Last year something was killing our chickens. It was only a few days before Thanksgiving and each morning we would discover another dead bird. First to go was our rooster Ned. He was a handsome Barred Rock who we found outside, up against the chicken wire, bloodied with all his side feathers raked off. What happened was a complete mystery.
Knowing it's not uncommon for a sick chicken to hunker down outside before they die, I assumed that's what happened to Ned. The blood and the missing feathers were possibly from a raccoon-like critter reaching in through the wire after the fact and trying to get a piece.
The next morning we found another dead chicken. This time the hen was inside the coop and her head was completely severed. "Whoa! What the hell is going on?" I thought maybe one of the other hens had turned cannibal. After all, I considered the coop to be a fortress — a coop that had once survived a full on attack from a black bear. What else could be killing them?
To make matters worse we were expecting 17 guests for our first Thanksgiving in the house. Time was crucial. I still needed to install all the kitchen cabinetry, stove, refrigerator, and do all the necessary plumbing. My brother and sister-in-law arrived to spend a long weekend and help us clean up before the big dinner.
The next morning everything was fine in the coop below. No dead chickens. Great. We worked at a manic pace with only 24 hours until the guests arrived. Sometime in the early morning my sister-in-law noticed one of birds in the run was acting strange. As soon as she asked, "what is wrong with that chicken" all hell broke loose and the honking and crying of chickens began. I ran down the hill towards the coop and noticed my all-white leghorn bird thrashing about the pen.
Unfortunately I have seen several chickens die a natural death and it's not a pretty scene. They often stage a dramatic exit and I knew this girl was not long for this world. I needed to put her out of her misery. I yelled back up towards my brother to grab his new 12 gauge shotgun. He bounded down the hill, shotgun shells falling from his pajama pockets, he was excited to shoot his new gun. I turned back towards the pen and my leghorn had flopped before my feet. On her side I noticed something strange. Something was pulling her down to the ground. I looked closer...
Without skipping a beat I turned around to the scrap wood pile, grabbed a stick, snapped it over my knee, and carefully slid the sharpened end through the chicken wire. A moment of calm as I steadied my hands trying to differentiate between the white fur and the white feathers. I aimed — and then, in one explosive move the chicken jerked her body enough to expose the ermine. I took a sharp jab downward and nicked the ermine.
Now free, the chicken ran back inside the coop and I found myself inside the run with this fearless weasel. It lunged at me several times as I defended myself (yes, defended) with the stick. A few seconds of wild swinging and the ermine finally ran off into a nearby pile of lumber.
My brother arrived with the shotguns and we stood right flank, left flank (many years of playing GI-Joe) and watched over the lumber pile for at least an hour. The ermine never emerged...or maybe in the blink of an eye it had escaped and was long gone. I checked on the chicken and she appeared to be fine as she drank water. I picked her up and inspected her neck. No blood. Everything looked fine and I sealed up the coop. Unfortunately we found her dead the next morning.
The mystery was solved and now I had to do something about it. What amazed me most was how easy it was for the ermine to slip through the "chicken wire" as if it didn't exist.
A complete rebuild of the chicken coop run was needed.
Building the New Run
The first consideration for the new run was the fencing. In order to fully protect your forest dwelling chickens from ermines and weasels alike, no opening in your coop should be large enough to fit a hot dog through. Half inch hardware cloth is the only solution. Though it can be expensive it's worth every penny. I found 50 foot x 3 foot - 19 gauge galvanized rolls at the local building supply store. Don't bother looking at the big box stores.
The new coop would measure 12 foot x 12 foot square - 2 foot 6 inches tall in the back and 6 foot tall in the front. I ended up using about 2-1/2 rolls of hardware cloth. Again, not cheap at $80 per roll but now I can sleep at night knowing I won't have to wake up and compost another chicken.
Next was the wood frame. I'm not a fan of treated lumber for many reasons so I went looking for Black Locust. I can't sing the praises of black locust loud enough. It's a perfect substitute for treated lumber. It's extremely strong and is naturally rot resistance. I once read black locust will last 40 years as fence post. Not bad. After that, flip it over and it'll last another 40. Though not a native, it's easy to find in the Adirondacks. A friend of mine had a stockpile of saplings 3-4" in diameter. Perfect for the what I needed.
The actual build is straight forward. Remember to bury the hardware cloth at least 6 inches down. If you find 4 foot wide rolls (or have a serious problem with animals digging), you might want to bend the hardware cloth 90 degrees away from the pen in addition to burying 6 inches deep.
I started attaching the hardware cloth with short decking screws and two flat washers until I remembered having large pancake head screws (see pics in slider below) left over from my standing seam metal roof. I highly recommend using these. Any building supply store that sells metal roofing should have these. It's a real time saver and it's probably cheaper.
We've had chickens for over 6 years now. What began as a great big open pen (about the size of a large in-ground swimming pool) has been reduced over the years to what you see above. Early on we had visions of our chickens free-ranging about the property but as the wandering dogs, red tailed hawks, black bears, fox, and Ermines became a reality, we've had to downsize considerably for their safety. It's the price we pay for keeping chickens in the middle of an Adirondack forest. But now, finally, I do feel as though this is the run that will keep everything out — even if I've said that before. Time will tell.