If you want to make sure that your chickens are happy and healthy then you’ll want to know just how much space, that they need to live in. The idea is to devote enough space, so that your chickens can be chickens, without giving them so much space that they need a Range Rover to get from the coop to the run.
So, how much space do pet chickens need? Well, it depends on the number of chickens that you have but we’ll walk you through how big a chicken coop should be, how big that their nesting boxes should be, how much space they need to mosey around in and how much space makes a chicken “free-range”. We’ll also look at whether your pet chicken will make a decent house guest.
The Good News
We can start with some good news, unless you plan on having more chickens as pets than stars in the sky, you shouldn’t need to buy a new home to enable you to house your chickens. Most chickens won’t need huge amounts of space and as long as you have a backyard of a reasonable size – you should be able to keep chickens.
In fact, we think if your yard is over 11” x 10” you’re going to have plenty of space to keep chickens and they’ll be happy enough to lay for you too. Which is the best thing about having chickens.
How Big Should Your Chicken Coop Be?
A chicken coop is not all the space that a chicken needs. It’s where the chickens will live at night when they go in to roost and where they will take shelter from the elements. They still need space to nest and they still need space to run around in (called “the run” in chicken owner’s terms).
You need at least 3 square feet of floor space per chicken to build a viable chicken coop. That means if you want to keep 10 chickens, you need 30 square feet of coop or a little more if you want to be on the safe side.
Why Chicken Coops Should Not Be Too Large
However, one thing you should be aware of – much bigger is not much better. In fact, you might be hurting your chickens if they end up with too much coop space. Why’s that?
It’s because chickens have poor internal thermal regulation. When they’re in a fairly small amount of space they can heat that up with their bodies and they share warmth in a cool evening or cold night, if they have too much space, their bodies don’t provide enough heat to share and they end up freezing their proverbial socks off.
The Other Major Consideration For A Chicken Coop: Your Roosting Space
Your chickens won’t sleep on the ground. It’s not the way they are designed, and they will prefer to sleep on a perch above the ground. You want enough room on the perch so that the chicken can completely cover its feet and wings (to prevent them from being chewed on if rodents decide to sneak in at night).
It should also be above the ground but not so far that the chicken might hurt itself when jumping down and, ideally, this area should be covered in some soft bedding to cushion any falls. Chickens can and do break their legs in falls from a roost that’s improperly positioned.
The right size for a roost will depends on the breed of the chicken but you want at least 10 inches of perch for every chicken (though they’ll probably all end up huddled together for warmth and use less of that space than you make available).
What Happens If The Roost (Or The Coop) Is Too Small?
OK, we know it can be tempting to think, “they’re only chickens, surely stuffing a couple of extra birds into the space will be OK?” Our advice is simple – don’t do this. There are 3 reasons why you need to respect the space requirements for chickens:
- You can get into trouble with the law. Most places in the world have strict laws about how many chickens you can own and how much space they can have. If you break these laws, you may find yourself subject to regular inspections and potentially fines for failing to meet standards. Always check the legal requirements before committing to buying a number of birds. If your state says “no more than 6” for domestic use – no more than 6 it is.
- Your chickens will start to get angry. Imagine that if your whole family had to move into the bathroom of your home and were expected to stay there every time that the sun went down. How would that work out? You’d start fighting, right? Same for chickens. They don’t need as much space as people, but they need enough space to be a chicken. In cramped conditions, they will fight. This, in turn, can lead to broken feathers and even physical injuries that will need treatment.
- They may start to engage in cannibalism. The easiest way to free up some space if the chicken’s owner won’t take the bull by the horns is for the flock to gang up on some of its weakest members and peck them to death. Quite seriously too. Chickens are very prone to cannibalism in cramped spaces. It is every bit as horrific as it sounds too.
We think most chicken owners would prefer happy, healthy birds rather than a roost which looks like it starred in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so make sure you respect the space requirements for your chickens.
How Big Should Your Chickens’ Nesting Box Be?
One thing you should be aware of is that chickens don’t lay eggs where they sleep. You can’t just build a chicken coop and a roost and then relax because otherwise, you may have reasonably happy chickens but you’re not going to get those delicious eggs that you’ve been dreaming about.
So, you need to build a nesting box which is where your chickens will go to build nests and to lay those lovely, tasty eggs. There are two options when it comes to nesting boxes:
- One big nesting box. The idea here is simple, all the hens will be brought together to make their eggs in a communal laying space. If this sounds as attractive as an open plan office – it might be, however, many chicken owners say that this works perfectly adequately, and it doesn’t interfere with their laying at all. This is because chickens are fairly social birds and might appreciate each other’s company whilst going through the rigors of laying.
- Lots of smaller nesting boxes. If you think your chickens might be shy or that they appear to be a group of “mean chickens” (like the movie Mean Girls, chickens can be a bit bullying and overpowering just like people) then you might feel like giving them their own nesting boxes to have their eggs in.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter which option you go for when it comes to how much space you need – you need 1 square foot of space per nesting chicken (and yes, this really needs to be a square – you can’t go for a 6-inch x 2-foot nesting box, that won’t work at all).
If you’re going to put 6 hens in a communal nesting box that box must be 6 foot by 1 foot. It’s very easy to do the math here.
We’d recommend you opt for the single nesting box approach because it just seems like a nicer way to operate but it isn’t essential.
What Happens If The Nesting Box Is Too Small?
If the chickens are having problems in the coop or their nesting boxes are too small – it can affect the production of eggs and that’s something that you’re definitely going to want to avoid. Warning signs that space is an issue include:
- A drop off in egg production. In some crowded conditions the birds may just stop laying completely but most of the time, there will be a warning period where egg laying starts to tail off and once productive birds may lay half or less of their normal numbers of eggs.
- Eggs are turning up broken or cracked. If the nesting boxes are really cramped, then the chicken will struggle to find a comfortable position and that means they’ll keep moving around hunting for that comfort. As they do that, they’re likely to step on or scratch the eggs over and over again. This, unsurprisingly, tends to damage the eggs.
- Hens are becoming egg bound. Hens can become egg bound at any time in their lives and it isn’t always to do with overcrowding. However, it is a condition which can be brought about by undue stress and overcrowding can trigger this stress. An egg-bound chicken cannot lay and if it’s not treated – the hen can die of this condition.
- The eggs are deformed. The stress of laying in crowded conditions appears to affect the shape of the eggs and they can become misshapen and malformed. This is a real clear danger indicator that they’re short on space while nesting.
- The eggs are dirty. No surprises, if they don’t have enough room to move around – when your chicken needs to poop and they can’t leave the eggs, they poop all over the eggs, chicken poop can carry zoonotic diseases (that is diseases which can be passed from chickens to you). So, it’s best avoided.
- Their chicks are dying in increased numbers. Oddly, even when the eggs are fine – it’s been shown in studies that the chicks of overcrowded birds often have much lower survival rates than those of happy birds.
Too Little Space For Your Chickens Can Lead To Disease
Cramped conditions in both nesting boxes and chicken coops can also enable the spread of disease between your chickens and all of the following conditions can be markedly worse when they don’t have enough space:
- Bodily deformities
- Chicken mites
- Fowl pox
- Infectious bronchitis
- Marek’s disease
- Premature molting
- Respiratory abnormalities
How Much Space To Wander Do Chickens Need?
Chickens need rather more space to wander about it than they need to sleep or nest in. If you’re going to keep 6 chickens, then each chicken needs about 15 square feet of space. So, that’s 90 square feet of yard space for all of them. If you want 10 chickens, it’ll be 150 square feet.
This number is a bare minimum requirement. Unlike with roost space, more space is much better for your chickens’ wellbeing and welfare when it comes to being outside. We feel that we wouldn’t be happy keeping chickens with anything less than 25-30 square feet of space each, but we do appreciate that in some properties – this will be impossible.
Many chicken owners will create a “run” for their chickens, this is an isolated area of the yard which is protected against predators. This can be useful if your yard is multi-purpose or there are things around that you don’t want chickens tangling with.
Otherwise, you’re quite OK to let them roam around your backyard unconstrained. While a build-up of chicken poop can be detrimental to grass and plants, small amounts are actually very good for the garden and can help fertilize it.
We would note that if you do opt for a run – life can be much easier if the run is portable. Otherwise, in rainy seasons or the winter the run can become rather marsh-like and then changing the chicken’s bedding becomes a real chore because it needs doing every single day.
Why You Should Think About Doing More Than The Bare Minimum Of Space
The reason that we choose to give our chickens more space to roam and the reason that we think you should too is simple: chickens which have more space outside are much less likely to attract parasites and diseases and if they do get them, they’re less likely to pass them on to each other.
Chickens, though domesticated to some extent, would range large open spaces in the wild and we feel it’s best to mimic the conditions that mother nature intended wherever possible.
What Makes A Chicken Free Range?
We’re quite disappointed about the legal definition of “free-range”. Because it’s a term associated with commercial farming and “free-range” eggs have a distinct price premium attached to them – the concept of “free-range” is defined by law but it’s not impressive.
In the United States, the only thing “free-range” means is that a chicken can go outside. There is no requirement for them to have enough space and there is no definition of how many times or for how long a chicken can go outside.
In the EU, they mandate a square foot of living space and then 13 square feet of outdoor space, this is very much below what we’d consider acceptable living conditions for a chicken and thus, many “free-range” products are still cruelty products.
Keep your own chickens though and you can control these things. We’d like “free-range” to mean a minimum of 25 square foot of outdoor space per chicken and ideally, where the chickens are free to roam as they choose and are not confined to a run.
Can You Have A Pet Chicken In The House?
You can have chickens in the house and many people love having chickens as pets but there’s one major consideration you have to keep in mind when allowing chickens into your home – it’s their poop.
Chickens are not puppies and they cannot control when they poop. This means they tend to go immediately the urge strikes them.
Outside, this is not a problem. Inside, it clearly is. Now, you can litter train a chicken, but it is hard work. You can also buy chicken diapers which can be wrapped around a chicken in the home and then disposed of when it goes outside again.
However, you don’t want poop on your furniture or where you eat because it can carry conditions which can make people very sick (and you can die from some forms of chicken-borne food poisoning).
How much space do pet chickens need? 3 square feet of coop space, 10 inches of roosting space, 1 square foot of nesting space and at least 15 square feet of outdoor space per chicken. We’d like to see chickens get more space outside than this and recommend a minimum of 25 square feet of outdoor space wherever possible.
Don’t give them more roosting, coop or nesting space though as it’s hard for them to stay warm if they have too much space in the winter months. The idea is to keep your chickens as happy as possible not freeze them.
Here are some of my favorite products for chickens and their coops: