Thursday, April 21, 2011

Charmed Life Chickens in Action

Just had to share this video of some of my birds, doing their thing in the chicken yard. My toddler and I took out some kitchen scraps and enjoyed watching them for a few minutes. We were talked into sharing our granola bar and banana by the very sweet and persuasive Roo, Malcolm. It's so hard to turn him down because every bite he gets or finds, he shares with his ladies.

The soft clucking you hear from him when my son throws down the granola bar is his call to the hens, letting them know he has foraged up some grub for them.  In this way, a feedback loop gets established--a good rooster teaches the hens that when he calls them, there is always something good to eat to share, and this means that when he calls them for other reasons (like when he thinks they are too close to other rooster's pen, or when he wishes to gather them for a free ranging forage run, or when he tells them to come to him because a hawk is flying over or a dog is nearby) he is likely to have them listen and come running. 

I love watching my birds interact with an eye to how evolution has shaped their behaviors.  In this case, the behavior of a "good" roo is such that his generosity with food and protection increase his likelihood of passing on his genes, by making the hens trust him and want to stay nearby, thus increasing his chances of access and success in mating.  A bad roo?  One who doesn't share consistently runs the risk of having hens that don't learn to come when he calls.  One who hurts the hens by being too rough or doesn't spend the time necessary to build trust, in my experience, has hens that do not stay close to him and in fact often attempt to put distance between him and themselves.  This increases their likelihood of being predated or mated with by lesser roosters who may exploit access to hens not in a tight harem near the roo.

Malcolm (which, ironically, means "Dove) is a joy to keep.  We have a mutual respect that I take care to preserve, and we've become friends over a long period of time.  I truly value his work in keeping my egg-layers and mothers safe, well-fed, and happy. He is exceptional with young chicks, never trying to kill them as many roos will.  He even tolerates an underling roo in the pen with him.  I kept the best cockerel (young roo) from his offspring last Fall, and Merle ("Blackbird") is coming along, learning from his father.  Because he is in the pen with Malcolm and his mothers and aunts, he seems to be learning how to be respectful and humble--something I require from my roos if they are to make the cut and be allowed to breed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Schoolyard Chickens Project--Setting Up a Brooder for Chicks

We're down to 20 chicks in the Montessori class, but at one week of age they are getting bigger quickly!  I just switched them over from a 37-gallon aquarium into a gigantic Rubbermaid container (the one we usually use for all our camping equipment).  I'm getting a little concerned that they may fly out of it soon, though.  All this leads me to believe we need to set up a roomier brooder in the classroom this weekend.

Makeshift brooder from Charity at Chicken Moon Farm
This is a great example of what we could do.  My friend Charity Lewis, owner of Chicken Moon Farm is a great inspiration to me.  Charity raises chickens and bees and sells sustainably raised meat, eggs, and honey. She also leads a variety of workshops on topics dear to the eco-friendly heart, like water stewardship, permaculture, and mobile chicken coop building--more on that last one in a separate post!  Charity ordered her chicks to arrive just a few days before ours hatched, and her makeshift brooder is just a great idea.  I did something similar last hatch, but didn't get any I'm grateful she posted some.  She has taped together several large pieces of cardboard to make a nice stand-alone brooder that her chicks can stay in until they are ready to be moved to the coop (around 5 weeks).  She has many many more chicks than we do, so we wouldn't need one quite this size.  12 square feet of floor space--for example, a 4' x 3' box-- would be adequate for our needs until the chicks "grow out" their outside feathers.

Extremely large boxes are rare, but fairly big ones are often readily available.  The basic process to make a large brooder from a huge box is easy--just set it up!  And if we could do that, I'd be delighted to just need to cut down the sides a bit for ease of care.  But what's more likely is that we'll get several fairly large boxes, and go from there.  Here's what I did last time. 1) gathered supplies--the biggest boxes I had, tape, box cutter.  2) took the first box and cut down two corners so that one wall fell down, still connected at the base, and became a floor piece for the next box.  3) did this a few times with a few boxes, until I had the size I needed.  I used three boxes, so on the middle box I cut down TWO of the side walls, on opposite sides of the box, allowing it to be the middle "car" in the box train.  Again the two side walls then laid flat and became a part of the floor for the brooder.

Do you have a large empty cardboard box at home, perhaps in the garage, waiting for recycling?  Or perhaps you know someone who just got a new TV or refrigerator?  If so, we can gather those supplies and a BUNCH of duct tape and a sturdy dowel, as shown, and create a safe and roomy home for the classroom chicks.  If your child is in the Elementary classroom, please let his or her teacher know you have a box or would like to help put together the brooder--or comment here.  I plan to be at the Montessori school this weekend working on this project, so just let me know if you can help out. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chicken Math--Read This If You Want to Adopt a Montessori Chick

Just a quick post that I will keep updated with regard to the chicks we have and who wants what.

We have 23 chicks that hatched.  I will keep 6 chicks for the Montessori school (this assumes ~50% will be roosters, and they'd like to keep and raise 3-4 hens if I understand the plan correctly).  I will keep 6 chicks for my family.  And 3 have been spoken for already.  That brings us down to 8 chicks available for adoption.  Several children have stopped me to assure me they are definitely taking some home soon, and a couple of parents have let me know they are considering it.

Chicks are $3 each and I am happy to help with any questions you may have about getting them started.  Many of the links found here, and my posts, have invaluable information on this process.

Let me encourage you to communicate with me asap if you do know you want to place dibs on chicks.  Commenting here would be best!

Thanks so much!

Schoolyard Chickens--Baby Chicks R Us!

Today I visited the baby chicks in the classroom to feed, water, and do some basic record keeping on them, and got some pics while I was there.
Boy, are they cute! I wonder how the teachers are able to keep the kids from staying near the chicks all day! I haven't had blonde chicks before, so I'm especially enamored with their fluffy sweetness.
The chicks were ready for a "big chick" waterer, and I put in an extra just to be sure they have plenty of hydration.  The water looks slightly orange, as I've mixed in an electrolyte/vitamin powder just to help them get a healthy start in life. In particular, sometimes chicks have some leg problems--splay leg and spraddle leg are the common names--that the proper vitamin supplement can really help alleviate.  I took one chick home a few days ago who couldn't stand, and banded her legs close together to allow her to stand and use them.  That plus the extra vitamins, and she seems to be making a a full recovery.
(Left) Chick with spraddle leg (Right) Normal chick
I had my oldest and youngest children with me today, so I enlisted help from my teen and toddler to get some action pics as we observed and collected data on each bird.


I was collecting data on three things--feathered/unfeathered feet, pea/straight comb, and general size.  I can already tell what chicks are carrying the gene for blue eggs (meaning they may produce blue, blue-green, or any other shade of green, like olive) and which are not (and in this group of chicks, a single/straight comb means the bird will lay a brown egg, very very likely a DARK brown egg).

It was nice to get a look at each chick for other reasons.  You can tell a lot about the healthy and vitality of a chick by simply handling it and seeing how it physically responds, how its eyes look, how alert and active it is, and how its feathers are coming in.

I was also checking each chick's vent (the multi-purpose orifice on their bottoms) to make sure no one was "pasting up".  As unpleasant as it sounds, a little poop can stick there and attract more and more until a hard mass can actually obstruct the vent, which means the chick can't poop and can get very ill or die.  It's not extremely common, and if a mother hen was raising them she would take care of it before a problem arose.  Today we had one chick with the problem and I took the time to make sure it was nice and clean before leaving.  I'll keep a close eye on that one, and I may add some dry oatmeal to their feed as it helps avoid having the problem altogether.

I spoke with a couple parents today who said they were enjoying looking at the blog with their children at home--I'm delighted to hear that!  I hope this blog will provide many opportunities for children to bring home what they are learning and share their experiences with their families.  Every child has a favorite chick and I'm trying to make sure I get pics of all of them.  Some parents have also shared that they are considering getting chicks.  If you have questions about that, let me know!  Commenting here is the best way to make sure I see and respond to you.  You can also get my email address from your child's teacher.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Schoolyard Chickens--Talking Turkey (and Chicken!) with the Elementary Classroom

What fun we had yesterday in my daughter's classroom! The kids had really done their homework in learning all about birds and their development. We took a few videos of our conversation, but I don't want to post them here as we use a lot of the kids' names. I would love to share with you parents! I'm working on getting this put up in a private way so that only families can see the videos...will let you know what I figure out!

The kids had some really great questions and were able to approach the incubator three at a time to see two chicks zipping and hatching. I appreciated their patience! It was very hard to wait but they did a great job.

I brought the chicks home for the night in their incubator, as several eggs had not yet hatched. Once here, all but one of those eggs hatched throughout the evening and in the night. Our total was 23 healthy chicks born out of 24 eggs hatched! Here is one of those born in the evening...

I can't say enough good things about that new Brinsea incubator-- it made hatching so easy and with this kind of hatch rate I now understand why so many people swear by it.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Schoolyard Chickens Update--22 Eggs Hatched

Just a quick update! 22 babies!  Well, actually 21. I am watching the 22nd zipping right now and hope to go to bed before she finishes, so I am being optimistic.

What an amazing hatch! I have never had such a successful rate of return on the time and energy intensive incubation process.

It has been a very long day, and I have a bunch of pics and videos to share, but I'll just post a few here and it's off to bed for now.

 I so enjoyed speaking to the kids at the school today; I hope they came home positively brimming with excitement and questions! They are so smart and so much fun to learn with.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Tuesday 8:20 am Our third chick, the first to hatch from the FCBM Gypsy's eggs, has just joined us!  It was the first to pip yesterday, and quickly jumped out of the egg as soon as it finally zipped completely.  It's quite big, like the egg it came from.  It has feathered feet like mama!

7:30 am It's been a busy hour! By 6:45 our first baby, from a blue-green egg, was working its way out of the shell. It was "born" right at 7 am, and a second hatchling, from the same mother, zipped its shell off within about 15 minutes. Right now I am drinking my coffee to the sweet and very persistant peeping of two cute chicks that are alternately struggling and resting, letting the warmth of the incubator fan fluff them up.The first EE born is mostly black, with a blackbeak.  The second is gold, with a pink beak. My two year old is over the moon about the birds!

After several hatches, my teen is not super excited about hatching chicks anymore--however, he does like to be funny.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Schoolyard Chickens Update--Peeping and Pipping, Oh My!

Tuesday 4:55 am Woke up and just HAD to check those eggs. Still not much happening! A little worried, but I should know better by now...hatching birds in an incubator takes PATIENCE!

Monday 11:30 pm Nine pips...hard to go to bed with that and nothing else happening. I hope all is well and believe in the miracle of mother nature (and a good incubator!) ;)

Monday 7:35 pm Three more pips have appeared in quick succession! Two more FCBMs and one from my Easter Egger. Four total pips as we head toward sundown, a few hours into Day 19.

6:55 pm Nothing to report. The pip is just slightly bigger but is still just a little star-shaped outie. I assume the chick is resting and will begin to peck out the pip and to zip sometime this evening. It's not unusual for a chick to take 12 or more hours to fully hatch after the first pip, and most are born within 24 hours of pipping.

Monday 4:15 pm One of the French Coppered Black Marans hen's eggs has a beautiful pip. This must have been the baby I heard peeping earlier. I am delighted to see the hatch starting in earnest, especially because this particular egg is a BIG, dark, very speckled one from Gypsy. As I have worked on the olive egger line I am developing, her eggs have been particularly important, as I hope I can pass her eggs' size, depth of color, and especially their speckles to the F1 generation. More to come soon!

Monday 3:00 pm Not much to report at this point, as we approach the end of day 18. (The pic to the left is just keeping me excited about what's to come! That and others in this post are from my first hatch, so this will be a stroll down memory lane.)

It's pretty rare to have pips by this point, unless your temps were too high in the incubator (which causes problems of its own, including crippled chicks). What I am happy to report is that while staring into the bator a few minutes ago, trying to convince myself I could see one of the eggs rocking a little, I heard a tiny peep! I turned off the motor for just a moment and sure enough, a chick is peeping every few minutes.

This means that at least one little chick has pipped INTERNALLY. That means s/he has poked a tiny sharp beak through the membrane separating itself from the large end of the egg, into the air sac. There is enough air in the sac to let the chick breathe for about 6 hours. That means, if all goes well, and this is a healthy chick, it should make an external pip within that time frame. I'm hoping to see a pip and maybe even a hatch by midnight tonight! This is perfect timing...with any luck, I'll take the incubator in to the Montessori classroom tomorrow morning, and there will be one exciting fluffy chick to watch and several pips or zips in progress.

Until I have more to report, I'll leave you with some more pics from that first hatch...

We can't stop looking in the incubator this time either!


totally zipped!
Soon, very soon, we'll have something that looks a lot like this!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

3, 2, 1--Countdown to Baby Chicks at Montessori!

Th exciting moment--first egg starting to zip (Nov 2010)
Today is day 18 of 21 in the Schoolyard Chickens Project, which means the chicks went into lockdown this afternoon and will hatch very soon--in the next three days!  (To see a chick hatching from our last hatch in 2010--the one that had pipped and was beginning to zip in the picture to the left--click here)

Lockdown means turning off the automatic turner or stopping hand turning of eggs. It also means the humidity in the incubator has to go up--in the case of a "dry hatch (low humidity)" strategy like ours--WAY up! Ideal is for it to stay right at 70-75% for the next three days. In the case of the Brinsea incubator I'm using, I removed the wire railings that kept eggs upright, allowing the eggs to recline naturally, as they would under a mother hen. Lockdown in an incubator attempts to mimic what she would do naturally--left alone, a good broody will hardly get off her eggs at all in the last 2-3 days, keeping her body close to them in a way that increases the relative humidity around the eggs. And she stops turning them over, allowing them to position themselves best for breaking through the air sac and pipping a tiny air hole in the shell.

Normal air sac development
Today I candled one last time, and while I still couldn't see into the dark brown eggs from my French Coppered Black Marans, I saw definite movement in 8 of the 12 blue-green eggs from the Ameracaunas and Easter Eggers.

(Hopefully, we can count on this kind of percentage for the whole clutch--75% hatch rate would be a great success, and we'd end up with 18 chicks. I haven't heard a definitive answer yet as to how many birds the Montessori school can keep, but residents of Fayetteville can keep up to four hens. I'll take some home to add to my Olive Egger breeding project, and we should have several available for any families who want to try their hand at raising their own chickens.)

Last candling, Day 18--drew air sacs on shells
As I candled, I was also looking for the air sac in each egg. I drew a line around each one so that I know where chciks will be pipping their first airhole (inside the circle drawn on the egg for the air sac) and zipping the egg open (right along the line of the air sac).

Now comes the hardest part--waiting!  I'll stabilize the humidity at 75% and bring the eggs in to the Montessori Elementary classroom on Monday or Tuesday, as eggs start to hatch.  I'd really love to set up a webcam for the classroom, but lack the technical expertise and the equipment to do so.  If this sounds like a project you'd like to help with, please leave a comment and let me know!  I would love the children to be able to follow the hatch from home and share the experience with their families, especially since they just enjoyed seeing eagle babies hatch at school.

Look for the next post to be details re: the hatch, with lots of pics!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Incubation--Candling, Humidity, and the Hatching Process

Newborn chick resting--Hatching is hard work!
Our hatching is project is 2/3 of the way to fluffy baby chicks!  I ended up bringing the incubator home from the classroom to candle them and because it was difficult to regulate their temperature and humidity there.  Checking them at 8 am and 4 pm when we drop off and pick up our daughter in her classroom meant that any slight temp increase or humidity decrease might not be noted for 16 hours, which could be enough of an issue to cause us to hatch malformed chicks, or have a bad hatch rate, which is a nice way of saying chicks have died in their shells. I definitely don't want that to happen, even more so when the class of children will be audience to the hatch, and I won't be there constantly when the chicks are emerging.  So I brought them home to ensure their optimal development, as much as possible, and also to candle them so that I can see who is developing and who may have already died or never began to develop during the incubation process.

Candling is the process by which light can be shined into a developing egg from outside, and the word comes from the old practice of using a candle to do so.  Candling is an amazing experience, especially for children.  Eggs are 100% boring from the outside for 21 days, until the first pip occurs and the hatching process starts--but getting a peek  with candling gives a glimpse into the fascinating goings-on inside.  Candling is the perfect way to get kids excited about the incubation process when their interest may be flagging!  Check out this video I found on you tube...

So I candled on day 13 and found that 11 of  the 12 blue eggs (some are pure Ameracaunas, some are EEs) were definitely developing--one was unclear.  I couldn't really see into the dark dark brown of the French Coppered Black Marans eggs, so we will err on the side of hope and assume they are fine until we see or smell differently.

From day 1--set day--to day 18, things need to stay pretty steady.   Eggs have to be turned (tilted in different ways a few times a day and stay "big end" up (an automatic turner makes this MUCH easier) and stay at a constant temp of 99.5 to 100.5. This reflects the constants that a mother hen setting would maintain with her clutch of eggs.  (Broodies do get up and off the eggs for up to a half hour at a time to eat and drink and use the bathroom, and fact that means eggs have evolved to maintain their internal temps for short periods so we can do things like candle them or, in a pinch, move them from one place to another--for example, if you lose power or a bator quits on you).  A good incubator mimics a broody hen much better than a cheap one, and relieves you from having to go all "mother hen" as you cluck over constantly shifting and (dreadfully!) spiking temps and humidity.
Hovabator Little Giant Incubator

Brinsea Eco 20--I love this bator.
I started with a Hovabator LG (Little Giant), which is the bator found at every feed store I have ever been in.  It's a styrofoam box and the plastic viewing window is very small, a couple inches square.  This year, for the schoolyard chickens project, I bought something I've been wanting for a couple years--a Brinsea, one of the best.  (Mine is the still economical Eco 20, which will hatch 24 hen eggs, and with the turner I got both for about $150).  It's a plastic housing, not styrofoam, and the whole top is clear plastic, which makes viewing, especially with kids, a pleasure.  This incubator has made me a very happy chicken charmer, because has maintained a great deal of stability (though 16 hours was still too long for me to feel comfortable with not being able to check it and add water or tweak temps if needed!)  best advice I got?  Get two thermometers, the best you can afford--glass with mercury is great--and check them against your home thermostat, which is usually pretty right on.  take note if they read lower or higher than your thermostat and each other, and mentally 'calibrate' them each time you take a reading.  It's not as hard to remember as you might think, especially if you have one that is pretty spot on.  One word of caution:  the plastic strip thermometers that come with incubators are often 5 degrees or more off--be careful!

Aquarium I put eggs into at lockdown for better viewing
You can see my setup from my last hatch to the left.  I was desperate for the kids to be able to see the whole hatch, so I retrofitted a 10-gallon aquarium and put the eggs in it from my Hovabator on day 18, as a hatcher.  I had trouble regulating the temp and humdity with such a large expanse of glass.  You can see I have a large container of water to help keep humidity at 75% and was still having trouble (surface area is the most important factor--shallow and wide is better than narrow and deep)/  Iused a sponge and an old clean dishcloth in the water to help.  It was an ok hatch rate--6 of 11 fertile eggs hatched.  My biggest gaffe with this was that it was November and I didn't realize the window in the kitchen was slightly open, and I forgot to wrap aluminum foil around it that night--those things together meant the heat lamp on top couldn't keep the temp high enough to sustain the hatch.  I woke to find the hatcher at 92 on the morning after six of the twelve birds had hatched.

Egg on far left has pipped
About'll find two schools of thought on what humidity should be.  Some folks recommend wet hatch--meaning 50-60% humidity until day 18--while others swear that will end with "drowning" chicks during the hatch.  "Dry hatch" means keeping humidity at or below 40% until lockdown, and only adding water to the bator when it goes below about 25%.  You'll find equally expert old-timers who are ADAMANT that their way is the way to go, because they've had hundreds of thousands of successful hatches that method.  Yet they've used opposite methods to reach their success.  After a ton of research into this puzzling phenomenon, I realized that the link between humidity and hatch rate is affected by a third variable--altitude.  Folks in Colorado and Northern California and Montana have the greatest success with wet hatch, while people where I live--in Arkansas, near the Missouri and Kansas and Oklahoma borders--at much lower altitudes, do better while using lower humidity levels during incubation.  What's right for you?  Talk to people who have successful hatches in your region, and do what they do--then tweak your results, which may vary from theirs due to your bator or your eggs.  I like to keep my eggs between 30% and 40% humidity until day 18, and I only add water when we get down to 25%.  How does one gauge humidity?  You need a hydrometer.  They sell them at Lowe's and Wal-mart with the thermometers.  Another word of caution--they are often off.  To tell by how much, there is a relatively easy hack.  Put 1/4 cup salt into 1/2 cup hot water and stir.  Place cup and hydrometer in sealed plastic bag or food container--lid must be airtight, and make sure the hydrometer isn't going to get wet.  After 8 hours, the gauge SHOULD read 75%.  If you are reading high or low, take note by how much--you know exactly how much to add or subtract each time you check it; almost as good as having a perfectly calibrated instrument.

Day 18 is lockdown day.   That's the day you turn off the automatic turner (or stop hand-turning the eggs) and bump humidity up to about 70-75%.  You do this by adding water to the reservoirs in the bator.  Putting a cloth or strip of thick cardboard in the reservoir will retain more moisture in the air for longer.  75% is ideal.  Eggs may begin to peep and/or rock anytime after that, and eventually the chick will peck through the inner air sac and make a small hole in the shell through which it will get its oxygen and rest for a while before attacking the shell in earnest, creating a "zip" around the egg at the boundary of the air sac until the top of the shell pops completely off and the chick makes its way out. (In the video below, you can see where I have penciled in the "zipline" the chick will crack open.  I knew where to draw it by candling and seeing the delineation of the air sac.  I did this when I took the eggs out of the turner for lockdown).

Look, don't touch, during hatching.
It's extremely, ridiculously important--the difficult to overstate kind of important--that you follow a few rules about lockdown.  One:  sit on your hands.  Two:  sit on your hands.  Three:  You get the picture!  Humidity levels drop rapidly when you open the lid to mess with the eggs or add water.  If a chick has pipped the tiny air hole in its egg and you don't notice it (very common when you have more than a few eggs hatching!) the humidity dropping can "shrink wrap" the baby, making the inner membrane stick to its body all over inside the egg, and making hatching extremely difficult without the help of a human.  And once a chick is in trouble due to shrink wrapping and you open the bator to help it, you've just increased the chances of another one or more chicks getting shrink wrapped too.  It is much, much better for everyone involved to let hatching happen naturally, without opening the lid.  Most birds that have to be helped out of their egg will have problems and you may end up having to euthanize them.  A crippled or malformed chick is better left inside the shell if it cannot make it out alone, in my opinion.  Children can accept that "that chick just didn't make it" when "that chick" is nothing more than a shell with a small hole in it.  Help it out and you have a cute but ailing, or a grotesque issue to deal with.  Not fun with kids.  Again, my mistakes can be avoided!  If you MUST open the bator for some reason during lockdown, do this.  Go into the smallest bathroom you have, and crank up the hot shower.  When the room is filled with steam, that's the least problematic time to open the lid.  You want the humidity to not drop below 75% when you do this--higher is ok.  


Hatching.  This is the exciting part!  (As you watch this video, please ignore my children fighting and or screaming, or me being ever so slightly crabby/frustrated about said fussing.  I don't know HOW other people manage to post videos without these "bonus" effects.)  It can be hard not to swoop in and get the new babies out of the wet, sometimes stinky bator at this point, but resist the urge--any opening during hatch (after the first chick has pipped) endangers them.    Baby chicks come equipped with the ability to stay in the hatcher for a couple days if needed while the others make their way out.  They absorb the last of the yolk sac at the end of the hatch process, and it gives them the nutrients needed.  This is how big hatcheries can ship boxes of live baby chicks--they are sent on the first day of life.  So try to leave them in the bator/hatcher as long as possible.  The little guy you saw hatching in the video can be seen here resting an hour or two later.  Soon the incubator was overtaken with the hatching noises and excitement of three chicks hatching at once, so his nap was especially cute. Within a day or two after the first egg hatches, all the birds will be out and will have puffed up super fluffy and cute.

Six healthy Black Java chicks

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Before the Chicken or the Egg...Building a Coop: Space and Maintenance

On the heels of my last post, advising would-be chicken owners to be fully aware of the work needed to keep a healthy flock, a post on coops seemed essential.  A well-designed coop has several elements that must be considered before you pick up a hammer or saw.   I encourage you to check out the link to the right that shows hundreds of coops others have built, for inspiration.  And there is a link to an album showing pics of our first coop as we built it, and a slideshow showing the construction of our second coop.  But as you look, keep these things in mind:

Space--Building bigger than you think you need is your best bet.  There are pretty firm rules about how many square feet you need, inside and out, for each bird, but it's a truism among chicken owners that IF your local laws and ordinances don't prohibit you from adding "just a couple more birds", you will do so.  Chickens are addicting!  So, even if you think 5 chickens is the perfect number for you, plan for 8.  (I see you rolling your eyes--just trust me on this one!)  Even if you are the rare owner who never adds to their flock beyond their original plan, a little extra space makes life easier on the birds.  Where space is a limited resource, the natural hierarchy of birds becomes strained.  If a bird who is lower in status can't get away from a higher ranking bird while they are roosting, she is likely to be pecked--incessantly.  Stressed birds don't lay as many eggs and are more susceptible to illness. Here is the rule:  each "standard" (not bantam) bird needs 3 sq ft floor space inside the coop, and 4 sq ft in the run or yard.  If you want to plan for four birds, your coop must be at least 12 sq ft, and your run should be at least 16 sq ft.  This applies to portable runs as well.  Roosts (the long board you must supply for birds to sleep on) should be flat, wide, splinter-proof 2x4s that allow a bird to settle down comfortable on her hocks--having to wrap claws around a roost is bad for their feet.  Each bird needs 18" of space on the roost to minimize fighting. Placing one roost slightly higher than the other allows birds to choose a roost spot based on their status--just be sure to stagger them so that droppings from higher up birds don't fall on birds below them).
    Here are some pics of My first coop during the construction process.  I designed it but had lots of help from Ray, our carpenter friend, in the building process. It was a two-story A-frame, with a popdoor that allowed the hens (we only wanted four to begin with!) to go from their run on the ground to their roost and nesting boxes as they pleased.  I used a pulley system to close the popdoor at night from outside the coop, after they were all upstairs.

    It was a great first coop but had some design flaws.  I couldn't get in well enough to make cleaning easy--imagine trying to put a shovel in that fold down door, then bring out shavings scoop by scoop.  And it really wasn't tall enough for my birds, once I decided to get a rooster, which is generally taller than hens.  I decided to make some changes in the design of my next coop, which was stationary in a large chicken pen, and tall enough that it didn't kill my back to work with.  I designed space for shade underneath, and made four doors--a nest box door with easy access to several nest boxes, a roost door above it with hardware cloth for breezes on summer nights, and two person sized doors on the back of the coop.  You can see the second coop below.

    Ease of Maintenance--Being able to access every inch of your coop is essential.  Cleaning and reaching your birds no matter where they are will be much easier if you plan for access from the get go.  More than one door makes sense--and at least one big door, that you can actually get in--makes even more sense.  A nest box door is a nice extra, allowing you to put the nest box in an out of the way spot where the hen feels secure and calm.

    Plan for how you'll deal with chicken poop.  They do it a lot.  I prefer to "handle" the challenge by using the deep litter method or DLM.  It uses 6-8" of shavings on the floor of the coop at all times (adding more as needed, as old shavings compost and compress).  I like any method of cleaning where most of the work is done for me.  As poop drops into the shavings, the deep litter allows heat to build and the poop to compost naturally, eliminating odor and dampness.  With this method, you only need to completely clean out and replace all shavings about three times a year (depending on how many birds you have, and how much floor space they have--more is better!).  The rest of the time, you just use a shovel to turn over the top layer and bring up some of the dryer shavings from the bottom, allowing a mix throughout that composts the droppings quickly.  Then you add shavings to keep a minimum of 6-8" there at all times.  Mixing in some diatomaceous earth regularly helps dry the shavings and keeps mites and any other insects at bay.  Throwing in a handful of feed every few days encourages the birds to scratch and mix the shavings daily, keeping everything dry and completely odor-free.  If you want to use this method, consider: does your door allow you to get a shovel in and work the shavings as needed--to all corners?  How will you remove the shavings a few times year?  Being able to pull them straight out the door with your tool is great--you can pull them directly into a trash bag or onto a plastic tarp to be moved or disposed of (and if you let it sit a few months, it makes great compost for the garden!)  But you need to add a 8" retaining wall at the doorway so that shavings don't spill out constantly.  I have a small wall I take in and out as needed from the doorway, depending whether I want to keep the shavings in or take them out.

    Planning ahead for adequate space and ease of maintenance isn't as exciting as hatching eggs or picking out breeds to order.  But its far more important in the big picture of chicken keeping.  I'll add information on ventilation and predator-proofing next post.