Alaska Life

Creating a coop: Here’s a guide to raising your own chickens

Government Hill

Chickens are critters that everyone should own. Every duck hunter knows how hard it is to hit one of those flying torpedoes we call ducks. It takes the average guy a half box of shotgun shells to bring one down. When you finally do hit one, it turns out to be a shoveler or a merganser — inedible. A box of steel shot will cost you about 25 bucks. You can raise a half-dozen chickens for that. And they are not full of little BBs that break your teeth.

Well, maybe some folks have chickens with BBs in them. A friend of mine told me a story about a dude his dad knew. Seems this guy had a bunch of chickens that the foxes were always after. One night after he had gone to bed, there was a big commotion out at the chicken house. The guy jumps up, throws on his robe, grabs his double-barrel 12-gauge, and heads out the door, running for the chicken house. He has his flashlight in his mouth — this was in the days before headlamps — and his shotgun loaded, at the ready. He throws open the door, and about that time, his dog comes up behind him. Remember; this farmer is in a big hurry and hasn’t fastened his robe very well. You know dogs ... the dog gooses him from the rear. Startled, he touches off both barrels of the 12-gauge and blasts a dozen of his chickens. Those birds had a few pellets.

Those of you who have chickens, and all of the chicken rancher want-to-be types need to pay attention and get the moral of this story. Make your coop secure so you don’t need to worry about foxes and mink. If you live closer to town, stray dogs are the biggest potential problem. We have sled dogs. To keep the occasional loose dog out of the chicken coop, we use good-quality horse fencing. Don’t use welded hog wire. Don’t consider chain-link fencing. Any determined dog over 50 pounds can destroy welded wire in two minutes. Chain-link may take a dog 10 minutes to take apart.

Bury the horse fencing six inches in the ground and run three foot-by-one inch poultry wires along the inside of the pen. Ten chickens can be really happy in a 12-by-16-foot run. The run should be covered by some sort of netting to keep the area secure from goshawks and great horned owls, if you forget to close the chicken coop some night. Old fish netting works well, as does your neighbor’s badminton net.

The chicken house should be closed at night. Some folks, like the people who run Los Angeles and Seattle, think that city dwellers should not have a rooster, thus they made it illegal to have a rooster in those towns. These are evidently politicians who no longer wish to eat eggs. Eventually your hens will get too old to lay eggs. You will need a rooster to make more hens. Politicians stay up late at nights so maybe don’t want to be awakened by a noisy rooster? One rooster to eight or nine hens is about the right ratio. Those couple extra hens will come in handy if you want to set them and raise some chicks that will grow into food. You also will have extra hens growing up to replace the old gals that are destined for the stew pot.

The chicken house proper should have five or six square feet per chicken. This is a minimum if you expect the birds to lay eggs all winter. Insulate the chicken house well. One chicken puts off as much heat as a 100-watt light bulb. An eight-foot square house with a six-foot ceiling can be heated by chickens alone down to zero degrees. Have a 250-watt heat lamp ready to keep the eggs from freezing if it drops below that. Chickens need 13 hours of daylight to lay. LED lights on a timer are the way to go. Egg boxes should be a couple feet from the floor. If your chickens have to fly up to the nesting boxes, they are a lot less likely to start eating eggs. Should you have an egg-eating chicken, she is the one you need to eat. Egg eaters can rarely be cured.

Hens that go broody should have a box on the floor. Take their eggs and replace them with plastic eggs. Use plastic Easter eggs and put something in them to add weight. Hens will usually set when their egg number reaches around a dozen.

Barred Rocks, buff Orpingtons and all types of bantams set well. Your best winter layers will be black Australorps and New Hampshire Reds. Both of these breeds will also set fairly well. Chickens provide eggs, meat and an alarm clock. There is no downside to raising chickens. I do like to hunt ducks. However, now that I am keeping plenty of chickens I don’t feel obligated to actually hit them.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.