Chicken House Lessons From The Past

The following article was taken from:

Poultry: A Practical Guide to the Choice, Breeding, Rearing, and Management of all Descriptions of Fowls, Turkeys, Guinea-fowls, Ducks, and Geese, for Profit and Exhibition.

Author: Hugh Piper

Publication Date: 1872

In this work we shall consider the accommodation and requisites for keeping fowls successfully on a moderate scale, and the reader must adapt them to his own premises, circumstances, and requirements. Everywhere there must be some alterations, omissions, or compromises.

We shall state the essentials for their proper accommodation, and describe the mode of constructing houses, sheds, and arranging runs, and the reader must then form his plan according to his own wishes, resources, and the capabilities of the place. The climate of Great Britain being so very variable in itself, and differing in its temperature so much in different parts, no one manner or material for building the fowl-house can be recommended for all cases.

Plans for poultry establishments on large scales for the hatching, rearing, and fattening of fowls, turkeys, ducks, and geese, are given in our smaller work on Poultry.

The best aspects for the fowl-house are south and south-east, and sloping ground is preferable to flat.

“It is only of late years,” says Mr. Baily, “poultry-houses have been much thought of. In large farmyards, where there are cart-houses, calf-pens, pig-styes, cattle-sheds, shelter under the eaves of barns, and numerous other roosting-places, not omitting the trees in the immediate vicinity, they are little required–fowls will generally do better by choosing for themselves; and it is beyond a doubt healthier for them to be spread about in this manner, than to be confined to one place. But a love of order, on the one hand, and a dread of thieves or foxes on the other, will sometimes make it desirable to have a proper poultry-house.”

Each family of fowls should, if possible, have a house and run; and if they are kept as breeding stock, and the breeds are to be preserved pure, this is essential. And where many kinds are kept, the various houses must be adapted to the peculiarities of the different breeds, in order to do justice to them all, and to attain success in each.

The size of the house and the extent of the yard or run should be proportioned to the number of fowls kept; but it is better for the house to be too small than too large, particularly in winter, for the mutual imparting of animal heat. It is found by experience that when fowls are crowded into a small space, their desire for laying continues even in winter; and there is no fear of engendering disease by crowding if the house is properly ventilated, and thoroughly cleansed every day. Mr. Baily kept for years a cock and four hens in a portable wooden house six feet square, and six feet high in the centre, the sides being somewhat shorter, and says such a house would hold six hens as well as four.

Ventilating holes were made near the top. It had no floor, being placed upon the ground, and could be moved at pleasure by means of two poles placed through two staples fixed at the end of each side. A few Cochin-Chinas may be kept where there is no other convenience than an outhouse six feet square to serve for their roosting, laying, and sitting, with a yard of twice that size attached. Mr. Wright “once knew a young man who kept fowls most profitably, with only a house of his own construction, not more than three feet square, and a run of the same width, under twelve feet long.” The French breeders keep their fowls in as small a space as possible, in order to generate and preserve the warmth that will induce them to lay; while the English breeders allow
more space for exercise, larger houses, and free circulation of air.

The French mode, is very likely the best for the winter and the English for the summer, but the two opposite methods may be made available by having one or more extra houses and runs into which the fowls can be distributed in the summer. A close, warm roosting-place will cause the production of more eggs in winter, when they are scarcest and most valuable, while air and exercise are necessary to rear superior fowls for the table; and if they can have the run of a farmyard or good fields in which to pick up grain or insects, their flesh will be far superior in flavour to that of fowls kept in confinement, or crammed in coops.

Almost any outbuilding, shed, or lean-to, may be easily and cheaply converted into a good fowl-house by the exercise of a little thought and ingenuity.

The best material to build a house with is brick, but the cheapest to be durable is board, with the roof also of wood, covered with patent felt. One objection to timber houses is their being combustible, and easily ignited, and houses had better be built of a single brick in thickness, unless cheapness is a great object.

A lean-to fowl-house may be constructed for a very small sum, with boards an inch thick, against the west or south side of any wall. Whenever wood is employed it should be tongued, which is a very cheap method of providing against warping by heat, or admitting wind or rain; lying flat against the uprights, it saves material and has an external appearance far superior to any other method of boarding. If the second coat of paint is rough cast over with sand, it will greatly improve the appearance, and the house will not be unsightly even in the ornamental part of a gentleman’s grounds.

A house may be built very cheaply by driving poles into the ground at equal distances, and nailing weather-boarding upon their outside. If it is to be square, one pole should be placed at each corner, and two more will be required for the door-posts. The house may be made with five, six, or more sides, as many poles being used as there are sides, and the door may occupy one side if the house be small and the side narrow, otherwise two door-posts will be required. If the boards are not tongued together, the chinks between them must be well caulked by driving in string or tow with a blunt chisel, for it is not only necessary to keep out the rain but also to keep out the wind, which has great influence on the health and laying of the fowls.

Where double boarding is employed for the sides, the house may be made much warmer by filling up the space with straw, or still better with marsh reeds, so durable for thatching. This plan, unfortunately, affords a shelter for rats, mice, and insects, and therefore, if adopted, it will be highly advantageous to form the inside boarding in panels, so as to be removable at pleasure for examination and cleansing.

For the roof, tiles or slates alone are not sufficient, but, if used, must have a boarding or ceiling under them; otherwise all the heat generated by the fowls will escape through the numerous interstices, and it will be next to impossible to keep the house warm in winter. A corrugated roof of galvanised iron may be used instead, but a ceiling also will be absolutely necessary for the sake of warmth. A rough ceiling of lath and plaster not only preserves the warmth generated by the fowls and keeps out the cold, but has the great advantage of being easily lime-washed, an operation that should be performed at least four or five times a year.

Boards alone make a very good and cheap roof. They may be laid either horizontally, one plank overlapping the other, and the whole well tarred two or three times, and once every autumn afterwards; or they may be laid perpendicularly side by side, fitting closely, in which case they should be well tarred, then covered with old sheeting, waste calico, or thick brown paper tightly stretched over it, and afterwards brushed over with hot tar, or a mixture of tar boiled with a little lime, and applied while hot; this, soaking through the calico, cements it to the roof, and makes it waterproof. But board covered with patent felt, and tarred once a year, is the best. The roof ought to project considerably beyond the walls, in order to prevent the rain from dripping down them.

Ventilation is most important, and the house should be high, especially if there are many fowls, for by having it lofty a current of air can pass through it far above the level of the fowls, and purify the atmosphere without causing a draught near them. They very much dislike a draught, and will alter their positions to avoid it, and if unable to do so, will seek another roosting-place. Ventilation may be obtained by leaving out some bricks in the wall or making holes in the boarding; and when there is a shed at the side of the fowl-house, by boring a few holes near the top of the wall next to the shed; all ventilators should be considerably above the perches, in order to avoid a draught near to the fowls; and should be entirely closed at night in severe weather. The
best method of ventilation for a fowl-house of sufficient size and height, is by means of an opening in the highest part of the roof, covered with a lantern of laths or narrow boards, placed one over the other in a slanting position, with a small space between them like Venetian blinds.

Light is essential, not only for the health of the fowls, but in order that the state of the house may be seen, and the floor and perches may be well cleansed. It may be admitted either through a common window, a pane or two of thick glass placed in the sides, or glass tiles in the roof. It also induces them to take shelter there in rough weather.

Warmth is the most important point of all. Fowls that roost in cold houses and exposed places require more food and produce fewer eggs; and pullets which are usually forward in laying will not easily be induced to do so in severe weather if their house is not kept warm. It is a great advantage when the house backs a fire-place or stable. A gentleman told Mr. Baily that he “had been very successful in raising early chickens in the north of Scotland, and he attributed much of it to the following arrangements. He had always from twenty to thirty oxen or other cattle fattening in a long building; he made his poultry-house to join this, and had ventilators and openings made in the partition, so that the heat of the cattle-shed passed into the fowl-house. Little good has resulted from the use of stoves, or hot-water pipes, for poultry; but by skilfully taking advantage of every circumstance like that above mentioned, and by consulting aspect and position, many valuable helps are obtained.”

A house built of wood in the north of England and Scotland must be lined, unless artificially warmed. Felt is the best material, as its strong smell of tar will keep away most insects. Matting is frequently used, and will make the house sufficiently warm, but it harbours vermin, and therefore, if used, should be only slightly fastened to the walls, so that it can be often taken down and well beaten, and, if necessary, fumigated.

Various materials are recommended for the flooring. Boards are warm, but they soon become foul. Beaten earth, with loose dust scattered over it some inches deep, is excellent for the feet of the birds, but is a harbour for the minute vermin which are often so troublesome, and even destructive, to domestic fowls. Mowbray recommends a floor of “well-rammed chalk or earth, that its surface, being smooth, may present no impediment to being swept perfectly clean.” Chalk laid on dry coal-ashes to absorb the moisture is excellent. A mixture of cow-dung and water, about the consistency of paint, put on the surface of the floor, no thicker than paint, gives it a hard surface which will bear sweeping down. It is used by the natives of India, not only for the floors, but often for the walls of their houses, and is supposed to be healthy in its application, and to keep away vermin.

Miss Watts says: “Dig out the floor to about a foot deep, and fill in with burnt clay, like that used extensively on railways, the strong gravel which is called ‘metal’ in road-making, or any loose dry material of the kind. Let this be well rammed down, and then lay over it, with a ricklayer’s trowel, a flooring of a compost of cinder-ashes, gravel, quick-lime, and water. This flooring is without the objections due to those which are cold and damp, and those which imbibe foul moisture.

Stone is too cold for a flooring; beaten earth or wood becomes foul when the place is inhabited by living animals; and a flooring of bricks possesses both these bad qualities united.” Bricks are the worst of all materials; they retain moisture, whether atmospheric or arising from insufficient drainage; and thus the temperature is kept low, and disease too often follows, especially rheumatic attacks of the feet and legs. However, trodden earth makes a very good flooring, and it or other materials may easily be kept clean by placing moveable boards beneath the perches to receive the fowl-droppings. The floor should slope from every direction towards the door, to facilitate its cleansing, and to keep it dry.

Perches are generally placed too high, probably because it was noticed that fowls in their natural state, or when at large, usually roost upon high branches; but it should be observed that, in descending from lofty branches, they have a considerable distance to fly, and therefore alight on the ground gently, while in a confined fowl-house the bird flutters down almost perpendicularly, coming into contact with the floor forcibly, by which the keel of the breast-bone is often broken, and bumble-foot in Dorkings and corns are caused.

Some writers do not object to lofty perches, provided the fowls have a board with cross-pieces of wood fastened on to it reaching from the ground to the perch; but this does not obviate the evil, for they will only use it for ascent, and not for descent. The air, too, at the upper part of any dwelling-room, or house for animals, is much more impure than nearer the floor, because the air that has been breathed, and vapours from the body, are lighter than pure air, and consequently ascend to the top. The perches should therefore not be more than eighteen inches from the ground, unless the breed is very small and light. Perches are also generally made too small and round. When they are too small in proportion to the size of the birds, they are apt to cause the breast-bone of heavy fowls to grow crooked, which is a great defect, and very unsightly in a table-fowl. Those for heavy fowls should not be less than three inches in diameter. Capital perches may be formed
of fir or larch poles, about three inches in diameter, split into two, the round side being placed uppermost; the birds’ claws cling to it easily, and the bark is not so hard as planed wood. The perches, if made of timber, should be nearly square, with only the corners rounded off, as the feet of fowls are not formed for clasping smooth round poles. Those for chickens should not be thicker than their claws can easily grasp, and neither too sharp nor too round.

When more than one row of perches is required they should be ranged obliquely–that is, one above and behind the other; by which arrangement each perch forms a step to the next higher one, and an equal convenience in descending, and the birds do not void their dung over each other. They should be placed two feet apart, and supported on bars of wood fixed to the walls at each end; and in order that they may be taken out to be cleaned, they should not be nailed to the supporter, but securely placed in niches cut in the bar, or by pieces of wood nailed to it like the rowlocks of a boat. If the wall space at the sides is required for laying-boxes, the perches must be shorter than the house, and the oblique bars which support them must be securely fastened to the back of
the house, and, if necessary, have an upright placed beneath the upper end of each.

Some breeders prefer a moveable frame for roosting, formed of two poles of the required length, joined at each end by two narrow pieces; the frame being supported upon four or more legs, according to its length and the weight of the fowls. If necessary it should be strengthened by rails–connecting the bottoms of the legs, and by pieces crossing from each angle of the sides and ends. These frames can conveniently be moved out of the house when they require cleansing. Or it may be made of one pole supported at each end by two legs spread out widely apart, like two sides of an equilateral or equal-sided triangle. The perch may be made more secure for heavy fowls by a rail at each side fastened to each leg, about three inches from the foot.

Mr. Baily says: “I had some fowls in a large outhouse, where they were well provided with perches; as there was plenty of room, I put some small faggots, cut for firing, at one extremity, and I found many of the fowls deserted their perches to roost on the faggots, which they evidently preferred.”

Cochin-Chinas and Brahma Pootras do not require perches, but roost comfortably on a floor littered down warmly with straw. It should be gathered up every morning, and the floor cleaned and kept uncovered till night, when the straw, if clean, should be again laid down. It must be often changed. A bed of sand is also used, and a latticed floor even without straw, and some use latticed benches raised about six inches from the floor. But we should think that latticed roosting-places must be uncomfortable to fowls, and the dung which falls through is often unseen, and, consequently, liable to remain for too long a time, while a portion will stick to the sides of the lattice-work, and be not only difficult to see, but also to remove when seen. The “Henwife” finds,
however, “that if there are nests, there the Cochins will roost, in spite of all attempts to make them do otherwise.” It is a good plan, in warm weather, occasionally to sprinkle water over and about the perches, and scatter a little powdered sulphur over the wetted parts, which will greatly tend to keep the fowls free from insect parasites.

The nests for laying in are usually made on the ground, or in a kind of trough, a little raised; but some use boxes or wicker-baskets, which are preferable, as they can be removed separately from time to time, and thoroughly cleansed from dust and vermin, and can also be kept a little apart from each other. These boxes or troughs should be placed against the sides of the house, and a board sloping forwards should be fixed above, to prevent the fowls from roosting upon the edges. If required, a row of laying-boxes or troughs may be placed on the ground, and another about a foot or eighteen inches above the floor. The nest should be made of wheaten, rye, or oaten straw, but never of hay, which is too hot, and favourable besides to the increase of vermin. Heath cut into short
pieces forms excellent material for nests, but it cannot always be had.

The material must be changed whenever it smells foul or musty, for if it is allowed to become offensive, the hens will often drop their eggs upon the ground sooner than go to the nest. When the fowl-house adjoins a passage, or it can be otherwise so contrived, it is an excellent plan to have a wooden flap made to open just above the back of the nests, so that the eggs can be removed without your going into the roosting-house, treading the dung about, and disturbing any birds that may be there, or about to enter to lay. Where possible the nests in the roosting-houses
should be used for laying in only; and a separate house should be set apart for sitting hens. Where there are but a few fowls and only one house, if a hen is allowed to sit, a separate nest must be made as quiet as possible for her.

Cleanliness must be maintained. The Canada Farmer suggested an admirable plan for keeping the roosting-house clean. A broad shelf, securely fastened, but moveable, is fixed at the back of the house, eighteen inches from the ground, and the perch placed four or five inches above it, a foot from the wall. The nests are placed on the ground beneath the board, which preserves them from the roosting fowl’s droppings, and keeps them well shaded for the laying or sitting hen, if the latter is obliged to incubate in the same house, and the nests do not need a top. The shelf can be easily scraped clean every morning, and should be lightly sanded afterwards.

Thus the floor of the house is never soiled by the roosting birds, and the broad board at the same time protects them from upward draughts of air. Where the nests and perches are not so arranged, the idea may be followed by placing a loose board below each perch, upon which the dung will fall, and the board can be taken up every morning and the dung removed. With proper tools, a properly constructed fowl-house can be kept perfectly clean, and all the details of management well carried out without scarcely soiling your hands.

A birch broom is the best implement with which to clean the house if the floor is as hard as it ought to be. A handful of ashes or sand, sprinkled over the places from which dung has been removed, will absorb any remaining impurity.

Fowls’ dung is a very valuable manure, being strong, stimulating, and nitrogenous, possessing great power in forcing the growth of vegetables, particularly those of the cabbage tribe, and is excellent for growing strawberries, or indeed almost any plants, if sufficiently diluted; for, being very strong, it should always be mixed with earth. A fowl, according to Stevens, will void at least one ounce of dry dung in twenty-four hours, which is worth at least seven shillings a cwt.

The door should fit closely, a slight space only being left at the bottom to admit air. It should have a square hole, which is usually placed either at the top or bottom, for the poultry to enter to roost. A hole at the top is generally preferred, as it is inaccessible to vermin. The fowls ascend by means of a ladder formed of a slanting board, with strips of wood nailed across to assist their feet; a similar ladder should be placed inside to enable them to descend, if they are heavy fowls; but the evil is that, even with this precaution, they are inclined to fly down, as they do from high perches, without using the ladder, and thus injure their feet.

A hole in the middle of the door would be preferable to either, and obviate the defects of both. These holes should be fitted with sliding panels on the inside, so that they can be closed in order to keep the fowls out while cleaning the house, or to keep them in until they have laid their eggs, or it may be safe to let them out in the morning in any neighborhood or place where they
would else be liable to be stolen.

Every day, after the fowls have left their roosts, the doors and windows should be opened, and a thorough draught created to purify the house. During the winter months all the entrance holes should be closed from sunset to sunrise, unless in mild localities. Where there are many houses, they should, if possible, communicate with each other by doors, so that they may be cleaned from end to end, or inspected without the necessity of passing through the yards, which is especially unpleasant in wet weather.

The doors should be capable of being fastened on either side, to avoid the chance of the different breeds intermingling while your attention is occupied in arranging the nests, collecting eggs, &c. See that your fowls are securely locked in at night, for they are more easily stolen than any other kind of domestic animals. A good dog in the yard or adjoining house or stable is an excellent protection.

Every poultry-house should be lime-washed at least four or five times a year, and oftener if convenient. Vermin of any kind can be effectually destroyed by fumigating the place with sulphur. In this operation a little care is requisite; it should be commenced early in the morning, by first closing the lattices, and stopping up every crevice through which air can enter; then place on the ground a pan of lighted charcoal, and throw on it some brimstone broken into small pieces.

Directly this is done the room should be left, the door kept shut and airtight for some hours; care too should be taken that the lattices are first opened, and time given for the vapour to thoroughly disperse before any one again enters, when every creature within the building will be found destroyed.

It is said that a pair of caged guinea-pigs in the fowl-house will keep away rats.

In a large establishment, and in a moderate one, if the outlay is not an object, the pens for the chickens and the passages between the various houses may be profitably covered with glass, and grapes grown on the rafters. Raising chickens under glass has been tried with great success.