Designing a Southwest Florida Coop

Southwest Florida Chicken Coop Design Modifications

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There are hundreds of chicken coop designs available online. These range from inspirational photographic glimpses to both free and retail plans to coops people will sell and ship to you.

There are three basic types of coops: mobile coops (often called chicken tractors), waist-high, hutch-like reach-in coops, and walk-in coops.* But regardless of type, the vast majority of the coops are designed for other parts of the country. This essay reviews how you may want to modify your coop design for better success in Southwest Florida.

Start by reviewing how our situation differs from the rest of the country – hotter, wetter, and with more wildlife.

HOTTER: More northern coops have to protect chickens from freezes. The birds do okay, but severe cold can freeze their combs and wattles. With the exception of chicks that need a brooder lamp or mother hen, you will never need supplemental heat for mature hens in Sarasota.

On the other hand, extreme heat can fell chickens, so you’ll want to insure they have adequate shade and ventilation. A hot box in the sun will kill chickens. Chickens are descended from Jungle Fowl, but they do have their limits. And high humidity (our speciality) aggravates the situation. Many of us can remember heatwave stories that featured high mortality in commercial chicken production facilities, but if you are waiting until you hear those stories to develop a cooling strategy for your birds, it may be too late.

Here's why: Production houses have, of necessity, developed better, higher-tech cooling strategies -- ones that may be better than whatever you can dream up on short notice. Secondly, White Leghorns (commonly used for egg production) seem to have higher heat tolerance. And finally, backyard poultry keepers are sometimes drawn to the heavier, more fully-feathered breeds and these have more trouble with heat than lighter breeds.

According to the Southern States website:

A chicken’s normal body temperature hovers near 104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not difficult for them to maintain a healthy body temperature when the air is at least 10 to 15 degrees below that.

During times of extreme temperatures, producers must dissipate the excess body heat of their flock quickly. When a chicken’s body temperature reaches 113 to 117 degrees Fahrenheit, it is in danger.

Without sweat glands to cool their skin, birds rely on their respiratory system. Chickens pant to cool themselves, as the panting evaporates water from the throat to lower body temperature.

Lowering the humidity and increasing evaporation are not easily achieved in the backyard, so consider some of these strategies:

• Maximize ventilation. You may have a coop designed for temperate (not subtropical) areas and these can easily trap heat inside and overheat. Do what you can to increase airflow, even to the point of a small fan.

• Make sure they have shade. If your coop is movable (as it should be in the City of Sarasota), get it to the shadiest part of your yard. Morning sun is more tolerable than the afternoon sun when things really heat up.

WETTER:  Tropical depressions and hurricanes can pound our area with persistent rain for days. This can create three problems, wet birds, wet feed and wet litter.  Chickens do not like being wet (madder than a wet hen) and wet feathers can alter the appearance of a hen and lead to an attack on it by the others. Wet birds are more susceptible to disease, so the coop needs to provide a dry retreat for the hens. Wet food spoils so you need ways to store and deliver feed that remains dry. Finally chicken droppings become more obnoxious when they get wet, so work on a design that keeps litter as dry as possible. If your yard floods, this may mean a little elevation.

One aspect of wetter is high winds that can drive rain almost horizontally. You may want to provide a capacity to block wind-driven rain from getting in the coop. Walk-in coops in particular need secure anchoring, while mobile chicken tractors can be hauled into a carport or garage when a tropical storm approaches.

MORE WILDLIFE: The biggest threat to urban hens is other animals. These include dogs and cats, hawks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, bobcats, rats and corn snakes. And coming soon – Spiny Tailed Iguanas, coyotes and Burmese Pythons. (and now, at least in Collier County, panthers) Unless you have a design that accounts for all these threats, your birds may be at risk.

There are three levels of protection to consider. These correspond the three different situations your birds find themselves in. The first is concealment while the birds are ranging in your backyard. If predators can’t see your chickens they are not likely to attack during the day. An opaque wall or fence will reduce the attention your birds get from neighboring dogs. Most dogs have hard-wired programming that makes it nearly impossible for them to resist chasing chickens. When they catch them, they kill them. Consequently, we strongly recommend an opaque fence or wall.

Cats can easily scale fences, but are far less problematic in our experience than dogs. (Some aggressive hens will actually drive cats from a yard.) If you have cat problem you may need to only let your hens out while you are they’re to watch, or have a talk with the cat’s owner. 

Shrubs or shelters can provide cover that reduce Cooper’s (and possibly Sharp Shinned) Hawk problems, accipiters that seem to prefer smaller birds – pullets and bantams. We've had a Cooper's Hawk come after our smaller pigeon-sized pullets.Then tend to hunt from a vantage-point perch and they are persistent, bold, and experts at waiting for a chance and then attacking.  The only upside is that in South Florida Cooper's Hawks tend to be winter residents. Since the Cooper’s Hawk only weighs a pound, they are more likely to take on nine ounce pigeon-sized birds, and less likely to mess with a five-pound Ameraucana or a ten-pound Jersey Giant.

The second level of protection pertains to when then birds are confined in a pen or yard "run" attached to the coop. This needs mesh top to deter hawks and strong wire mesh sides. Obviously so-called chicken wire has small enough to keep raccoons, opossums, foxes, dogs, and cats outside; but circling predators can panic birds and raccoons and opossums are not above reaching in and trying to grab a bird. Therefore you want to include smaller mesh wire for the first 18” off the ground. Some of these predators are prodigious diggers and will quickly excavate a route up and under into the yard unless you are prepared with buried fencing, concrete block, or other strategy to deter digging.

The third, most armored, level is the coop itself. The coop must be solid and predator-proof because once a predator gets inside a closed coop the chickens are sitting ducks and will all be killed unless someone hears the commotion and intervenes in time. All openings must be secured with sturdy wire mesh. Doors, windows must be snug fitting with no possible way to weasel in. Any hatches for feeding or egg-gathering must lock in a way a bored raccoon with a night of free time can’t undo them. The ideal hatch would be one that returned to a securely locked position on its own.

That leaves the entrance from the chicken pen into the coop as the most obvious entrance point for predators. Chickens will learn to enter the coop to roost around dusk, which is when many predators start hunting. Therefore it is imperative to have a strategy to securely close the chickens in each night. We recommend a guillotine-style chicken door that raises and lowers in a secure track. The door should be smooth, tall and/or heavy enough that a raccoon can't lift it. You can find a automatic light sensitive mechanism to close this sort of door on the internet.

None of the above strategies deals with rats or snakes, both of which can fit through very small holes, the size of a quarter. Corn or Rat Snakes only pose a threat for chicks, which you will probably protect in a brooder. Although we prefer to think there are no rats in our neighborhoods, a walk around any local upscale mall (or city hall) will reveal the black plastic rat traps. They are already in your neighborhood and will find your operation. Rats may be more interested in chicken food than chickens, so keep all feed in tightly closed metal containers since rats and mice can gnaw through plastic in one sitting.

This three tiered approach does not guarantee no predator problems, but it is about the best that can be done. Each level is designed to afford better protection, theoretically reducing the number of species that might pose a problem. The fence should take care of dogs, which may well be the biggest threat. If a dog somehow gets in the fence, and the chickens are safely in their wire pens with undiggable floor, they should still be safe from dogs as well as raccoons, opossums, foxes, cats, and bobcats. And a well-designed coop with snug, locked entrances and a guillotine-style chicken door should also minimize rat and snake problems.

Chickens are survivors. They roam free in many places and get by. But some domesticated breeds are not as tough and savvy as wild game hens you see in Key West and confining birds can put them at greater risk if a predator does get in, since the chickens can’t escape. Good initial design requires more thought and investment, but greatly increases the likelihood of success.


* If you have a small lot with neighbors, and/or plan on a small number of birds, CLUCK strongly recommends a movable coop for seven reasons:

• The ability to relocate the coop makes it more feasible to placate neighbors.
• A movable coop should avoid hurricane code requirements for fixed structures.
• If a storm threatens the coop can be moved into a garage.
• The chickens will frequently have new green territory to scratch up instead of ending up with a dirt-patch run that could become contaminated over time.
• The "tractor" will cultivate and fertilize parts of your yard.
• Chickens can be relocated to a neighbors for care if you need to travel.
• If you ever transfer your chickens to another owner, you can unload the coop too, a plus for both parties.