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Homage to the humble chicken house

By on April 25, 2021 in Columnist with 1 Comment

By Susan Sampson

The annals of American architecture picture such treasures as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that you can see on the back of a nickel, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house that straddles a waterfall, and Queen Anne-style cottages trimmed with so much gingerbread that if they were built of sugar, Hansel and Gretel would find them irresistible. 

However, books don’t do justice to another aspect of historical architecture, the outbuildings. I’m referring to woodsheds, smokehouses, outhouses and chicken coops. 

Of those, I think that a classical chicken coop epitomizes the architectural ideal that form follows function. There are cute models of chicken coops, good for a very few hens, at the local farm and ranch supply store, but they’re fancier than the real deal. 

A real chicken coop begins with a chicken yard large enough to allow chickens to wander, fenced with chicken wire (of course), sturdy enough to keep dogs out, with a gate for human access. 

The chicken coop is at least the size of a garden shed that you could buy at the hardware store, say eight feet wide and 10 feet deep. 

It has a rectangular footprint and a salt-box top — that is, the roof is higher on one long edge than on the other so that it slopes in one direction, like half of a double-wide mobile home, to allow rain and snow to run off. 

It is erected on a low foundation and located with one end outside the fence, one end inside. The end outside the fence has a door large enough for a human. Inside, there is a wooden floor, a rod like a closet pole for the chickens to roost on, and shelves filled with straw for the birds to nest. 

The end of the chicken coop that is inside the fenced yard has a door that slides up and down and is just large enough to let chickens walk in and out. Typically there is a ramp from the chicken door down to the chicken yard. 

To raid eggs from the chicken coop, my Mom would throw a handful of chicken scratch into the chicken yard, outdoors. While the hens go crazy for the scratch, she’d enter the coop, close the chicken door so none can get back inside while she was busy, then raid the nests and from time to time, scrape out the manure. 

Then she’d re-open the chicken door and hurry out the human door and close it behind her before any chickens can follow her out. 

Keeping chickens in the coop got complicated only when skunks or raccoons used the chicken door at night, so Mom had to remember to keep it opened and closed on schedule.

Here is an absolutely true story. For a while, my Uncle John tried raising turkeys and housed them in a chicken coop. It turned out that his turkeys needed to be trained to roost. 

Everybody imagined him, a big man, squatting on a perch and making gobbling noises, and teased him so mercilessly that he gave up on the turkey venture. 

Now, I admire the design of a chicken house, but I don’t want one. When we first moved to Wenatchee, my husband Jerry considered acquiring a few chickens and one of those cute little coops. I vetoed that. 

I have lived around chickens, so I know that they stink. (My boys used to sing, “…I eat like the chickens and stink like the dickens, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!”) 

It’s true that poultry manure is wonderful fertilizer for my rose bushes, rhubarb, and berry vines, but I’d rather buy well-composted manure than deal with the fresh stuff myself. 

Instead of acquiring birds, Jerry began feeding the wild ones, so what do we get? Sparrows, chickadees and goldfinches that nest in our hedge, doves that perch on our roof, California Quail that march through the yard in single file in lines that are 30 birds long, and an area around the feed blocks that smells like a chicken coop. 

Susan Sampson retired with her husband to Wenatchee in 2009 after practicing law in Seattle for           35 years.

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  1. Rafe Carroll says:

    Well done n accurat for just about everyone who grew up with chickens. Gotta love a fresh egg in the frying pan as it stays compact and firm! I think we all had or knew an Uncle John!

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