The chickens in Dr. James Harper’s yard are cooped up, all right–way up. Like 9 feet up, in a custom-made, hen high-rise perched on a slope in his yard.
Harper, who pastors a church in Douglasville, GA, didn’t start out to build a poultry penthouse, although it’s not uncommon for coops to be built safely out of the reach of potential predators. Harper’s coop soared, he admits, because he decided to “wing it” instead of following a plan.
“I’m not good at designing, but I’d recently done some framing around the house, and I figured I’d just start and see how (the coop) came out. I built the base waist-high, so I wouldn’t have to bend over as I worked.”
That idea was a back-saver, so Harper built the walls and the trusses for the roof the same way. Once he put everything together, he had a 9 foot tall structure. “I had to use a ladder to put on the roof,” he says. “But it’s strong. It’s built like a house.”
It’s a good-looking house, too, painted a cheerful red, with “Dad’s Chicks” lettered on the side in pink and blue.
Harper credits an experienced friend, Rex Shelnutt, for helping him learn about his new hobby. Still, the project didn’t get off the ground until Harper’s wife, Magan, and daughters Natalie, who’s 11, Isabella, 13, and Madeleine, 16, gifted him with chickens on Father’s Day.
“That was a smart thing to give somebody who procrastinates, because then they’re virtually guaranteed to build a coop.”
The project hatched after the Harpers found themselves with enough space after moving from Texas two years ago. Harper made sure local zoning laws favored fowl-keeping.
“I thought it would be neat for the girls to have an agricultural project, to get their hands dirty and do things city kids aren’t used to doing. It sounded like something fun to do with them.”
But the chickens ended up being Harper’s. “The girls don’t like going out to collect eggs, although they liked a little runt hen we named Lucy. We built a separate pen for her, and she’d jump in my arms to get away from the others. The girls loved her.”
Sadly, Lucy succumbed to a raccoon attack, and Harper had to beef up his efforts to deter them. “If we had a full enclosure, we’d be okay, but raccoons can dig under. I’ve had to bury my fencing 6 to 8″ in the ground to keep them out.”
Still, it’s been good for his daughters to see the cycle of life, Harper says. “When they were little, we lived in a valley California where there were a lot of fruit trees. We’d see the trees go dormant, then the fruit coming on, and then being picked. It’s important to see where your food comes from, and I want the girls to recognize the growers and farmers behind what we eat. Chickens help us connect with the earth that provides our food.”
Besides, Harper says, chickens are fascinating to watch and the fresh eggs are delicious. Currently he has 7 layers, and when we spoke, he was on his way to the post office to pick up ten more chicks. “They’re pretty birds, with all these different colors. I want to start trading for fun.”
So how do you top yourself, when your chickens live the high life? “I would really like to keep goats if I had time,” Harper says. “I’d milk them to make goat cheese.” He laughs. “But if i can’t get my girls to collect eggs, I’m pretty sure they won’t be interested in milking goats.”
Images: Magan Harper and James Harper
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