It's been over a year now since I wrote for any kind of readership, be it on the Internet or via email newsletter. If you'll recall, when we last left off, I had just moved to Portland and started a new job. You may also remember fondly how I had related The Tale of the Cursed Mattress, courtesy of one Spencer from Craigslist. As it turns out, since then, a lot has happened, but a lot also hasn't happened.
Er, in case that seemed too obvious a statement, allow me to explain.
The pace of the settled life in the Pacific Northwest is distinctly different from that of life in Austin, the East Coast, and certainly the kind life one might experience on the road as a migrant farmworker. There is a sort of "paradox of time" that I've experienced since I first got it in my head that I should move to Portland. On the one hand, time has felt slow: I often find myself feeling like I've been here forever. I "get" Portland---in fact, I "got it" immediately and never looked back. On the other hand, the more quotidian of my memories from this past year are starting to blur together, and I can no longer tell certain days from others. I feel like this past year flashed by, as surely as the scenery on my daily commute.
Ah, the daily commute. Well, not just the commute, but the daily, period. Daily, mundane, routine, banal---whatever you wish to call it---it is the killer of creativity. And I wish I hadn't been the victim.
Just two years ago around this time, I was about to board a plane to New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. I mean, holy cow, that's on the other side of the world, both longitudinally and latitudinally! But one year ago, I was doing the exact same thing I am doing today.
So yes, it is a very different feeling to know where you are going to be between the hours of 9 to 6 on any given weekday, compared to the realm of possibility afforded to you just a plane, train, or bus ride away. It is also a very different feeling to wake up every morning and look out at the same exact scenery progressing through the seasons, now on repeat that a full year has passed. Oh, it is truly a very different feeling indeed when this easy existence makes it seem like not much could ever change unless you got a letter in your mailbox about it first.
But if the freedom of the road and the escape of nature grants you the ability to witness the larger arc of life, then from the ashes of creativity and the confines of urban regularity must come the ability to appreciate all the little things. This blog post, then, is about the little things; specifically, two of them.
I want you to meet Ella and Buff:
They are the two remaining members of the initial Zhang chicken cohort. Out of the inaugural seven pullets, two fell to coccidiosis (Blue and Feathers I), one ran away (Buffy), one died of negligence (posthumously named America, for political commentary), and one turned out to be a rooster (Feathers II). I have a lot of blood on my hands, but my two faithful ladies don’t seem to care. Well—I’m actually not sure. As you can tell from the photo, Ella still looks at me with suspicion (she has been with me since day one, after all, and has seen way too much in her first tender year on this Earth).
It’s been almost a year now since I thought it a good idea to volunteer these ladies for my grand urban farming experiment. Take a look at this photo of me holding my precious month-old Ella:
That was back in May 2014. Here’s where they’ve been living for almost a year now:
I built that thing out of a cabinet that the previous owners had left in the garage. It looked like this originally:
And here are some photos from the original project:
I mean, I literally just cut it in half and stuck the halves back-to-back. Lettings the girls in and out this past year has been like stuffing chickens in a closet every night. Poor girls.
Buff started laying eggs last fall. She’s a Buff Orpington (right, I win no points for creativity in naming), which you’d recognize as the stereotypical American hen that you can find on your egg carton’s marketing illustration. They are an ultra-productive breed, and Buff is no exception. She’s been laying an egg a day for nearly half a year now, and shows no signs of slowing down. Here was her first egg:
Ella is a Cochin variety. As it turns out (and I didn’t know this at the time I got her), Cochins are a Chinese variety (literally, “jiujin” (九斤) or “nine pounds”). Ella’s a big girl (but not quite nine pounds), and for the longest time, I accused her of being fat and lazy because even though she was a couple of months older than Buff, she didn’t look anywhere near ready to lay an egg; I even formulated theories about her childhood trauma being the reason she was never able to grow up.
As it turns out, however, after I spoke to my mom who spoke to our relatives in China, some wisdom emerged that Chinese chickens only lay in the spring. I can confirm now that that appeared to be a true statement. Sure enough, as soon as Portland started showing signs of spring, Ella laid her first egg!
I like to think that my girls are happy girls: in exchange for a daily ration of feed, yummy kitchen scraps and occasionally a delicious treat like cranberry sauce, Buff and Ella perform their presumed duty of weeding the backyard and keeping pests to a minimum. They also contribute large amounts of nitrogen to the ecosystem. Ella used to be the best pooper overall, but now she just poops up all her eggs while Buff has become the best non-egg pooper. Not to be outdone, however, Buff will sometimes make poops the size of an entire egg! (Er, not pictured…)
My daily morning routine for the past year has more or less been this:
My nightly routine has been this:
And about once a week, I have to clean out the coop and scoop up as much poop as I can find in the backyard. These waste products all go into a large compost bin (unrelated craigslist posting: “Premium ‘Black Gold’ Compost for Sale”).
Overall, it’s not terribly demanding, especially after everything has become habit and routine; in fact, it only takes about half an hour each day on average to care for the chickens. But man, not being able to go anywhere overnight is definitely a restriction, and getting those 15 minutes back every morning seems like it would benefit me disproportionately. Since morning clarity is extremely valuable for mental space, I put a large premium on not having to waste that clarity on tasks that I could do on autopilot.
It was thus that I hatched (ba-gawk!) a plan to build a new chicken coop that would end all chicken coops. A chicken coop that could free me up to do other things, all while providing a nice habitat for my girls. A chicken coop designed from the ground up to cater to their every need. A chicken coop that could obviate daily menial chores, all while moving me forward on my goal of achieving self-sustainable urban farming nirvana (Portland buzzword bingo NAMASTE!!!).
Unfortunately, that was back in January. As you can tell, it is no longer January. In fact, it took several months before I had anything to write home about. But now, ladies and gentlemen, behold—I am finally writing home about it, so see you back here for Part 2!
In Part 1 of this series, I waxed poetic about the events that led to my undertaking of an ambitious chicken coop project. In this post, I’ll discuss the design considerations that went into the structure that shall forever go down in history as the infamous Cluck Mahal, or Bird Khalifa, or The Pyramid of Gizzard, or The Big Hen, or the—ok, I’ll stop.
My friend Tyler helped me finish and deploy the coop (many thanks!). It was late on a Friday night when we finally set it outside for the first time. We both took a step back after placing it carefully between my front porch and my two fledgling persimmon trees—the future home of several watermelon plants. He said to me, “This is possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen one person build… I mean, you’re no f-ing carpenter or anything.”
Damn straight I ain’t, Tyler.
When I first started this project, I had heard of exactly three ways to join two pieces of wood: glue, nail, and dowel. By the time I was done with this project, in addition to using the aforementioned techniques, I had also learned to join wood using biscuits, pocket holes, countersunk screws, brad nails, and staples. The only reason I didn’t use a mortise joint was because I couldn’t justify buying a router and table (yet!).
Beyond basic woodworking skills, I used quite an array of tools and materials for this project, many of which I hadn’t heard of until I looked through the aisles at Home Depot and Lowes. But before I get into the details, let’s take a step back and consider together for a moment how one should go about designing a chicken coop in the first place.
I had mentioned before that I wanted to build a chicken coop to save myself 15 precious minutes each morning, but that’s of course just the surface reason. As with every project I undertake, the practical purpose often belies a greater goal, which is usually to learn something new and grow as a person. As you may know from other writings, my long term ambition is to prove something about organic farming and technology, so imagining a chicken coop from scratch and then actually building it is really just a small step towards one day running my own farm-based hacker co-working space (more on this in the future). As you can imagine, building in the real world is a bit more challenging than building in virtual space, and while I have over a decade of experience in the latter, I have hardly any in the former. So if I’m going to have a credible shot at my 10-year ambition, then it most certainly has to start today, even if it is in a small way.
With the big picture stuff out of the way, let’s jump into the implementation details. Here was my concrete list of requirements:
Got all that? It’s quite a bit more complicated than my recycled cabinet solution that I featured in the last post! But then again, I knew at the time that I made that original chicken coop that it would be temporary until I learned more about chickens in general. I was also feeling quite overwhelmed around this time last year since I had just become a first-time homeowner (once again, many thanks to Tyler for helping me with a bunch of those projects!). In any case, for the entire year’s worth of time that the “cabinet sandwich” has bought me, it has been well worth it.
As you might expect, there is a site for this kind of thing. There are plenty of plans you can buy, and enough detailed blog posts about their construction that you could probably infer all the necessary steps anyway. I looked through many of these but didn’t find exactly what I needed; however, I was most inspired by this design:
This design actually satisfied most of my requirements:
So I somehow needed to adapt this design so that I wouldn’t have to clean it as much, could reach into it easily, dispense feed efficiently, and separate the top and bottom compartments.
Before I show you how I solved each missing requirement, let me show you what the finished product looks like:
And the side view:
Yes, that is definitely a green umbrella on top. Read on, my friend, read on.
As you can tell from the photo, the main idea behind this chicken coop is that the boxy housing compartment (maximum living space) sits atop the triangular ground compartment (maximum strength relative to the amount of material used). They interface via a 36″ x 29″ rectangular cross-section (see photo).
This means that I can pretty much make any kind of housing unit, as long as it has a 36″ x 29″ rectangular opening on the bottom for the access ramp. I’m not quite sure how my choice of materials will stand the test of time, so having this modular structure would potentially allow me to make smarter upgrades and fixes over time as I learn more about the intricacies of galline housing.
The housing unit heavy is enough that gravity and friction are sufficient for holding the two together. The handles on the unit allow for easy lifting by humans.
I’ve learned a lot about my feathery friends this past year. I can now tell what they’re trying to express with their different calls, read their body language, and tell you their nesting preferences.
I’ve also learned a thing or two about their poop. In fact, I’ve become quite adept at “reading” their poop. It’s actually one of the main ways to identify the state of their health (hey, it works for humans too, silly!). I can no longer tell you how many turds I’ve scooped up off the ground or how many I’ve shoveled out of the coop and into the compost bin. But I can tell you this: chickens like to roost at night (perch on a bar) and when they do, the poop drops easily and frequently.
Using this to my advantage, I figured that if I could put a roost bar over an empty space, the poop would drop to the ground below, going directly towards the fertilization of my soil.
From a previous attempt at making an enclosed run, I learned that not having easy access is bad for socializing your chickens. The more you can handle them for no reason, the less skittish they will be when you really need to get a hold of them. Furthermore, I also wanted to easily interact with them so that I could hand them food or have them eat it off my hand as a party trick.
For this chicken coop, I made sure that access was easy and plentiful, with a total of five (!) doors. There’s two on the housing unit, and three for accessing the ground unit (useful for twiddling the water or feed dispensers, in addition to reaching down like the hand of God and pulling them out for hugs).
With all these entryways, I am definitely compromising on safety. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any raccoons in my neighborhood yet, but as everyone in Portland knows, it is only a matter of time. Until I build my patent-pending predator-detecting laser turret that sweeps the night landscape for things that look like raccoon eyes and shoots high-powered lasers at them (children and cats be damned), I have settled for something called the Predator Guard, which works in a much more elegant (but decidedly less awesome) way: when the sun sets, two red LED lights start flashing, simulating the eyes of your worst nightmare. From the reviews I’ve read on Amazon, it would appear that this generally works well. The company does warn, however, that city-dwelling raccoons are not easily dissuaded by just two red LEDs. So like I said, until I build my badass laser turret, this will have to do.
Finally, I needed a solution for automatically dispensing feed in a way that discourages waste. Before this coop, I used a little mason jar feeder, pictured on the right (from Miller Manufacturing).
Unfortunately, as the chickens got bigger, they got it in their heads that it was a good idea to thrash their food before eating it. Buff is the worst at it, so what she’ll do when I set out some fresh feed is motorboat her head against the pellets, making them spray all over. Then, neither Ella nor Buff will touch it. I can usually fake them out by putting it back into the jar, but you can see how this turns into a lot of work. And so I went online in search of solutions.
Coming up with a good idea for the feed system was probably the portion of the design I equivocated the most on. I feel like I spent over two weeks just running the options through my head, being indecisive about the pros and cons. Everything felt like a compromise.
I originally wanted something like the water dispenser that could send feed down via 3″ ABS pipes into the UFO-shaped feeder (so picture the mason jar replaced by an ABS pipe silo), but that of course wouldn’t fix the billing issue. I then found this blog post describing an ingenious solution that I would have gladly attempted, but I ultimately decided against it because routing even more pipes along the coop frame seemed tricky given how little space was left.
Ultimately, I found inspiration searching for “chicken feeders” on Amazon.com, coming across a hilariously expensive feeder that consisted of just a bucket with a pipe elbow. I ended up just making my own:
Voila! The chickens just stick their heads in, and gravity takes care of the rest! I put several pounds of feed in there, and that should last well over a week with minimal waste (since only one chicken can have their head in the bucket at any given time, the other one will clean up anything that drops on the ground while they’re waiting their turn—perfect!).
Phew! That was a lot of information! There were a lot of constraints to factor, and coming up with a good design that comprised all the requirements definitely caused my brain to flex pretty hard. In the next and final part of this trilogy, I’ll share some photos and thoughts from move-in day! Until then, here are some more random notes about materials and tools for this project:
Oh, and the green umbrella? Well, I didn’t want to invest a bunch of time and energy into making a proper hip roof, so I figured I could defer the problem by getting a $20 umbrella. It was a bit of a last-minute decision, which is why I felt ok spending $20 for something that I could have gotten super cheap at a thrift store. Indeed, once this one looks to be wearing out, I’ll just cruise the local Goodwill for replacements. It’s a big umbrella though—53 inches of straight diameter (I believe it was 62 inches curved). I ended up cutting the shaft with a dremel and then putting a linch pin through the top and bottom so that it wouldn’t fly away.
See you next time!
Welcome to the third and final part of this trilogy! In this post, I’ll be sharing a few moments from move-in day—and a few bug reports as well.
So it’s been about four days since I deployed the coop. On the whole, it has been quite successful at accomplishing its main goal, which was to reduce the need for manual intervention in my chickens’ daily rituals. As it turns out, the last two mornings have been pleasantly devoid of the anguished groaning (“let us ooooooouuuuutttttt“) that I have grown accustomed to over the past few months—and there has been no need to put out additional feed or water, either. In fact, I was able to use the extra time this morning to patiently water and give additional blessings to my garden seedlings, which are off to a fantastically healthy start.
My hope is that things continue to run this smoothly, but I have to admit that the first day was a little stressful for both me and the girls. In fact, let me take you back to Saturday morning. I started the day off by building a couple of layer boxes with the remaining scrap wood:
I then made the toilet flange feed bucket which I showed you in the last post:
I then brought Buff and Ella in for a trial run. Much to my chagrin, their initial reaction to being placed in the coop was one of fear and escape. They’ve never been in the front yard before, so I think their adrenaline was going off the charts. It took a few minutes before they realized that the soil they were on had delicious grass and grubs on it, so once they realized it, they went to their instinctive scratch-and-search motions and calmed down.
Being chickens, new concepts didn’t exactly come easily to them, so there were three main challenges on the ground level: the watering pipe, the feed bucket, and the ramp. Let me tell you about these in order.
The watering pipe features a poultry nipple. This is basically a metal weight in the opening of a plastic tip that can be pushed up to let a few dribbles of water through. The main benefit of using a poultry nipple is that it keeps the water clean; otherwise, when you have an open waterer like I used to, all sorts of dirt will fly into the water and eventually the whole thing will be really unsanitary.
The instructions that came with the poultry nipple said that I’d have to show them how it worked by poking the nipple and exposing them to some water. Well, I made several attempts over the entire day, but they just weren’t getting it.
It wasn’t until the next day when they were really suffering from thirst that Ella decided to investigate why exactly my finger was getting tantalizingly wet when I pushed this metal bob. When she finally figured out that it was water, she unleashed furiously on the nipple and Buff, being her typical lame-o copycat self, then started doing it too. Then they kept at it for a solid five minutes—I guess they were really thirsty.
Their problems with the feed bucket surprised me a bit more than their hesitation with the watering pipe. With the feed bucket, the food is clearly visible to them, but I guess it was the weirdness of sticking their head into a dark hole that gave them pause. I tried cajoling them by putting cranberry sauce on the edge of the feeder, but then all they did was eat the cranberry sauce.
Here too it was Ella who was the pioneer. It took several hours, but once she realized that sticking her head in the bucket was safe (and delicious), she kept at it for a good while. Buff tried to butt her head in but got shut down by the True Alpha Hen of Alberta Street, Ella Z. Buff was left to pick dribbles off the ground while Ella gorged herself. Fortune favors the brave, my little Buffers.
Finally, the biggest ordeal was with the ramp. It took them two days to figure this one out. The first two nights, I had to put them in the upper compartment manually after dark. They bobbled around in the fading sunlight getting more and more panicked before I finally gave in and set them on the roost bar. The next morning, I was met with the usual “let us out” groans. I ended up spending most of Sunday trying to train the concept of a ramp into their little chicken brains. I mean, just look at this picture:
They literally have no idea how they got to be on separate planes! Does this look like comprehension to you?
Ultimately, I had to shove them up and down the ramp a few times before they realized that jumping down to the ramp did not mean certain death. Then a few more times for them to realize that going down the ramp means you can also go up the ramp. In this case, it was actually Buff who first made the cognitive leap, not Ella. This was understandable to me since Ella is a little less nimble due to her… big-bonedness. It’s usually fun times to see her try to gauge whether she can make a jump or not. Even 8″ ledges give her pause and she’ll alternate on her tippy toes for a few seconds before making the attempt. Self-congratulatory clucking tends to follow after completing the “stunt.”
Unfortunately, I did have a few bugs in my chicken coop design—not everything has gone according to plan.
The first problem I ran into was with the watering pipe. The single nipple design (great band name, by the way) you saw pictured above is actually the fixed version. The first version I deployed, which featured two nipples, had to be backed out for modifications because my ABS cement-application skills left something to be desired—specifically, watertightness. I had to saw off the end-cap and replace it with a threaded cap, and when that leaked, I had to use some teflon tape on the threads. It still leaks just a little bit (a couple of drops per minute), but I’m hoping that the rising temperatures will cause the seal to tighten up a bit on its own.
The second problem I ran into involved the layer boxes. For the longest time, Buff and Ella shared a box (really it was an IKEA laundry tub on my back porch), and before that, Buff nested in an old moving box filled with straw. I dug up this funny picture from back in February of what appears to be her disembodied head laying an egg:
It turns out that they never got broody or territorial with each other; instead, with the two new boxes I made, they actually appear to prefer laying in the same box—the other box just sits there unused. I tried putting a few of their respective eggs in the two boxes to convince them that it was ok to lay there, but instead they just pooped on them.
Which brings me to the next problem with the layer boxes: poop. My photo caption above showing a confused (or constipated) Buff was no accident. They have pretty consistently pooped in the layer boxes each night, and if I recognize the poop correctly, Buff is the culprit! Usually Ella is the one pooping up all her eggs, but in this case, it was mostly likely Buff. I’m not sure what to do about the pooping yet (I’m hoping that they just stop on their own after they realize it’s where they lay eggs).
Finally, while we’re on the topic of poop, let me report a slight issue with the roost bar. Here’s what the interior looks like as of today:
As you can tell, my pristine cedar interior is a thing of the past now. The issue I wish to report, however, concerns the distance between the roost bar and the ledge. It turns out that my design is two inches short in its butt-overhang clearance. Yes, not all the poop is falling straight to the ground—much of it has been accumulating on the right ledge (where the wall meets the floor).
One fix would be to move the bar slightly over to the left so that there is more clearance on the right. Although I now risk them facing the other way and pooping straight onto the middle beam, I suppose it is much easier to go through with a taping knife down the middle than on the right ledge working around the wall. I think I will attempt a fix this weekend, after I confirm over the next couple of days that it is a consistent problem. While I’m at it, I will also raise the height of the roost bar so as to make it obviously higher than the nesting boxes. That should help with their tendency to poop where they lay. And as we all know, you shouldn’t poop where you lay.
Well, that’s it for this little trilogy. It’s nice to be able to share a little slice of my life with everyone again. Although this chicken coop (both in design and implementation) has taken up a lot of my mental space (indeed, most of 2015 thus far), keeping chickens as a hobby has been tremendously rewarding this past year, even though it has been a lot of work. Thinking back, these little featherballs have been a daily concern of mine since the day that I got them, due mainly to the morning chores and the sunset restriction. I am only beginning to fathom how much mental space I’ve finally freed up by building this chicken coop, which is great, because I have one other major project I am working on (the next EP, of course—more on that when the time comes).
Without giving myself too much of a pat on the back (I did lose a total of five chickens, after all, for a survival rate just shy of 29%), I do feel a sense of pride looking back at some of their baby photos, especially now that I’m coming up on the one year mark. Here’s Ella as a toddler sometime last June:
And here’s Buff as a teenager sometime last August:
They grow up so quickly, don’t they? The seasons are changing again, and though I may personally see my first year in Portland as but a waypoint along a grand journey, to them, it’s all they know. Just this dinky little 50′ x 100′ lot on N Alberta St that they’re quite content with, with each day a brand new curiosity.
Ah… the good life. When you can’t identify it in yourself, it usually pays to try and provide it for someone else first.
And then, sure enough, the good life will find you.