel of the corrugated polycarbonate siding that people use for greenhouses and cold frames. This will give me a 30 inch high ‘window’ that runs the entire width of the shed wall, which should help the sunlight situation immensely.
Then I’ll build a permanent outdoor run for the girls that matches the height and width of the shed and extends in a roughly six-foot ell. This will be roofed with more polycarbonate panels to provide protection against both aerial predators and inclement weather. The walls will be hardware cloth, the half-inch mesh stout enough to resist a persistent raccoon. I’ll make sure to extend the wire down into the ground all around the perimeter, too, as a guard against digging under it. The run will have a human-sized door (oh, joy!), and I’m toying with planting one section of the dirt floor with clover and other nibbles that the girls like, covered with a horizontal frame of chicken wire or hardware cloth so the hens can harvest only what grows up through the wire without pulling out the entire plant. I’d like the chickens to be able to forage something green, and in a bare-earth run–which is what you inevitably end up with when you confine hens to any area–they just don’t get the chance to do that.
I’m also thinking that I might be able to have a run the girls can use on sunny days in the winter if I staple heavy banking plastic all around the sides of the ell in the fall. In effect, this should create something like a greenhouse for them to enjoy. Yeah, I think Henny Penny would like that. Shoot, if it works, I might take a lawn chair out there next January and join them!