For those who have raised chicks, you know full well the feelings of apprehension when it comes time to ‘graduate’ to the coop. You’ve spent the last few weeks, worrying about them; at first trying to keep them warm and hydrated and then later, trying to keep them in the brooder where they are safe. But now your little birds have grown into rambunctious teenagers and they need space!
Yet despite their excited energy, you still have reservations because you know just how dangerous this new world will be for them. Countless predators are lurking in the dark, single-minded in their focus on getting at your new flock.
With this sobering knowledge, you’ve spent a great deal of effort in fortifying their coop. But will they use it?
It’s sad to say, but if not properly trained, new chickens are likely to avoid the coop that you have prepared, choosing instead to roost somewhere outdoors. This puts them at great risk and is likely to lead to losses.
However, once a chicken has associated their coop with safety, they should return every night to roost – without any input from you.
The trick is getting your birds to see the coop as ‘home base’. And it is not likely that they will come to this conclusion on their own.
Just like those critical first few hours, where you have to show your new chicks ‘this is food’ and ‘this is water’, you will have to show your feathered teenagers ‘this is the safe place to be.’
There will be a few that want to argue and stay out, insisting that they know better. But you know more than they do and it is highly recommended that you override their independence.
How Long Should I Keep My New Chickens In The Coop?
Spend any time on a chicken forum, and you will find a wide range of advise on almost every subject. Topics from the best feed to the best breed, are discussed with passion and conviction. (Grown-up behavior is advised, lest you find yourself thrown off someone’s ‘Christmas Card List’.)
But one thing that is widely supported by even the most opinionated of experts, is the need for coop training.
Restricting your new flock to their coop, for a minimum of three days, is the best method of instilling the instinct/desire to roost where you want them to – the fortified coop.
If you have the ability to go longer than this, then that’s even better. But take note, even if you’ve managed to keep them in the coop for a week, there will still be a few stragglers than can’t seem to remember how to get back in. For these birds, you will have to physically intervene on their behalf.
However, it’s been my experience that it only takes a few days for the non-cooperative birds to form the habit you desire. As chickens are a flock animal, they generally don’t like being alone. And if they know that everyone else is already in the coop, then their desire to be with the flock will generate some usable motivation.
Also, it is strongly advised that you do a head count every night as you lock their coop up, in order to ensure that someone isn’t playing hooky. Remember, chickens have very poor night vision, and as such, will not be able to escape even the slowest of predators.
### Important Note ###
Should you fail to attain the ‘home base’ concept for your flock, you can still to train your birds to use the coop at night. But I can tell you from personal experience, it is a LOT HARDER!
This generally involves a makeshift chicken chute, a broom or two and hopefully a few friends to help… or, if your friends are like mine, a few clowns to occasionally wave their arms up and down, as they provide you a constant stream of useless advise and loads of laughter/commentary on your performance.
Will Free Range Chickens Go Back To The Coop To Lay Eggs?
Our flocks have been primarily free-range. While there is a number of benefits for both the flock and myself with this arrangement, I personally like the idea of allowing these animals to come and go as they please.
But this freedom for the flock comes with risks, (something that was made implicitly clear to me just yesterday).
And one of those risks involves egg laying hens and the use of nesting boxes.
If adequate preparation has been done, your free-range chicken will most likely return to the coop in order to use a nesting box, whenever they feel need to lay an egg. But it should be noted that there is a difference between ‘most likely’ and ‘always’.
The decision process of a chicken is not based on logic, but rather of habit and a feeling of safety. If habit is not established, or if the feeling of safety is lost, then you can expect your bird to act in a way that is different from what may be desirable.
### Personal Example ###
Right now, I am struggling with a sweet little Buff Orpington named Two Toes. This past summer, this poor little hen was attacked by a weasel and has just two front toes on each foot. I’ve spent a lot of time nurturing her and as a consequence have formed something of a bond.
Two Toes has just started laying, which makes me very happy. What is not making me happy is where she has chosen to lay her eggs.
Being rather shy, Two Toes has elected to lay her eggs in a nest of her own making… way out in the field away from the bigger birds.
While she did choose a spot that is somewhat secluded, it provides no real protection for a process that usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.
Why does she do this?
Because to her, it feels safer than competing with the bigger birds for a nesting box. (It’s worth noting that I have provided multiple nesting boxes, but they all want to use the same one, which ever one that ends up being!)
As fate would have it, I discovered her unsanctioned nest and saw my nemesis the fox, withing 20 minutes and 70 yards of each other, yesterday afternoon. Consequently, I have to find a way to train Two Toes quickly, otherwise there is a very real chance that I will lose her to that darn fox!
What Time Do Chickens Go In The Coop?
It is not unusual for me to let the birds out in the morning and not see them again until evening. We have some acreage for them to wander and they like to make the best of it. But when it comes time for the sun to go down, these birds will meander their way back home.
Our free-range flocks will reliably show up at least 30 minutes before sunset, where they will hover around the coop, filling up on feed and water before their nighttime fast.
However, as visibility decreases, the ‘fun time’ begins to run out.
Chickens will act on their own in order to be in the coop and settled down to roost just before the sun goes completely down.
As mentioned above, chickens have very poor nighttime vision. And being creatures with very little defensive capability, they have innate drive to find a place of safety.
### Important Note ###
It’s a good idea, especially with a new flock, to be available for your birds at sunset. Chickens are easily stressed out. And if some poor hen forgets how to use the door, (despite the fact that they’ve been using it for months), then things can go from being slightly anxious, to a full on ‘panting panic’. I’ve seen this happen in as little as 2 minutes.