Today I have completed the fifth and final chicken coop of my lifelong chicken house building career. I’ve invested the better part of my days off for the last two months building a small 8×12 foot structure that I believe will stand up to hurricanes or tornados but more importantly, the strategic, sly, stealth, conniving, devious night assaults of the wily raccoon. (I guess you could say I have an issue.)
My first experience with chicken coop construction took place in about 1981 when my daughter Kate decided to undertake the lucrative enterprise of egg production. She was eight years old and had it in her mind that she would raise money to buy a horse by selling fresh eggs to the neighbors. Right from the beginning there were two problems with her venture: first, we had no chickens or a place to put them if we did; and second, we had almost no neighbors to speak of and the ones we did have all owned chickens themselves. (Not to mention the fact that the horse she had her heart set on was $600.) But, what father could resist an enthusiastic beautiful eight year old daughter with a dream of greatness and a desire to be entrepreneurial? And so my story begins.
We were living on a shoestring in those days, and because I felt it would be foolish to over invest in a venture that may not even make money, I set out to build Kate a chicken coop out of the old junk lying around the place. We gathered scraps of plywood, bits and pieces of lumber left over from other miscellaneous projects, and some old tin roofing. Knowing that chickens have a tendency to smell, and because this coop was not a thing of great architectural beauty, we erected our structure on the outer edge of the ranch clearing some 100 yards from the house.
The day finally arrived when I brought home 30 laying hens that we had procured from a local farmer. Because the hens were already mature, production started at once. No one could resist Kate’s enterprising spirit and anyone who happened by left with the purchase of at least a dozen eggs. Kate’s gallon glass canning jar began to rapidly fill up with dollar bills and loose change. She was becoming more motivated by the day as her venture got off to a magnificent start until one morning she was horrified to discover a beheaded disemboweled chicken laying just outside the coop. As she recovered from the emotional trauma of seeing one of her new pets ripped to shreds I assured her that every new business suffers initial setbacks. I quietly set a coyote trap in the brush nearby using the remains of the mutilated chicken. The next night the serial killer returned ignoring my skillfully set trap and removing two more hens. Now I was mad. I reinforced the coop with whatever remaining junk I could find – but to no avail. This went on until twenty chickens had been maliciously brutalized with the only sign of the intruder being small raccoon paw prints littering the ground around and in the coop. Egg production was rapidly falling off and not one of my now many traps had ever been sprung.
Finally one September evening just before dark our five year son Brook announced that he was going to spend the night guarding the coop. He was armed with a small bow and arrow under one arm and carried his homemade sleeping bag under the other. The thing that caught us off guard was that he wasn’t asking permission but rather making a proclamation that sounded like a declaration of war. Having visions of beheaded and debased chickens Nancy started to protest. Before she could even formulate an argument, Brook had already shut the cabin door behind him and was marching towards the hay shed next to the coop. We sat there in silence not knowing if we should laugh or respond to our naturally overprotective parental fears. We decided to hold back and wait until dark, believing that darkness would scare him back to the security of his bedroom – but it didn’t. We anxiously waited until the sun had long gone down before sneaking out to take a peak. We found him sound asleep stretched out on top of a single bale of hay (which gives an idea of how big he was at the time). Not knowing what to do we called my folks for some “grandparental” advice. My dad convinced us that we would surely ruin his adventure and damage his childhood if we didn’t let him defend his sister’s chickens. And so Nancy decided that she should spend the night sleeping in the front seat of the old 1951 Dodge ranch truck which was parked nearby. I had to go to work early the next day so I went to bed. About two in the morning I was awakened by the hissing, growling and the frantic baying and howling of our beagle dog named Barney. It sounded like a war zone out there and I was confident that my chicken defenders would soon be returning to the house. I laid awake listening and wondering what I should do until the ruckus subsided and soon fell back to sleep. I was only awakened again by my 5:30 alarm.
I got up and began building a fire in the kitchen cookstove when Brook ambled in the door covered from head to toe with hay. He was dragging his little sleeping bag behind him and carried his bow and arrows. I asked him if he had encountered any raccoons during the night to which he replied that he hadn’t. Then I asked if he had by any chance seen his mother and he said no to that as well. With that, he promptly took his little bundle into his bedroom and quickly fell fast asleep. Concerned not only because he hadn’t seen his mother plus the snarling, hissing ruckus I had distinctly heard in the night, I walked out to the old pickup truck. As I approached I saw two feet sticking out the window in the breaking daylight. I grabbed Nancy’s bare toe shocking her into consciousness. Her first words were, “Oh my gosh – I didn’t get a wink of sleep all night.”
“Really?” I said. “If you didn’t get any sleep then what happened to Brook?” She jumped out of the old truck frantically looking at the empty bale of hay. (I know it may seem mean, but her moment of terror has given me cause to laugh on and off for over thirty years now. It was priceless in a sadistic sort of way. )
After a close examination of the coop area, I discovered another chicken had been beheaded during the night – even under close watch. Our beagle also had a fresh scratch on his nose from his valiant effort to defend the coop and protect my wife and son.
So ended Kate’s egg enterprise, but not her ownership of the neighbors’ horse. She gave him a full gallon jug of change and I privately wrote him a check for the balance. In the end it was a win/win for everyone. She named her horse Rebecca and enjoyed her for many years. I also learned how to build raccoon proof chicken coops like Fort Knox.