The Curious Incident of the Chickens In the Night-Time

I used to count the feet.

At sundown all the chickens march into the chicken coop and hop onto the roost to put themselves to bed. I go out a little bit later with a flashlight to close the door of the chicken coop so that nothing would get at them at night. Every night I open the door and look in and count the feet to make sure that all the chickens were in there. Twenty feet; ten chickens.

And then one night I counted eighteen feet. I turned from the coop into the chicken yard with my flashlight: no chicken sleeping on top of the coop. No chicken hiding in the bushes next to the coop. No chicken wandering about in the dark looking confused, having forgotten to actually go to bed.

The light caught a bit of movement toward the back of my chicken yard. I turned the flashlight on the back fence and two glowing neon eyes stared back at me out of the darkness. Chickens do not have eyes facing forward. I took a step back, and then a step forward.

And the bobcat stopped chewing on my chicken, climbed right up the fence, jumped into the bushes and ran away.

This was only the start.

Bobcat crop

I live just outside a town called Los Gatos (the cats), originally named for the large number of bobcats in the area. We have an especially large population of bobcats that make our property home because most of our land is uncleared and we don’t own dogs. We see bobcats on the lawn, on the driveway, in the fields, and in the bushes. Bobcats are fun to watch because they behave just like very large house cats; they sleep in the sun, they wrestle like kittens, they bat pine cones around for fun. They have big tufty ears and spotty bellies. Given how cute they are it’s hard to remember that bobcats are not house cats; they are wild, and they hunt to eat.

By keeping chickens, I was putting bobcat food on a buffet and ringing the “free food” bell.

I thought that the chickens were safe. Although I had lost the occasional chicken to predators in the past, I had beefed up my chicken yard security, and it had been two years since I had lost a chicken. When the bobcat took the first bird I was momentarily struck stupid. But…I have a seven foot fence. I have a secure coop. How could this have happened? The rule I neglected to fully grasp is that a chicken yard is safe right up until the moment it isn’t, the predators have all the time in the world to look for a way in, and they will wait until the one night you forget to shut the door or the one time you have your back turned. And a fence now matter how tall is ineffective against a smart cat who can climb.

While I was wasting time dumbly trying to understand what had gone wrong two more chickens vanished, one after the other, and there was just a pile of feathers on the ground where they had been. One pile of black feathers. One pile of grey feathers. Like ashes left behind after a fire.

I put up a hot wire, a strand of electrical fencing, just short of the top of the fence. I covered the back corner of the fence with netting, where I thought the bobcat was coming in. I put the chickens to bed well before dark and let them out when the sun was well up. But all of this seemed ineffective; every few days I lost more chickens.

One afternoon in the middle of the day three chickens vanished, including my favourite, an enormous white orpington I had hatched from an egg. The white orpington had been my guard chicken, the mean one who would confront bobcats and coyotes standing just outside the fence and raise a ruckus that had all the other chickens running for the safety of the coop. My guard chicken was not mean enough. I found a big pile of white feathers and nothing else.

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I seemed like I was fighting a losing battle; my yard was just not safe, and it was only a matter of time before the bobcats got all the chickens. I needed to do something and fast if I wanted to keep any chickens at all.

But I was too slow. Only a few days later I went out to the coop at dusk and there were no feet to count. I found more piles of feathers and two dead chickens. So that’s it, I thought, as I trudged back into the house, depressed. I’ve lost. It’s over. The bobcats had taken all of my chickens, wiped me out, in less than a week.

The next morning as I was looking out the kitchen window I saw movement in the chicken yard. Curiously, I went out into the garden, and froze in the middle of the path. There were three bobcats in the chicken yard — one large parent and two smaller half-grown bobcat kittens. They had come back for the last of the dead chickens.

“Eric!” I rushed back into the house. “Bobcats! In the yard!” Eric came out of the house to help; I turned on the garden hose. We had talked on and off about what to do if we ever actually caught the bobcats in the act. We didn’t want to shoot the bobcats and had joked that maybe turning the hose on them would scare them away. This was our last chance.

Eric cornered the larger parent bobcat in the back of the yard, but it went up and over the fence before he could get it. The two smaller cats were not as smart, and both of them got stuck in the narrow space behind the new coop and the fence. I turned the hose on “jet” and unleashed a stream of water. Wet, and frightened, one cat managed to climb the fence and escape, but I cornered the remaining one with the hose. It climbed the fence but then stayed perched on the top, growling at me as I dosed it in the face over and over again, hoping it wouldn’t decide to lunge at me over the fence in a panic.

The cat seemed to be stuck there on top of the fence, miserable, angry, soaked. I turned off the hose. Why hadn’t it hopped over? Why was it just sitting there?

“Turn off the hot wire,” I called to Eric, who had been chasing bobcats on the outside of the fence. Once the power was cut the cat finally dropped off the top of the fence into the bushes. The fence had been zapping the terrified animal at the same time I was hosing it down.

I haven’t seen any bobcats by the chicken yard for a long time now, but I suspect that is more because there are no chickens left to eat rather than because of our ninja bobcat-frightening skills.

The plan now is to rebuild the chicken yard with a stronger fence and with a roof on it. The yard will become an impenetrable chicken fortress against any known predator in the area. Given my current rate of progress on the new chicken coop this should only take four or five years, tops!

How to Convert an Old Shed to a Chicken Coop in 45,732 Easy Steps (Part Four)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

So you’re probably thinking, “Hey Laura, it’s been a really super long time since you wrote about that shed/chicken coop of yours. Surely you’ve made some progress that you could write about. Surely the shed isn’t just sitting there in your yard, incomplete, in the rain, taunting you with your short attention span and inability to actually completely follow through with a project.”

Yes, well, um.


I will point out that there is a roof on that shed now, and it took me a long time to put a roof on that shed, and that roof is what I want to talk about in this post mostly. But the real reason the whole shed to chicken coop project has dragged on this long is for a particular reason: I no longer have any chickens. I had a family of bobcats come through and wipe me out in August, and I want to write about that, too, because it’s been an important albeit not very amusing part of the story. But for now let’s talk about the roof. And about math.

Rafter Math

When last we left our stubborn intrepid narrator (me) in June in Part Three she had finished the foundation and framing for the walls of the shed, reusing as much of the old wood as possible and widening the shed by about 3 inches. There was a great sense of accomplishment and no small amount of back strain felt by all involved (me).


The next step was to set rafters to hold the roof. The original slanted roof of the old shed (as shown in Part Two) had rafters, thick redwood sheathing, and then about four layers of asphalt shingles. My plan was to replace all that with a simple corrugated (wavy) metal roof. But I would still need rafters.

The existing rafters were 10 foot 2x4s with notches cut into them so that they would sit at the correct angle on top of the vertical walls. The notches are called birds-mouths, and there is some fancy complicated construction math (otherwise known as “trigonometry”) that you can do to figure out where to cut the notches and at what angle. (You know when people say that you’ll never, ever use eighth-grade math ever again? This is where they’re wrong. If you ever want to cut birds-mouth notches in rafters, it will help to remember your eighth grade math.)

About three of the six of my old rafters were in fine shape. The other three were too rotted to use. I figured — no big! Lay the old rafters on top of new 2x4s and use them as templates for the notches. No fancy complicated construction math needed!

But here is where I will bring your attention to that thing back in Part Three where I widened the shed by three inches. The notches in the old rafters no longer line up with the top of the shed. I needed new notches in new places with new angles. I had to do the math after all. Darn it.

I am told that a common framing square has markings on it that are supposed to help you with rafter math. But I don’t actually have a framing square, and, honestly, every time I looked up a description of how to figure this out I felt like despite my actual college degree from a technical school no less I was sitting there in front of the computer slightly drooling and muttering “wut?”

I spent perhaps a month standing around sighing over this, and then I stumbled on a tip in the magazine Home Family Handyman (which, by the way, is total DIY homeowner porn, and if you’re still bothering to read all of my crap here you should be reading that). The tip said you could use hurricane ties — bent metal plates you can buy anywhere — to hold the rafters right on top of the framing, and not have to measure or cut notches at all.



12 hurricane ties: $11.76.
3 10 foot 2x4s: $9.48

After the rafters come purlins, which are just boards that go perpendicular to the rafters to support the roofing panels. I’ll skip this part because it was boring; I used lengths of 1x redwood I had left over from various other bits of the old shed and nailed them in mostly random places to the rafters.

Idiot on The Roof

Which brings us to the roof itself. Wavy metal roof panels come in several different lengths and are 26 1/4″ inches wide. For the length of the roof, front to back, I needed 12 feet of panel. I actually had some eight foot roof panels left over from roofing the barn a few years back, so I ended up buying a few more eight footers and a bunch of six footers. The 8s and 6s overlap by 2 feet to give me 12 feet. Easy peasy.

Width was somewhat more complicated. Math was required (darn it). I had a 10 foot wide roof span. The panels are 26 1/4″ wide, and overlap in the waves in increments of roughly 2 3/4″. I wanted to overhang the roof on either side by 6 inches. How many panels across would I need?

This actually seemed a lot harder when I was trying to figure it out a few months ago, and seems obvious now; five panels to cover the roof itself (width – overlap = ~2 feet; 10 / 2 = 5), plus one extra for the overhang.

Wavy metal roofing panels:
2 8-foot panels $28.50
6 6-foot panels $64.08

To attach the panels to the roof you also need wavy styrofoam filler strips that go between the panels and the purlins, and special sheet metal screws with rubber washers on them.

Filler Strips: $20.74
Screws (3 boxes): $13.29

And now, we roof. I roofed by flinging the panels up from the low side of the shed onto the rafters, and then by standing on a step ladder from the inside of the shed, arranging the panels into the right configuration and then screwing them into place onto the purlins. The last thing I wanted to do was actually climb on top of the roof, for two very important reasons:

  • Metal roof panels are slippery, and that roof is frickin high off the ground. Also, I have neglected to mention that the shed is built on top of the side of a hill, so if I slide off the roof I am not only going to fall eight feet off the shed itself, but down another ten feet into a thicket of poison oak and blackberries. Also, there are spiders there.
  • Framing without siding is NOT STABLE. It wiggles. You may remember from Part Two that I had trouble removing the roof from this shed because it listed queasily around from side to side. It did this a lot putting the roof back on, too, only this time I was up there with an electric drill, standing at the top of an unstable ladder, leaning out over the roof and trying not to be sick. Short of confronting a pack of angry bobcats on the top of a seven foot electric fence with a garden hose and I’ll get to that part in a bit, this was the most terrifying thing I have done all year.


I also occasionally had trouble lining up the screws with the purlins. Whoops.



When the roof was two-thirds done I was arranging the next set of panels on top of the rafters when I noticed something funny. I was going to be about eight inches short. I thought, well, I think I must have done the math wrong. And then I stared at the panels I had already put on for a while and realized that I had overlapped them all by three waves instead of two like I was supposed to.

Oh, crap.

So. I had one of two solutions:

  • Buy another row of roof panels to cover the eight-inch deficit.
  • Remove three rows of roof panels and overlap them correctly.

I went with Plan B, because emotional trauma is always better than spending more money, especially for a shed/chicken coop that was originally supposed to be free. The good news is that putting the panels down for the second time took much less effort, because at that point I was getting used to being terrified on top of a ladder. The bad news is that it took twice as many screws, because I had to cover all the holes I had drilled for the previous overlaps. This roof is very firmly attached to the shed. Very. Firmly. Attached.

The final roof: it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. Mostly I’m happy that its over.



How to Convert an Old Shed to a Chicken Coop in 45,732 Easy Steps (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two)

A number of years back the roller on a drawer broke in our old refrigerator. This wasn’t that big a deal; the fridge still worked, but it was kind of a pain that the drawer didn’t open easily. But since the fridge was old, and cranky, and used a lot of electricity, we decided to just go ahead and buy a new one. There was this one small problem: the space around our kitchen cabinets for the refrigerator was designed to fit the original fridge. Newer refrigerators were all going to be too tall.

Our next plan was to take out the cabinet above the refrigerator and replace it with a smaller cabinet, thus making the height of the space for the fridge bigger. This would be a huge pain in the ass but workable. I found the manufacturer of the cabinets, found a dealer, and discovered that manufacturer not only did not make cabinets in the same style as the ones we had, but they didn’t even come in the same color. So then the thought was well, we could remodel the kitchen and replace ALL the cabinets, and get new appliances and a new floor and hey! maybe we could bump out the wall a few feet and make the whole thing bigger!

And thus a $10 refrigerator drawer part dangerously came very close to spiraling into an unbelievably expensive construction project. This story is not unique. I often wonder how often large remodeling projects start from very minor fixes to existing problems. (For the record, we bought the smaller non-matching cabinet and a new fridge and put off the kitchen remodel to another time.)

I bring up this story because this is where my free shed turned not so free. Now that I had the shed in various parts on the ground I knew the extent of the rot and what I could use and what I had to throw out, and it was worse than I had originally thought. There was a lot of rot. There was a lot of building to be done. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a chicken coop, not a cottage, and the chickens really were not going to complain about my construction skills.

Foundation and Empire

The original base of the shed was made from 2×6 dimensional redwood (actually 2 inches by six inches planks, as opposed to the 1 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ trim we use today). The joists were held together by short chunks of wood on the long side toenailed in, like this:


This made the base less than sturdy. A number of the shorter chunks of wood had gone missing, and one joist had broken off on the end of the foundation altogether. So my first plan was to replace all those shorter boards with long end-boards, nailed straight to the ends of the joists in the way all foundations are made today, like this:


Cost of 2×6 x 10 foot pressure-treated end boards: $21.94

Cost of framing nails: $2.54

But before I built the foundation I had to come up with a plan for how to put the shed onto the ground. There are a variety of ways of doing this, from a full concrete pad to skids (6×6 or larger posts, laid on the ground), to just putting it down flat on the dirt (which I didn’t want to do). I settled on a compromise with these concrete blocks, called bond beam blocks. They have slots in them to fit (conveniently) 2-by lumber.


I dug small foundation holes, filled and tamped them with gravel, and set the blocks on top of that, levelling the blocks across the high and low points in the spot where I was going to put the coop (fortunately, it was already mostly level). The chickens helped by making sure that every hole I dug was rapidly filled in again, often before I could put a block into it, and by eating the gravel.

Cost of 8 blocks, and 6 bags of gravel: $28.36

Cost to replace stupid chickens that died from eating rocks: $0 (luckily, so far)

Then I built the foundation right on top of the blocks. A few of the joists were rotted on the ends, so I had to cut them a little short and nail on incredibly ugly but stable extensions I cut from the discarded long ends of the shed. “It’s a chicken coop,” I kept reminding myself.

I was rewarded for all my hard work with a torrential rainstorm that lasted more than a week. But despite the rain and the mud, it all remained level. I was pleased.


You may note from this picture my apparent inability to evenly space the joists across the width of the shed. There’s a reason for that; I was planning on reusing the original redwood planks for the shed floor, which were in good condition (and I had been careful when I pulled them up). The planks were all of specific lengths, so I spaced the joists to fit the planks. Setting the floor went quickly, and the foundation was done.

The Frame-Up

Next up was framing. I was planning on using most of the original frame, which was lying in chunks in my driveway, although I did have to replace some parts that were rotten, and I wanted to make the front door wider. I reused as much as I could, but I did buy more 2x4s to make the repairs.


Cost of many 2x4s: $22.36

Cost of more framing nails: $2.65

The astute reader will have already noted a problem I ran into at this point because of lack of foresight. The original shed was 10 feet by 7 ft 3 inches. That was with the shed foundation built with the short lengths of wood inside the joists. By replacing those short lengths with long boards on the ends of the joists I had widened the short side of the shed to 7 ft 6 inches. The frames of two sides of my shed were three inches too short.

The solution? I replaced the sole plates (bottom board) of all the framing with new 2x4s at the right length. For the tops, I added more unbelievably ugly nailed-in frame extensions.


I win no awards for construction talent, but I get a gold medal for kludgy hacks.

Engineering Technique, circa 3000BC

I put together all the framing in the driveway, on level pavement, on the other side of the house and the other side of the property from the chicken coop. My next problem was getting the completed framing sections up the driveway, past the house and the garage, around the corner, through a four-foot gate into the garden, and into the chicken pen.

Here’s where if I were smart I would have asked for help. Even the long sections of the shed would not have been that heavy to carry with two or three people, maneuvering them through the more complicated narrow parts of the path would have been much easier with help, and setting them upright and plumb would have been a piece of cake with someone to hold the walls in place.

But I got a notion into my head that this was going to be my chicken coop project, and I was going to do the entire thing myself, with my own two hands, and absolutely no one was going to help me. So why bother asking for help from one’s husband, or one’s neighbors, when I could pick up a wall and physically drag it the long way around the house over the lawn (once you get it moving it’s not too bad…) I could set it upright, carefully balanced on edge, and then painstakingly wiggle it through the narrow gate, a few inches at a time. And then through the garden I could just rotate it end to end to corner to corner over the raised beds and paths until it was in place on top of the foundation. Then I could tip it up and brace it mostly plumb with random bits of wood and bungie cords tied to the fence, and if I was really lucky I could manage to get it nailed securely down before it fell over on top of me.

I only really hurt myself twice doing this. But bull-headedness is its own reward.

(Continued in Part Four)

How to Convert an Old Shed to a Chicken Coop in 45,732 Easy Steps (Part One)

the brave little hen

About a year ago we went down the hill one afternoon to visit with our neighbor Greg. While we were there, Greg pointed out the improvements he had made to his house, taught us how to douse for water with two bits of coat hanger held in the hands, showed us the decrepit 5000-gallon redwood water tank he had been restoring, took us out in the woods to see the really awesome skeleton of a deer he had found, and noted offhandedly as we walked back that just the week before he had accidentally rolled his Jeep over the sharp edge of the trail and it had taken him a couple hours to get it hauled back up again.

We can never visit with Greg for less than half a day. Greg always has so many interesting stories to tell and so many things to show us, although a large portion of them scare the living daylights out of me. In past lives, I imagine Greg has been a pirate, a gunslinger, a flying ace, or a lion tamer. Greg operates at a very high RPM. Everything Greg says is emphatic. Greg is the number one living example of the power of positive thinking. “Did you get hurt rolling the Jeep?” I asked. “Oh no!” said Greg, cheerfully. “A little shook up, but it was fine! I just crawled out and went to get the winch!”

“Did the Jeep get badly damaged?”

“No more than any other time I’ve rolled it!”

Toward the end of the visit Greg pointed out a huge old shed he had down on the side of his driveway below the house. The shed was ugly and crammed full of boxes and paint cans and bits of metal. It smelled like kerosene. It looked like it was rotting away one side and not entirely water tight. The door was crooked and it didn’t shut all the way. “That shed has been here since I moved in!” Greg exclaimed as we passed by. “Someday I need to get rid of it! I could use the space!”

I looked back at the shed. Although the siding was rotting it was still standing upright. Behind all the junk, it looked like redwood. “You know,” I said. “If you could find a way to get the shed up to our house, I’d take it.”

“Really!” Greg exclaimed.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I need a bigger chicken coop.”

“Really!” Greg repeated. “That would be awesome! I’ll clean it out and see if I can get it up on a trailer!”

“Oh, no rush,” I said. “The chickens aren’t going anywhere.”

There’s kind of a a rule amongst chicken people that says once you get a couple of chickens you’re always going to want more chickens. If you’re not careful you end up collecting them, like seashells or interesting rocks or t-shirts with embarrassingly nerdy slogans on them (“Roses are red, violets are blue, all my base are belong to you“). I started five years ago with three chickens, which grew to five, and then suddenly like that I had ten hens that laid eight eggs a day and ate all the weeds in the vegetable garden (as well as many of the vegetables). By the time I found Greg’s shed I had built a second chicken pen in the barn, in which there were 45 fat and happy meat chickens I was raising to eat.

I had long ago crossed the line from just keeping chickens into being an actual chicken farmer. (It could be argued that I had not only crossed it, I had charged it with my vast army of undead warrior bears and scattered the enemy in terror before me.) But because I was insane, I really needed more space so that I could get more chickens. I figured it would take Greg a few months to get the shed together, which would give me time to get ready.

And then the very next morning I got a call from Neighbor Greg. “Hi!” said Greg. “I cleaned out the shed and put it on a trailer! I thought maybe I could bring it up to your place sometime this morning!”

Uhhhhh I thought. That was way faster than I expected. “Uhhh, well, you can bring the shed up,” I replied, “But I’m not really ready — ”

“OK! Open the gate and I’ll be there in an hour!”

I anxiously walked down the hill some time later and there was Greg, slowly climbing the driveway in his big truck and with the shed swaying way, way, up on top of a narrow trailer. Jesus, Greg’s Mexican friend who helps him out with odd jobs, was down on the ground on the windward side, holding onto the shed with a rope tied to the roof to keep it from tipping right off the trailer and crashing onto the ground. When they turned a corner the other way, Jesus ran over to the other side of the shed and picked up another rope.

Oh my God, I thought, backing away back up the hill, this is so totally not OSHA compliant.

The shed on top of the unstable trailer was ten feet off the ground, which was taller than a number of the low-hanging branches on my driveway, so progress up the road was slow and Greg had to climb on top of the roof shed to do some guerilla tree trimming. Sure! Climb up ten feet in the air on an unstable platform with a chainsaw in one hand! What could go wrong!

But Greg’s astonishing and apparently bottomless pool of good luck served him just fine, and no one lost a limb or was crushed into pulp on the shed’s trip up to my house, most of which I spent standing well off to one side peeking through my fingers and making worried squeaking noises. “So!” Greg proclaimed triumphantly. “Where do you want us to put it!”

“I’m not ready,” I insisted. “The road to the chicken yard isn’t clear, and I have to take down the fence to make a space large enough to get the shed into the yard. You’ll have to leave it here and come back.”

Greg was crestfallen, but he agreed to tuck the shed into a corner of the driveway, still on top of the trailer, and come back later when I was better prepared. With Jesus’s help, he tied the shed to a tree and braced it with random bits of wood he had in his truck. Braced and tied the shed looked stable, but if you were brave you could still put one hand out and rock it on the trailer tires. In a strong wind you could see it shivering in place, as if the holes in its decaying siding weren’t keeping it warm enough.

And there the shed would sit for more than nine months.

(Continued…in Part Two)