words: Marla Cantrell
images: Marla Cantrell and courtesy Terri Burton
For years, Terri Burton, whose nickname is Chickie, raised flocks of free-range chickens, letting them have the run of her twenty-six-acre property in the tiny Figure Five community of Crawford County, Arkansas. But again, and again, Terri’s heart was broken. Red-tailed hawks and owls saw this place as a prime hunting ground, carrying off her chickens one by one. When they took a break, other predators like skunks and the occasional dog showed up.
It was just too much
So, Terri stopped raising chickens, a decision she reached with regret. She’d had so much fun picking out the different breeds: Buff Orpingtons with their golden feathers and sweet dispositions; the good-natured Black Australorps; the black and white Dominickers, their feathers as intricate as lacework.
One of her favorite things was seeing the chicks that were born when a hen from one breed mated with a rooster from another. “Those were some of the most beautiful chickens ever,” Terri says, wistful in the wake of that old memory.
Imagine how she felt, coming home from her teaching job at Van Buren High School, seeing a scruff of feathers strewn across the ground, all that was left of a chicken she adored. Imagine her counting the brood at night as they roosted, realizing some of them were missing.
She could have corralled her flock in a small space. Perhaps in a tight pen with a secure covering. But Terri couldn’t do it. She wanted happy chickens that got to explore and peck and scavenge for bugs. She wanted them to have the best life possible.
This is the spot in this story where Terri’s husband Mark shows up. He’s a crafty fellow, filled with ideas and the expertise to make them happen. Before working at the Van Buren Street Department, he owned Signature Pools. His experience installing pools, dealing with logistics, measurements, calculations, all paid off.
Already, he’d served as the contractor on the house he and Terri built. In 2017, he and Terri started researching a better way to raise chickens. They scoured the Internet, finding simple plans for mobile chicken coops, sometimes called tractors, that can be moved frequently to give birds access to new ground, and out of the path of predators. They also found tricked-out mobile coops that could be bought for thousands of dollars.
Mark opted to build a coop himself.
He didn’t draw up plans. He knew what Terri wanted, he knew what the chickens needed, and that was enough. Not that it was easy. Terri remembers Mark zoning out, lost in his thoughts, working out a problem he’d encountered while putting the coop together.
Mark worked for a couple of months on the coop last summer and picked it up again this spring. It is finished now, a ten-by-eighteen-foot wonder sitting in the meadow outside their home. The red and white contraption nearly sparkles, the sun glinting off its metal roof. Add a floor, and it might pass for an upscale tiny house.
As it is, it’s a palace for poultry.
On one end is the roost, with roosting bars all at the same height. “There really is a pecking order in the chicken world,” Mark says, “and if you stagger the bars, the chickens will fight to see who ends up on top. Put the bars at the same level, and it cuts down on some of that.”
The other end is lattice work, installed for decoration and stabilization. Mark estimates that the coop weighs approximately eight thousand pounds. He credits one of his friends, Buddy Clayton, owner of Buddy’s Welding, for helping him get the coop to work the way it should. With the heavy steel frame, it has to be moved by truck or tractor from spot to spot, giving the chickens new grazing areas. The moving is done at night when the birds are asleep, just to make sure none of them gets upset or injured. In the late afternoons, when both Mark and Terri are home, they’ll let the birds out to roam for a bit.
Some women want diamonds, but chickens are what do it for Terri.
The details are stunning. There are nesting boxes on each side of the roost, with wooden inserts that can be reconfigured for mama hens with little chicks that need to be watched over. Pulleys and levers raise doors, and there’s an emergency system in case Terri finds herself locked inside the coop.
The coop itself—think of it as the chicken’s patio—is floorless, so the birds are on grass during the day. But the floor of the roost, where the birds sleep, is solid and made of the same material kitchen cutting boards are, making clean-up easier. The floor is also sunken—imagine mid-century modern architecture—and is lined with bedding made of hemp, using the part that is similar to a stalk. Terri will regularly add hemp to the floor to control odors. When the floor fills up, removal will be simple: Mark will pull his tractor up to the roost, unhinge a panel, and sweep the hemp into a bin. It will then be used as compost.
While all the mechanical issues of this mobile coop are fascinating, what makes it even better is the story behind it. Mark points to one of the plexiglass windows. In the corner is a red sign that reads Custom built for Chickie. Summer of 2017.
“I messed that window up,” Mark says, “and that’s how I fixed it. I had that little sign made to cover the spot. And it took me longer than the summer of last year, but it was worth it.”
Terri is not within earshot. But later, she says, “I don’t know how much you can say about a chicken coop, and I’m not sure anyone will really think much of it, but I can say I’m a very blessed woman to have a husband who would do all that for me.”
Some women want diamonds, but chickens are what do it
And that’s why she was excited to spend months with a dog-eared catalog from Iowa, looking at the breeds she’d have once the coop was ready. That happened in early June, and now she’s wrangling Welsummers, Coco Marans, Buff Brahmas, Australorps, and several others.
In the past, when chicks arrived, the moment was bittersweet. The chicks were adorable, but there was a good chance they wouldn’t make it to old age. The owls prowled, hawks swooped, skunks sneaked in. But this time it’s different. The rolling coop is like a fortress. It might as well have a moat around it and a guard in the gate house.
That’s the real gift Mark gave her, the peace of mind to love her chickens without the dread of losing them. She smiles and Mark smiles with her. He doesn’t know exactly how much the coop costs—he stopped counting at five thousand dollars—but he does know that he’d do it all over again just to see Terri’s face as she gathers eggs or checks the roost after everyone’s in bed or shows a new chick to one of their eight grandkids who delight in the birds.
The chickens join the ranks of the Burtons’ menagerie: Ernie the dog; barn cats named Nestle and Copper; cows named Fern, Ella, Princess, Blossom, and Lashes. The list goes on, and so does life in Figure Five, where Chickie wanted a chicken coop, but instead, Mark built her a palace.