Flocking to the City

Chicken Coop Building: The Rise of the Mega-Coop

A photo of Cevan CastleThere is an advertisement for Horizon Structures on the Community Chickens website that says, “Before the chicken OR the egg ... You need a coop.” Acknowledging that the famous “which came first” puzzle may never be solved, I can assure you that Horizon Structures is on to something here. The coop properly DOES come first, else you may find yourself thinking unkind things while scraping the remains of the day from your bathtub.

The coop in Phil’s backyard did not get built over the Memorial Day weekend. Family outings and other projects took precedence for us both. The chicks remained in my bathroom for another week, after which time I retrieved a decommissioned puppy kennel from the attic and installed it in the living room. The birds moved to the front of the house. It was not really an imposition because they were still very small and relatively tidy creatures, and while I have relaxed attitudes towards housekeeping (yes, this is a euphemism), I am not good at sharing bathrooms. I made a cozy home of the kennel by layering generous amounts of straw over newspaper and adding a thick dowel across the cage for a roost. As long as it was cleaned every day, there was no problem with odor. The cats and the dog were overjoyed at the spectacle. It was during the chicks’ first two weeks of residence in the living room that we really got to know each other.

Cevan bonding with the chickens

 I saw their first clumsy attempts at roosting, we watched television together (they fell asleep during The English Patient, but were delighted by a documentary on Calatrava’s Lyon-Satolas TGV station), they ate their first slugs and berries from my garden, they took tiny dust baths in my hands. I fell in love with our little chickens.

Meanwhile, Phil and I continued to dabble with the construction of their permanent home. The self-cleaning, clerestoried dream version of the coop had been simplified to a basic lean-to structure. On a sunny afternoon early in June, we headed out to gather building materials that he had scavenged and stored in a complex of abandoned manufacturing buildings. As we pulled in to the industrial area, he pointed out that the first factory building had recently been set on fire so that scavengers could extract the metal beams from the ceiling. The building was reduced to remnants of brick walls and blistered charcoal surfaces. Curls of corrugated metal siding peeled from the remains: potential roofing material for our project, he noted. In another building, he pointed out where he had created a shallow pool by dumping a load of stones around a water leak. Grasses were growing around piles of old tires and other debris, and he found that birds frequent the area. We continued to the back of the property to an open shed. Stacked here and there were an array of objects collected over the years: heaps of reclaimed lumber, discarded old-style street lamp posts, a speed boat covered in peeling paint, stacks of large picture frames, a vivid red sink. He tossed me a pair of gloves, and we filled the back of the truck with 2-by-6 boards.

Phil at the factory

Upon returning home, we constructed a 6-foot-by-10-foot platform from the 2-by-6s and surfaced them with additional 2-by-6 boards.

Surfacing the coop floor

Over the course of the next week, Phil framed the walls and sheathed them in reclaimed privacy fencing.

Chicken coop walls go up.

More 2-by-6s were cut for ceiling beams, decked with plywood, and shingled. Polycarbonate sheeting and heavy wire mesh was added over openings to form windows and allow for ventilation. Old soda crates were added as nesting boxes.

Scavenged nesting boxes

And doweling was attached to the wall framing for roosting. A small door (that doubled as a ramp) was cut into the paneling, leading to an outdoor pen constructed of reclaimed construction fencing.

Chicken door

These panels were attached to the low wall of the lean-to, then topped with one panel of aluminum fencing and some shade cloth for protection from aerial predators and sun. It turned out to be an adorable little cabin, and much too large for four chickens. I found myself making jokes about moving myself in and leaving the girls in my house, but my imaginings did not get very far. Just as the construction was wrapping up, I received a cheery email from our chicken keeping friend: “Phil picked up some of my new batch of blue and brown egg layer chicks today ...”

Phil picked up additional birds to fill out the flock.

We now had a total of ten chickens.

So, at last, the original chicks (who had grown to a dramatic size by this time) and the new chicks were moved into their own home.

The chickens finally move in to their new home.

I was out a getaway cabin, but gained a living room.

The original birds were quite large by the time they moved in to their coop.

The Chicks Arrive

My neighbor and I had been talking about getting chickens. Although we live right in the city of Detroit, there is an abundance of space, and urban agriculture has caught on here like wildfire. Communities of would-be farmers have crystallized around movements like the Garden Resource Program, which sponsors plant distributions, farmers market participation, gardening classes, bee-keeping groups and more. Over the last several years, Phil and I have (re)established home gardens and worked to keep them active around the year. We have had plentiful yields, even selling occasional overflows of organic produce to local shops and at market. Expanding into poultry would be an exciting move towards self-sufficiency. We were acquainted with an underground network of chicken keepers (poultry are illegal within the city limits) who were eager to share extra chicks as well as wisdom. Once we vocalized our interest in a flock, the pressure was on to get started. A friend had a new batch of baby chicks and was ready to send some our way.

Phil and Cevan

Although I am a powerful magnet for wayward animals and would normally have jumped at the chance to house a group of fine, feathery ladies, an upcoming commitment required me to avoid any dependents upon which a landlord might look askance. Phil, on the other hand, was ready to commit. The flock would therefore be located at his home, situated on a lush city property of very generous proportions. These would be happy chickens, and I would be able to assist with their care. We agreed to take some of our friend's chicks knowing that they would not be moved for several more weeks. This left plenty of time to design and build the chicken coop, a step which turned out to be deceptively simple.

One dark and rainy Wednesday we set out to measure the far corner of his yard. It is bounded by two 10 foot high walls of cement block that have foundations approximately four feet in depth. The area is graded with course stones. An avid salvager, Phil had already located fence pieces that might be incorporated into a pen. He mocked up a rectangular enclosure of about 14 by 18 feet and proposed a coop tucked into the corner of the cement walls, covered by a roof that sloped down towards the gently shaded outdoor run.

Chicken Coop Site

Upon saturation from the pouring rain, we retreated to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee and transfer our soggy measurements onto something more substantial. He stood at the window as we drew, checking to see that the pen was positioned for optimal visibility from the kitchen table. Those in a rural setting may find it odd, but in this urban context, the visual accessibility of the chickens was almost a quality of life concern. By looking past the pond full of golden fish, past the leafy garden plot, and into a picturesque yard of chickens about their business, one might occasionally forget that he or she is surrounded by a troubled city. For Phil, a homicide detective that works nights for the Detroit PD, this was an unspoken but understandable priority.

While we had both the knowledge and the materials to start construction on the coop immediately, it didn't happen. The plan became more and more elaborate (although charming and nearly maintenance-free, at least in theory), and our time to build was constrained by other projects. The keeper of the chicks reminded us once or twice that they were getting big enough to move to their new home, but still we took our time with plans for the coop and avoided a committed date to pick up the chickens. Avoidance does not work well in this city; suffice it to say, we all frequent the same restaurants. Sure enough, sooner rather than later, we had to take the plunge. On May 21st at 10:30pm, as our friend was cheerfully departing town for a holiday weekend in Nashville, I found myself standing outside her house with a pet carrier full of little chickens.

Today is May 22nd, and as I am typing this, I can hear them chirping in my bathroom. The cats and the dog, normally adversarial, have taken a united interest in getting inside the room. They have been camped outside the door since the chickens arrived. Each time I pass through the hallway, I receive very earnest looks regarding their need for thumbed assistance in the turning of the knob. This weekend, the chicken coop will rise to the top of the Projects list.