Londonderry, Vermont – From New York City to rural California, the backyard chicken movement has taken the country by storm, and chicken coops large and small are popping up all over the place. Some coops are a personal expression of their builders, others are quite simply works of art, and still others reflect ingenious use of recycled materials. No doubt about it, part of the chicken-keeping charm is found in providing a quirky coop that keeps the birds safe and is a conversation piece to boot.
“There was no rhyme or reason for it,” Michael Pollio says, recalling the family decision to get chickens for their Londonderry, Vermont, farm. “We were sitting around one day, and just decided to get some.” Tara, his wife, who overheard our conversation from the sewing room, popped in to say, “We live in the country after all, and what could be better than having fresh eggs?”
So began their adventure. Michael’s assignment was to study the subject, which he did with books, searching online and talking with longtime chicken enthusiasts. After considerable consideration, the Pollios decided to build a flock with Rhode Island Reds, the quintessential layers; Plymouth Rocks, for their easy-going temperament now favored by 12-year-old Owen; Ameraucanas, for pastel eggs; and Silver Laced Wyandottes, Tara’s pick.
Michael then designed and built a coop using surplus boards long stored in the barn. Having learned through research that simple was the way to go, he was able to construct the coop for under $400. The coop has open housing for the birds, which is easier to clean than a coop with nooks and crannies, and a means to lock and unlock the door from the inside as well as the outside of the chicken house.
“I relied on guidebooks for the fundamentals, but it was Yankee ingenuity that gave the coop its character and kept the costs down,” Michael says. The Pollios’ coop sports a detachable wooden floor, which provides some protection in winter, and, when removed to expose the wire mesh beneath, allows additional ventilation in the summer.
The Pollios’ coop has been a work in progress – a storage area for feed and supplies recently has been added. Michael also raised the coop’s outdoor perimeter to encourage air flow and added a mesh wire net across the top to keep high-flying predators at bay. To keep the burrowing varmints from digging their way in, Michael constructed a sturdy wooden foundation using recycled boards that also adds to the coop’s interesting appearance.
“Having chickens has been a great source of enjoyment for the whole family,” Tara says. “And it’s been a good learning experience for the kids.” As for Michael, he’s off to secure a branch he found in the woods for yet another roost.
For Emmett Dunbar and his family, who live on Anjali Farms, a certified organic farm in South Londonderry producing a variety of fruits, heirloom vegetables, herbs, and more than 125 free-range chickens that provide the community with eggs by the dozens, the idea of a portable coop was strictly practical. Emmett waves to various swaths of land that once were overgrown and have since been cultivated and fertilized by the chickens, “enabling a full circle of life to continue,” he says. “(The chickens) are also a working part of the Earth. Besides providing us with eggs, they are giving back to the land, too.”
Something he has in common with neighbor Michael Pollio, Emmett also is an advocate of using found parts. Making the most of a 1970s pickup truck ready for retirement, he disassembled the vehicle and used the chassis as the foundation for a mobile chicken mansion. “It’s really worked out,” he says. “Once the coop is set up in a particular location, the chickens, through their pecking and clawing, will clear and fertilize the ground, which we can use for some other purpose – usually for planting.” And with a ball hitch in place, he hooks up the chicken tractor to the compact tractor and moves the coop to a new location.
Tin reclaimed from the dump now serves as the roof. Windows collected from the side of the road, a 200-year-old door unearthed from a forgotten corner of the barn razed at about the same time, and rough-sawn local hemlock boards make the coop as sturdy and weatherproof as it is utilitarian in design. And thanks to vines draped along the southern edge, the coop has a bit of country charm to boot.
Emmett says simple is better when it comes to housing a great number of chickens, which on their farm are predominately Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks and Araucana hens. Allotting one nest box for every four birds makes for easier cleaning, which also means easier transport once the ground has been cleared.
Talking about Anjali Farms as we sit on the porch sipping mint tea from last summer’s harvest, Emmett says, “It means ‘offerings’ in Hindi, which is at the heart of our philosophy and why everyone, even the chickens, are part of the process.”
For Diana and Peter Pagnucco, transplants to Londonderry from Westchester County, New York, the primary interest in chickens was to teach their two children, Maddy and Max, the virtues of country living.
“We wanted to raise our kids with dirt under their feet – to have them appreciate where their food comes from and be responsible,” Diana says, “and what better way than to have a vegetable garden and chickens.”
Because the coop was to be a part of their backyard, the Pagnuccos decided to start from scratch, “and do it right,” Diana says. “We wanted it to be secure, user-friendly and cute.”
They called on the help of a contractor friend., who advised them to construct a stone foundation for protection against both burrowing predators and ground swells, and to include an opening to provide shelter for any chickens that might want to venture outside during the winter. In addition, he suggested they secure two posts in the run to deter diving tactics by predators.
The coop itself was fashioned from 4-by-8-foot plywood boards and finished with vertical rough-pine siding, which they painted barn red. Inside, they included all the bells and whistles, with a dedicated storage and feed area, a pulley system that opens and closes the hatch without anyone needing to enter the nesting area, drop-down doors for easy access to the eggs, and an overhead florescent bulb on an automatic timer that guarantees the requisite 14 hours of light for year-round egg production.
“We’re feeding them, and they’re feeding us – it’s a true partnership,” Diana says.
An apple tree trunk serves as a steppingstone to the rafters on which the chickens prefer to roost, and birch columns adorn the entrance.
As we sit in the sunny kitchen while Diana arranges the last of this year’s sunflowers, it is clear that the Pagnuccos’ attention to detail has paid off; it is truly a picture-perfect country setting, complete with the bountiful garden and chicken coop they envisioned.
Toby Raymond loves the country and loves to write about it. She lives in Vermont with her horses, two dogs, and Sneakers, her cat, who rules supreme.