Saturday, April 13, 2013

construction recap, part 2

Wow. That was some cliffhanger. Last June I wrote the first part of the coop construction recap, ending with the burning question: would we finish in time to move the growing girls out before they overran their brooder? I promised that all would be time. Which, of course turned out to be 10 months later. I really hope no one was relying on me to provide detailed plans for coop construction so they could build their own. It hardly seems worth finishing the tale of construction at this late date but I do keep thinking about how helpful I found various pictures and descriptions of coop construction when I was planning and building mine. So in the interest of giving back to the community, I will finish.

When I left off, we had a coop and run, fully enclosed but for actual doors and gates. So let's take a look at the various portals and how they were made fast. Before I go into detail, I just have to say that I was pretty excited and very apprehensive about building actual doors, never having done so before. My only prior door/window experience was installing pre-hung windows and doors when I converted our carport to a studio at 3371, 16 years ago. The scariest part of every construction project I've ever done is the part that requires me to use skills and techniques that are new to me. I always doubt my ability to get those things right and I always feel proudest of that part of the finished product. Assuming it comes out okay...

So first the human-sized coop door. I chose a classic shed door style as something I thought I could manage and that would function well for that spot. I used 1" lumber of mixed widths (to enable me to get closest to the size I needed) and laid the boards out on the picnic table. Then, by building a rectangle slightly smaller than the finished door size, I attached all the boards together. Diagonal cross-braces keep it all true and strong. Look how beautiful it is!
And here it is hung:
For the pop door--the 12" square through which the birds pass between coop and run--and the nesting box door I used similar construction methods. Here is the pop door opening sans door:
And here it is, closed up tight:
This photo also reveals the interior paint colors: very pale icy blue on the walls (lighter than it looks here) and french-vanilla-ice-cream-with-lots-of-eggs for the trim. It also shows the ever-so-elegant vinyl sticky tile flooring I used to cover my plank handiwork. I painted the entire inside in semi-gloss, in order to make it easy to wipe down. The vinyl floor works for the same reason, in addition to being super-cheap and easy to install. Having just last weekend performed what I expect will be a once or twice a year process of completely cleaning out the coop and washing walls and floors, I am very happy with these choices!

Next, the nesting boxes. Chickens will nest in a wide variety of things and I could have re-purposed something or built my own, but I was attracted to the utilitarian beauty of the pre-fab sheet metal boxes so I bought them. Here is the opening in the wall--to allow for egg collection:
note the "shelf" to help stabilize the boxes
And here is the finished product!

there is actually a wooden perch that rests on little arms that attach to the boxes but I installed that when the girls were closer to laying
These are really well-designed and functional. And the girls seem completely content to hop in and hunker down until they manage to bring forth the day's egg.

And this is the nesting box door from the outside:
The last door is actually a gate: the entrance to the run. For that, I built a fortified rectangle of 2x4s, braced with diagonal cross-pieces and covered in hardware cloth.
in progress
Other details include the ramp that runs from the pop door into the run (just a board with a bunch of little crossbars hammered on for footholds):

And then...all moved in!

Annabelle getting comfy

Sunday, June 10, 2012

construction recap, part 1

My last post about the coop construction came as we had finished getting the exterior shell on the coop and it looked something like this:
Given that it now looks more like this:
and given that the chicks have been living in it for a week now, it would be reasonable to conclude that quite a lot of steps in construction took place between then and now. And not only reasonable, but correct!

The next step after getting the external plywood shell up was to start work on the run. I wanted to try to plant some grass in the run and give it as much time as possible to get established before moving the girls out. But there would be no point in planting grass until we were done trampling it all the time. So we began work on the run.

Initially, I had imagined a run simply framed and attached to the coop, with structural members resting on the ground. But the more I thought about contending with the slope of the yard and structural integrity, the more I thought it would be a good idea to sink some 4x4 posts as the basis for the run. So off Max and I went to Lowes for cedar posts and bags of concrete. He was a tremendous help (have you ever tried to lift a 60 lb. bag of Quik-Crete? Gives new meaning to the idea of "dead weight"). I used cedar everywhere the wood touches the ground. I will not use "pressure" treated wood because of the toxicity of the chemicals that are actually used to treat it. And cedar, which has some natural resistance to rot, is too expensive to use everywhere. So I compromised.

We dug five holes, mixed five wheelbarrows full of concrete and sunk five posts, creating a run footprint that is 6x12 and an opening for a human-sized gate to come and go from the run.
concrete footing

runhenge: the bones of the run
While letting the concrete set (and with Hank away in the evenings librarianing) I turned my attention to the floor of the coop, which I could work on solo. When we initially put the plywood down on the floor, we avoided extending it out to the outer shell, which would have required notching it around all the studs. But that left us with a gap between the exterior shell and what would eventually be the interior walls. I decided to lay 1-inch pine boards over the plywood, this time notching around the studs to fill in that gap. I'd had it in mind for a long time to try that technique for a floor. It seemed like a very cost-effective and efficient way to get a rustic-looking wood floor. I was thinking of employing it in my imagined garage-conversion-writing-cottage but the coop gave an opportunity to try it out on a smaller and less committal scale. The result was rather lovely:
But there are a couple problems. First, unless you can find boards that are perfectly straight and flat, there will be slight gaps between the boards and some will torque one way or another. I nailed mine down and some of the nails didn't want to stay put perfectly, causing a little roughness. Still, with careful wood selection and perhaps a different nail type (or even screws) and a little sanding, it seems to me this might be a viable option, even in a living space.

Floor in place, we turned our attention to insulation. Because we had placed the rafters on their sides rather than on end, there was not much of a gap for insulation between the rafters. So instead we used a reflective bubble wrap, tacked to the rafters:
and note the hurricane strap--yes, we are survivors of Hurricane Andrew...
For the walls, fiberglass batts:
fiberglass: gloves, long sleeves, eye protection--and still itchy!
Then, back to the run, where cross-beams went up:
 and more cross-beams, now with hardware cloth tacked up to a height of more than 6 feet all around:

I will digress here to note here that fairly early in the building process, I became most impatient with Hank's hammering style and pretty much insisted on doing all the hammering myself. It may seem absurd to haggle over hammering style, but when there are hundreds of nails being driven, such a thing begins to grate. Of course, having assumed all responsibility for hammering, I felt honor bound to do so in an exemplary fashion. And, friendly competition being what it is, I would be lying if I didn't confess to a little pride in my hammering prowess. Which led Hank, in an inspired moment, to call me (entirely without irony, I'm sure): The Nail Whisperer. It is true that as I worked a particularly difficult nail (in a corner, into a hard piece of heartwood, rehabilitating one that threatened to bend through, ahem, no fault of mine) I began to think of pounding nails as a kind of Zen exercise. Or even as a version of drawing a particular sound out of the fiddle. Pounding nails requires a focus on the feel of the hammer, the feel of the nail and the way it responds to the hammer--in exactly the same manner one must feel the bow in one's hand and feel the way the string responds to the bow. Apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, it requires being both the hammer and the nail. And even more challenging than nails are staples! The staple gun we used to tack up the hardware cloth and the insulation was often no match for the harder pieces of wood and staples would be left only halfway in. Tapping them in carelessly leads to them simply crumpling and not actually going any deeper. But with some very sensitive hammering, it is entirely possible to drive a reluctant staple all the way in. It's tricky, but I will admit it is also pretty damn satisfying. Now back to our story...

And then, with a series of beams across the top, a cover of traditional chicken-wire to keep out the aerial predators:
The (conspicuously absent) gate will have to wait for another post. You can see that already the grass was starting to emerge and look like the beginnings of a carpet!

Then, with all the insulation in place, ceiling and walls went up. We had a little debate about the material. I was expecting to use drywall, which is cheap, easy to work with but a pain to transport with the Subaru. But Hank has a thing about drywall and its off-gassing so he prodded me to consider something else. We looked at faux bead-board but that also had a horrible smell and seemed flimsy. After weighing the options, we ended up with a very lightweight plywood, which was relatively easy to transport and work with and doesn't seem too off-gassy.
and, before painting, it had a lovely rosy glow
There was still lots more to be done and the girls were 12 days old at that point, getting bigger...
actually 10 days old, and terminally blurry, as always...
The race was on: would we finish the coop before they completely outgrew their brooder?!? Tune in next time, when all will be revealed...

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Warning: this post may not be for the faint of heart or stomach but nothing bad happens to the chickens (how's that for a spoiler?).

Last night, around 10:00, Maddy paid her usual pre-bed visit to the backyard. Unusually, she was out there for a rather long time. When Hank finally called her in she seemed a little sluggish to me, like she had been snoozing outside. He read something different in her demeanor: guilt. (turns out we were both wrong) I was instantly on high alert. The girls had been settled in their coop for a couple of hours. In my rational brain I know that the chance is vanishingly small of anything, let alone our sweet beta dog, getting to them there. But I've been nervous all week with them freshly installed in the coop and today is, after all, the one year anniversary of the massacre. So I yanked on my sandals, grabbed the flashlight and forged out into the yard, Hank not far behind.

Sure enough, they were clustered, peacefully peeping and dozing under the heat lamp I'm still using in these mid-60-degree nights. Relieved, I wheeled around to go back inside. But as I did, the flashlight caught something on top of the fence next to the driveway: a possum!

I've never been a great fan of possums. They mostly look like giant rats to me. When we lived in Ft. Lauderdale at the house we just call 3371 (for the house number), a possum took up residence in the crawl space under the house. Under the bathtub in the master bath, actually. We'd hear it scuffling around under there and christened it the Tub Monster. All of which was sort of charming and humorous and fine until it died. Under the tub. I won't go into details, but it necessitated professional assistance to rid the property of the ill effects of the Tub Monster's demise.

But last night, my response to the possum was on a whole new order of disgust and loathing. Possums are notorious chicken predators, you see. And although I know, in my rational brain, that the coop and run I've built are likely to be impervious to all perils short of nuclear holocaust, I am still just a mama hen and I'm taking no chances with these babies.

Hank suggested he could wave it away with a stick and picked up a 6-foot, inch wide piece of 1-inch board I had ripped off a floorboard to make it fit. I had been saving it to make a perch for the girls and I didn't want him snapping it off waving it at a possum. So I handed him instead a 2x4. I was thinking of doing more than waving it away, although exactly what more had not crystallized in my mind. But when Hank grabbed the baseball bat, which was nearby, I suddenly realized where this was likely to end up.

I won't elaborate on what happened next. I couldn't even if I wanted to because, having declared I couldn't watch, I retreated inside like the absolute lightweight I am.

Until last night, I would not have thought either of us was capable of dispatching a possum to the great beyond. But if the choice was between dispatching the possum and risking harm to the chicks--even a little, speculative harm--well, that was no choice at all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

meet the girls

I am such a horrible second time parent. You know the stereotype: child #1 gets the whole baby book, bronze bootie, endless reels of videotape treatment while child #2 grows up and has trouble finding even still pictures of herself.

In my defense, it's been a little like decorating the nursery (or, hell, building the whole damn house) after the baby has already arrived. And while the baby threatens, more and more each day, to fly out of the crib in which you have temporarily placed her. Coop construction consumes every daylight hour and the entire 3-day weekend of 90+ degree days. And when we knock off for the day, I am so bone-tired and sore that it's unthinkable that I'd do more than spend some peaceful minutes observing the chicks before turning to a martini.

But I am determined to make a proper announcement tonight and introduce the girls. Over the next weeks I will bring you up close and personal to each in turn. But for tonight...

Here they are at just 5 days old, a rare moment of stillness:
Clockwise, from the top, we have Prudence, the Partridge Rock; Willa, the Golden-Laced Wyandotte; Goldie, the Golden Comet; Minna, the Dominique; and Annabelle, the Ameraucana.

How, you may ask, did we arrive at this bunch of names? You may remember that last year's flock, so sadly lost, was named for Hank's and my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. When we lost them, I knew that at least a small part of the pain came from the fondness I had for the women for whom they were named. I still haven't totally unpacked all the grief from that horrible time. I know that in part because of the sense of reservation I've felt within myself about caring too deeply for these birds. Once bitten, twice shy, I suppose. My inability to name them was exhibit A--for ambivalence. I dithered over what to call them, not wanting to invest too much of myself in naming them. It was surely hypocritical, given the way I had chided Max about not giving up on having chickens, not giving up on the possibility of the joy they could bring, just because he had been so badly hurt last year. I wasn't giving up on joy, precisely, but I was certainly tempering my expectations and girding myself for the arrival of its shadow-companion: loss.

But we needed something to call them and so I started making lists. Given my love of Ella Fitzgerald, Keely Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Sarah Vaughan, I considered those possibilities. But the 5-of-a-kind thing felt a little forced. And the birds just didn't feel like those names to me. I considered D.H. Lawrence protagonists, but Ursula and Gudrun just seemed a little heavy for these tiny balls of fluff. And so, in the end, I just went with names that sounded like chickens to me and a name for each bird that had some connection with her breed. And Max chose Goldie for the Golden Comet (who, by the way, was our Saturday sickling and who is perfectly fine now, thank goodness). The names have no significance whatsoever. Which is just fine.
9 days old: Annabelle, Willa, Minna, Goldie and Prudence (l to r)
Each of these girls has a distinct personality, of course, and I look forward to sharing more details of their exploits. I'm looking even more forward to having the coop finished so I have time to do that! And now, I have a date with a martini...
good night from the flock, slightly blurry

Saturday, May 26, 2012


I have been terribly remiss in posting and every day brings something new. But today brought something a little scary. One of our new babies, who are (can you believe it?) 13 days old, started acting strangely around dinner time.

[a side note: we have named them and they are all tremendously full of personality and with any luck I'll write a post all about them tomorrow and introduce you, but not tonight. There is also a coop construction update that is long overdue. Actually building it and tending the girls gets in the way of writing about doing so!]

This girl had been perhaps the most skittish, mercurial and alarmist of the five. But this evening, she stood still in the corner of the brooder behind the fount. I delivered the evening yogurt snack and while all the others swarmed eagerly to it, this one hung back, separate from the flock. It was that separateness that really worried me. I wondered whether she might have pasty-butt and reached in to pick her up. That's when I knew she really was not well because I actually caught her on the first try. That never would have happened ordinarily but tonight she seemed almost not to notice my hand approach. Her butt was clean as a whistle. The worry increased.

They had made a mess of their bedding and unearthed the paper towelling under the wood shavings. It occurred to me that perhaps she had eaten a bit of it. But my overarching fear was that she had fallen victim to coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a devastating parasitic disease whose chief symptom is bloody diarrhea. The girls have had a few runny stools from time to time, but telling whose poo is whose unless you actually see it deposited is of course impossible. They have never appeared bloody but I felt doubtful of my ability to judge. Coccidiosis must be treated right away or it can kill a chick and it can spread to the rest of the flock.

But what to do when you have a sick chick at 6:00 on the Saturday evening of Memorial Day Weekend? I called the Webster Groves Animal Hospital where we took our departed cat Chuck when he developed weird stroke/seizure-like symptoms one autumn evening. That turned out to be feline vestibular disease, which I actually diagnosed myself using my iphone during the interminable wait to see a vet. It clears up without treatment but of course they ran all kinds of tests just in case and shot him up with fluids and we left some $300 poorer.

Anyway, Webster Groves told me (1) they would not dispense medication without examining the animal; and (2) their "exotic" doctor was not there and would not be in until Tuesday. Great. They referred me to another emergency clinic. I called there and got the same story: no meds without an exam (something about Missouri law) and really they knew nothing about chickens. I had been looking at my resources as I waited on hold and asked if they had either of what I had identified as the two main medications for coccidiosis. Yes, they did have one. And if I brought her in they would examine her and do their best to try to treat her.

Hank had to go to work but Max and I packed our sickling up in the box all five were shipped in and trundled her off. She was pretty cozy in the nest-like straw. We arrived and then we waited, and waited and waited. In total, we were there something like 4 hours. But in the meantime, I reached out (again via the iphone) to the chicken people I know and continued my research online. One friend looked up the Wentzville Rural King and told me to call. It opens at 7 tomorrow morning and was still open then (almost 9).  I called and although they said they didn't have the medication to put in the chicks' water (the standard treatment) they did have medicated feed. Later, I realized the Collinsville store is actually closer--perhaps they have the medication.

As we waited, I offered the chick some water. Actually, I dipped her beak in the water I poured from my water bottle into its cap. She drank a couple times and then I asked if there was a small cup we could use. A 1/8 cup stainless measuring cup appeared, with a bit of water in it. After a while, our chick seemed perkier and she finally pooped. The telltale poop was perfect and not telltale at all, not runny, not bloody, nothing. Hmm...

Finally, finally, finally...the vet appeared. And she was terribly sweet. But, in the end, completely ineffectual. The oral suspension of the Albon they had was not suitable for chicks--only dogs and cats. At least she didn't charge us the $85 exam fee for the four hours we spent breathing their air. And Max had a nice visit with a friendly dog. But in the end, we just brought our baby home.

Before we had left for the vet's, we had cleaned the brooder for the other four, just in case--hygiene is crucial. When we put the "sick" girl in she immediately mingled with the rest and then headed for the food. I don't think this means she is not sick but I do feel a little less panicked about it. It may have been the paper towelling that upset her tummy and had her out of sorts. But I will be up and out in time to get to the Collinsville Rural King at 7:00 tomorrow morning. I'm not taking any chances.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I had expected to put up a very brief post called "anticipation" with a photograph of the empty, prepared brooder:
But at 8:00, having heard nothing from the Post Office, I called over there myself. They are supposed to call when they have a box of live chicks, so the recipient can go pick them up. But they didn't last year and our bemused mail carrier simply appeared at the door with a peeping box the day after the chicks were shipped out. Given that the PO doesn't officially open until 9, I was impressed that anyone answered the phone at 8. I told Brenda that I was expecting a delivery of live chicks and wondered whether they had any. "We do have some," she said, and I could tell by her tone that it was no mystery to anyone in the PO that there were, in fact, baby chicks in a box, probably peeping their little heads off. I could barely contain myself, but I asked when I could go pick them up. "Our window opens at nine," she said. "I can't get them any earlier?" (pleading) "Well...tell me your address so we can make sure they're yours." And then, having put me on hold and returned to confirm they were my chicks, she offered that I could come to the PO Box drop and ring the bell and they'd hand them over even before nine.

Then, after consuming a leisurely breakfast, performing a complete regimen of morning ablutions and ensuring my hair and makeup were perfect...

Of course not! Leaving my coffee half-drunk and breakfast unconsumed, unwashed, unbrushed (hair and teeth) and dressed in whatever I managed to throw on, I dashed off to the PO to retrieve my babies. Hank, having dropped the kids at school, met me there. After ringing a couple of times and then calling on the phone, Brenda emerged to give me the once-over "we're probably going to need ID--you do have some, right?" and then our regular postman appeared with the peeping box, apologizing that he didn't have our regular mail ready yet (regular mail? what regular mail? and who cares???).

Holding the box, I could feel them moving about and the distinct pings of their beaks pecking on whatever it was they could peck. I placed the box on the seat next to me and drove purposefully home (not a good time for an accident or speeding ticket).

Once home, I set the box on the dining room table:
And then opened it...
more cardboard and nest-y stuff
You can't tell very well in this photo, but having removed the outer layer, I could see fuzzy heads through the holes in the box top. I was nervous about all five of them being in good shape and as I lifted the lid Hank observed with relief that they were all alive!
And indeed they are! Number 5 is hidden beneath/behind her sisters in this photo, but she is quite alive and well. If you look closely, you'll see that Number 1 and Number 4 (left to right in this pic) have a green and an orange smudge (respectively) on their heads. On the packing list, next to their breeds, someone hand-wrote "green" and "orange" presumably so we could differentiate them, although I don't find it all that confusing. This bunch did not have a heat pack, like last year's, but it did have a brick of green nutritional gel, which the girls barely put a dent in. Although the return address was for Chickens for Backyards in Boerne, Texas, the "shipped from" zip code showed that these girls came, as I expected, from our own Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, MO. You may recall that Max and I paid them a lovely visit last June.

One at a time, I lifted the chicks into the brooder, dipping each tiny beak in the water dish on the way in. Lifting them, I was impressed with just how slight they are. Barely any substance at all and practically weightless. But so full of life! All, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, checked out the water and food. And the gro-gel, because this time we had managed to remember to find the gro-gel before they arrived and I mixed up a little treat for them. And then they gathered into a little bunch and rested.
And now, just a couple hours later, they seem fully acclimated to their new digs, eating and drinking and inquisitively inspecting everything in range. 

This flock seems noisier than our last--or at least a couple of the girls are--and I'm considering names that reflect their particular aptitude. But that, and a discussion of the breeds I chose for this bunch, will have to wait for another post. 

Before I sign off for now, I just have to point out what a wonderful intersection this is: our new baby chicks arriving on the 17th birthday of the young man who will always be, in memory, my sweet 8-and-a-half pound, thick-haired baby boy. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012


As of today, the coop now has four complete walls. As I nailed the last plywood panel in place, I thought: a shell! I suppose, technically, it's not a complete shell, because I have yet to hang the door and windows, but still...

And because I'm completely pooped, I'll let the photographs of the progress over the past nine days mostly speak for themselves.
first the north wall

challenging to get the angle cut to follow the roofline--if you look closely, you can see the gap widen to the right

then the west wall
Then, before sheathing the walls that have windows, we tacked the hardware cloth over the window openings and along the skirt underneath. Of course, I had forgotten to tack the hardware cloth skirt on the west side before putting up the sheathing, so I spent a little time under the coop tacking it on the inside of the structural members and getting a chicken's eye view of the cool coop crawl space.
that was a muddy day, thus the beach towel between me and the ground
The south and east walls went up in stages because of a temporary materials shortage...

As I finished each day of work, I'd climb inside and sit, savoring the structure-ness of it all, feeling the breeze waft through, imagining how the chickens will experience the space. It began to feel quite wonderful to have created an actual building, practically habitable, from the ground up--something I've never done before. It makes me feel self-sufficient, competent, empowered.

Having reached that point, I had to go away for a few days for work (actually some of the most satisfying lawyering I've done--restoring three wrongfully terminated musicians to their jobs). Today, though, we were back at work. And now:

The coop shell is not the only one I'm thinking about today. Our five new chicks will ship out on Monday as day-old hatchlings. That means that today, they are just one day away from poking their tiny beaks through their shells and emerging into the world. And in honor of tomorrow's hatch day (on Mother's Day, no less), here is a quite beautiful video of a chick hatching (although I wish it kept going until the chick actually got to its feet!):