As more and more food production horror stories surface in books, articles and documentaries, so does a rising trend in East Dallas — urban chicken coops.
“I’m paranoid, so I like the idea that we know where the eggs come from, and we know exactly what the chickens have eaten,” says neighborhood chicken owner Adam Auensen.
Auensen isn’t alone in his sentiments. Bob Richie, an East Dallasite who has been “raising chickens since before it was cool” and building high-end chicken coops for people throughout Dallas, says more people are raising chickens to control their food source.
East Dallas is leading the pack and has been for decades, Richie says, but Oak Cliff is finally picking up steam with the movement as well.
Urban chicken coops became so popular in East Dallas that five years ago, several neighbors, including Richie, created a neighborhood chicken coop tour to benefit neighborhood nonprofits.
Peep at the Coops, as it’s so aptly called, is a self-guided tour that attracts thousands of visitors every year. A couple of years ago, Stonewall Gardens took over operations of the tour as a fundraiser for the garden every May.
Most people will tell you that raising chickens is pretty simple. As long as they have water and chicken scratch to nibble on, they’ll spend most of their days clucking around the backyard, eating bugs and other pesky yard dwellers.
“They just walk around the yard turning bugs into eggs, which is awesome. I don’t like bugs, and I like eggs,” Auensen quips. “So I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have chickens.”
When it starts getting dark, the chickens retire to the roost on their own, and their owners lock them in for the night.
But there is one difficult aspect of owning chickens: keeping them safe. Chickens are virtually defenseless, and pretty much every living creature in the neighborhood wants to eat these feathered friends for lunch.
Coyotes, foxes, neighborhood dogs, opossums and hawks are strict adherents to the “eat more chicken” philosophy. One neighbor’s birds even attracted a bobcat — twice! Luckily, both times the cat was unsuccessful in its endeavors. Heck, even raccoons thrill kill, just to be jerks.
Neighbors refuse to give in to the demands of these greedy midnight snackers, but over the years they’ve had to get creative. Here’s what three neighbors, whose coops will be featured on this year’s coop tour, have wrangled up in order to keep their peeps.
Urban farmers: Bobby and Jean Bonds
Coop name: Original Bonds Design, or “The MacGyver Coop”
Cast of characters: Peggy and Red Tail
Security level: Booby-trapped
If MacGyver built a chicken coop, there’s a good chance it would look similar to the coop neighbor Bobby Bonds built in his backyard.
“Everybody hates chickens,” Bonds says. “During the day it’s dogs and cats; at night the rats are always trying to get their feed. Obviously hawks, foxes and coyotes.”
One day Bonds was outside doing yard work when one of his hens had a run-in with a hawk. The hen got away without injury, but Bonds knew he had a hawk problem.
“I’ve seen them at least 10 times in one day,” Bonds says.
To remedy the situation, he strung at least half a dozen nets up around his backyard. The bottom is free flowing, so it dangles in the wind and makes it hard for the hawks to see.
“I was outside admiring my handiwork, and this hawk came from a tree over there,” Bonds says, pointing to a neighbor’s yard. “And bam! They don’t see the nets. They’re supposed to have real good eyesight, but they look right through it.”
Bonds built a “tractor style” coop, a style he learned about through internet research and mishmashed for his own personal use. It has wheels on one end, so he can move it around the yard instead of having to clean the coop.
Bonds used PVC pipe as the bones of the structure, which he can fill with water to weigh down the coop, and he fixed plastic sheets and hardware cloth to the side with zip ties.
He built a step-up feeder, so the chickens have to step onto a lever in order to get to their food. When they do, the door to the feeder springs opens. Rats and squirrels don’t weigh enough to trigger the door.
“I’ve lost some chickens, so I’ve pretty much learned by mistakes,” Bonds explains.
He found out the hard way that their dogs, Alaskan husky mixes, aren’t chicken friendly. He learned he needed to reinforce the door flap with a metal rod to keep it from being pushed inward. Plus, the plastic siding has taken quite a beating of scratch and bite marks, so Bonds no longer lets the dogs near the coop.
“What I would probably do next time is clad the whole thing with hardware cloth, the roof and everything,” Bonds says.
Urban farmers: Adam and Ursula Auensen
Coop name: The White House
Cast of characters: Martha, Jackie O, Eleanor, Ladybird, Betty, Mamie “Mimi” Eisenhower, and Dominique Wilkins
Security level: Extra sturdy
Adam Auensen wanted chickens years ago, but his wife, Ursula, quickly put the kibosh on that nonsense.
And then came Pinterest.
When Ursula began seeing creative — and quite frankly, adorable — chicken coops on the social networking site, she changed her tune.
“I told him, ‘OK, we can do this if you build me a nice chicken coop,’ ” Ursula recalls with a laugh.
Adam put his construction background to good use and also enlisted the help of Ray Bachelder, a professional coop builder, and viola! The Auensens’ very own Pinterest-worthy chicken cottage was born.
They call their coop “The White House,” and also refer to their hens as “the first ladies” — except Dominique Wilkins, whom Adam named after the retired NBA star.
The coop features a window complete with a flower box, a shingled roof, and even a little red chandelier. But don’t be fooled by the delicate touches; their chicken haven also has several top-notch security measures, which is important since the Auensens’ backyard backs up to a creek.
The nesting box is made of HardiePlank, a heavy-duty cement fiber that looks like wood. As a result, the nesting box alone weighs 400 pounds and took four guys to lift.
The entire coop is anchored in layers of materials, so anything that attempts to dig under the coop will have to go through brick, two inches of gravel, chicken wire, dirt and mulch.
Adam lined the coop with hardware cloth — it’s more durable than chicken wire, and rats can’t chew through it.
“The materials on this coop are actually better than what’s on our house,” Adam says.
Urban farmers: Crystal and Josh McKibben
Coop name: Coop John B.
Cast of characters: Party, Bill, Meatloaf, Lizard and Wood
Security level: Teched-out
The McKibben coop isn’t for chickens. It’s for ducks. This year, it will be the first duck coop ever on the tour because Crystal wants to talk with neighbors about raising domestic ducks.
Crystal says she wanted ducks because they’re “much cuter than chickens.”
“I mean, they splash in the water!” Crystal says. “But I’m the person I want to warn against.”
Like many chicken owners, Crystal has had to learn the hard way how to protect her ducks from the neighborhood riffraff.
Not long after the McKibbens adopted ducks, a bobcat began periodically paying visits to their backyard, but it has never been able to get inside the coop.
Unfortunately, the bobcat isn’t the only unwanted visitor. Earlier this year, the McKibbens’ duck Richard — a female Indian runner duck whom we featured in last year’s pet issue — was killed by a hawk.
“I felt like I was responsible for her survival,” Crystal says. “I feel like I let her down. As a poultry owner, I was told I should expect to lose half of my flock, no matter what. It was a statistic I knew going into it, but when it became a reality, that was hard.”
At the time the McKibbens had only two ducks, but when Richard’s mate, Party, lost his friend, he became lonely. So the McKibbens allowed some of Richard’s eggs to hatch, and also found two full-grown female ducks to even out the male-female ratio.
They also amped up the fortification to protect against future invasion.
They have a pen made with wooden siding and a wire roof for overhead protection. Inside the pen are two plastic tubs where the ducks can splash around.
Beside the pen, the duck coop is a large domed structure covered in hardware cloth. Inside the coop is a cozy wooden nesting box.
The McKibbens also set up a video camera that live-streams video footage online, so the McKibbens can check it anytime.
As an unexpected yet pleasant surprise, the McKibbens have found they’re not the only ones who enjoy watching the ducks’ shenanigans.
“People from all over the world log in to see, What are the ducks doing?” McKibben says. “It’s fun.”
Considering chickens? Check out these tips from Bob Richie
• When building your coop, use hardware cloth, not chicken wire. “Chicken wire is great for keeping chickens in but not for keeping predators out,” Richie says.
• Bury your wire into the ground to prevent predators from digging under the coops. Also, raccoons can climb; so make sure the wire goes all the way over.
• Opossums are mostly interested in eggs, so it’s important to collect the eggs every day in order to discourage them from snooping around. Sometimes they like to nibble on chicken feet, so if your chickens have mysterious scratches on their feet, you might have an unwanted visitor.
• Make a dust bath for your chickens to protect from mites: two helpings of peat moss, one helping of ash, one helping of sand, and a sprinkling of food-grade diatomaceous earth.
• Make sure chickens have plenty of space in the coop. If there’s not enough space, the chickens will pick on each other.
• Provide good ventilation. Chickens don’t need to be kept warm; they need ventilation.
Peep at the Coops: The Urban Coop Tour
When: May 4, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Stonewall Gardens, 5828 E. Mockingbird
How much: $10
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