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By Franck Hyman – We put a lot of thought into the design and construction of our chicken coop nest box. It’s such an important feature that my wife asked me to install a ford path leading to it. We wanted something inviting and comfortable for the hens that would also be easy to pick up and clean. It had to be something that could be built out of bits of plywood, sheet metal and other bits we already had on the floor. We wanted the neighborhood kids to feel like they could help care for our birds, so access to the nesting box had to be hip height for me and chest height for them. And finally, the box had to be cute.
Hens have certain basic requirements for nesting boxes. They prefer a box for three to five hens. It only takes them half an hour to throw themselves on the nest and lay the egg of the day. If the boxes are all occupied, most hens will patiently wait their turn.
Hens want a dark place out of sight of predators. But you don’t want them to be able to roost on top of the nesting box because they will poop there at night and the eggs laid the next day will be covered in manure. Each birdhouse should be large enough to sit comfortably, but also cozy; a 12 x 12 inch cube open to the coop side works well. For what we had in mind, we would need to build the side walls, floor and ceiling of the nest boxes while the back wall would be the hatch door. For larger breeds you might want to go up to 14 inches and for midgets you can go up to 8 inches. But many people keep a variety of happy hens with all boxes constructed as a 12 inch cube.
Attaching a nest box to the chicken coop means it will be a dark space during the day when the hens are laying their eggs. If it protrudes from the outside wall of the coop, it won’t be under the perches. Mounting the nest box on an exterior wall of the chicken coop also makes it more accessible for hen keepers; you don’t need to enter the pen or the coop to collect the eggs. It is an innovation that saves time. Plus, you won’t get chicken poop on your shoes when you walk through the paddock and back into the house to cook an omelet.
Sometimes hens may need a little encouragement to start laying eggs in a specific spot, even in the best nesting box. Put a ceramic or plastic Easter egg in the birdhouses. Even a golf ball will work. Your hens will think another smarter hen has chosen this nest as a safe place to lay her eggs. Chickens have a “follow the leader” culture. Sometimes you have to be that leader.
Before building our co-op, we had taken many co-op tours and browsed through many books and websites on building co-ops. Almost all constructions with nesting boxes mounted on the outside of the chicken coop provided access through a hinged roof, almost like a tool box. But a chicken farmer didn’t put hinges on the roof. Instead, it had hinges on the ripe from its nest box, like a bread box. I call this kind of hinged wall a hatch (appropriate for chickens, huh?). This hatch not only makes the nest box more accessible for children and smaller hen keepers, but also creates a flat space to set up your egg box while you collect the eggs with both hands. This arrangement also makes cleaning faster. Simply sweep the used litter directly out of the nesting boxes with the hanging hatch. To save extra time, we hang a whisk broom on a small hook near the birdhouse, under the eaves. It stays dry, but it’s always handy when you see that the birdhouse needs to be cleaned.
Our birdhouse is constructed with pieces of plywood and boards at least three quarter inch thick. You can use thicker lumber, like 2 by 4, but I wouldn’t go thinner. You need this much wood to minimize twisting as the wood dries and to allow you to screw through the edge of the wood.
When you’re ready to start building the box, remember that screws will hold better than nails. And if you need to move the chicken coop or spruce up the nesting box, screws will allow you to take it apart without tearing it apart. Mark the first piece of wood for the box with a pencil where the screw will go and pre-drill a hole the same size or a tiny bit smaller than the screw thread. The screw should slide firmly through the first piece of wood and bite firmly into the second piece of wood.
Since the nesting box protrudes from the wall of the coop, it will need its own waterproof roof. I used a shiny red piece of scrap metal on the roof of our birdhouse. But other roofing options will also work: asphalt shingles, cedar shingles, old license plates, no. 10 cans, a miniature green roof, etc. I recommend looking at the roof of the birdhouse as a small scale but highly visible opportunity to dress up the chicken coop and give it charm and personality.
The hatch of our birdhouse has hinges at the bottom and latches on the sides. You can use gate hinges from the hardware store that are designed for outdoor use and will not rust. I saved a little money by making three “country” hinges from a sheet of scrap copper and brass screws (other screws can cause copper to corrode). With sheet metal scrap of any type, pre-drill a hole in the metal that is wider than the thread of the screw. Then mark and pre-drill a hole in the wood as wide as the shank of the screw so that everything fits snugly. These “hinges” don’t move as easily as a gate hinge, but they are less expensive and work quite well.
Your hatch latches should be secure enough to deter raccoons without making things too awkward for chicken keepers. Some people have resorted to padlocks, but I think the carabiners are tricky enough to keep raccoons out (at least I hope so). The type of spring-loaded latches commonly found on dog leashes are also easy to use, but some people say they’re not raccoon-proof. So it’s up to you to decide your trade-off between risk and convenience.
Our birdhouse carabiners attach a pair of hasps that keep the birdhouse hatch snug when closed, to minimize drafts. To attach the hasps, you may want an assistant. One person holds the hatch in place and another places the hasp in a convenient location. With a pencil, mark the location of the screws. Pre-drill these holes with a drill bit the same thickness as the screw shank. This way the screw will slide smoothly through the holes in the hasp and the threads of the screw will bite deep through the wood.
Arm for the hatch
To make the trapdoor form a counter-like surface, you will need a wooden support arm that swings under the birdhouse. I used 2 by 2 inch pieces of wood, but any size will do. I cut the pieces about 10 inches long with a 45 degree bevel on each end for a more finished look. These cuts can be made with a circular saw if you want to be fast, with a table saw if you want to be precise, with a jigsaw if you want to be quiet, and with a handsaw if you want to get strong.
Then pre-drill a hole just wider than the screw thread in the middle of each arm. Choose a screw short enough not to go through the floor of the birdhouse. Slide the screw through the support arm and screw it into the floor of the birdhouse. But not too tight to prevent the arm from rotating. When the arm is stowed, it should line up with the hatch when closed. When I want to open the hatch, I rotate the arm 90 degrees, remove the carabiners, open the hasps and gently rotate the hatch down so it rests on the support arms.
The hatch protects our hens from drafts and predators. When we want to collect the eggs or clean the nesting boxes, we have easy access and good visibility in the coop.
As a finishing touch, we dressed the hatch of the nesting box with a drawer handle on which sits an arrogant rooster. It’s merely ornamental as it takes two hands to unlock the hasps and open the hatch. But it fits one of the design goals: it’s cute.
- tape measure
- 4 x 4 foot 3/4 inch plywood sheet
- Carpenter’s Square
- Level 2 to 4 feet long
- marker pen
- Drill with matching bits
- 1 box of 1 5/8″ exterior grade screws
- 1 pair of 4 inch hinges
- 1 pair of 2 ½ inch latches
- 2 x 2 inch piece of wood, about 10 inches long
- Two 2 inch long screws to act as a support arm pivot
- Six 3-inch exterior-grade screws
- A piece of rolled asphalt roofing 26 inches long by 15 inches wide
- utility knife
- A dozen galvanized roofing nails (1/2 inch or 5/8 inch)
- Needle nose pliers
—HentopiaStorey Publishing, North, Adams, MA, 2018, p 133.
Franck Hyman is a carpenter, welder and stonemason with forty years of experience building farms, gardens and homes on two continents. He has a BS in horticulture and design. Frank is also the author of the game-changing, low-cost, low-tech, low-maintenance book, Hentopia: Create a hassle-free habitat for happy hens; 21 projects by Storey Publishing.