Cuckoo for coops: Tour offers glimpse of best, most creative housing for chickens

After spending 28 years as an educator, Diane Tompkinson is familiar with ways to try to keep a child’s attention.

After spending 28 years as an educator, Diane Tompkinson is familiar with ways to try to keep a child’s attention.

Visuals were always a stimulating method. Charismatic storytelling often did the trick.

When it comes to getting the attention of her chickens, however, Tompkinson doesn’t need to be so creative.

All she has to do is appear near her garden and chickens high-step it from all directions.

As she walks, the flock follows her and softly clucks.

They don’t seem to give a hoot about Missy or Charley, two dogs who are a constant presence.

“They make very nice sounds,” Tompkinson said. “I enjoy them. I like having them around.”

Tompkinson, who lives in Coupeville, has been raising chickens for 22 years.

She is one of six residents who have opened up their properties for the fifth annual Whidbey Island Chicken Coop Tour, which takes place 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 3, with stops from Oak Harbor to Clinton.

The self-guided tour is designed to give poultry enthusiasts an opportunity to learn about care and coop design for chickens, ducks and other fowl.

Tompkinson grew up around chickens on relatives’ farms and tinkered with them on a smaller scale at the start.

But it wasn’t until she raised 45 chickens on a large farm in Tenino when her wisdom in fowl grew immensely.

Retired and starting a new life in Coupeville following a divorce, she’s back in a familiar rural environment, in a new home she had built, surrounded by familiar feathered friends.

As an avid organic gardener, she relies on chickens about as much as they rely on her.

This time around, she has 35 chickens, including a month-old brood of chicks, with breeds ranging from Speckled Sussex to Cuckoo Marans.

“I like the companionship of chickens,” Tompkinson said. “I like the eggs and I like the fertilizer for gardening because I’m an organic gardener. So to me, it allows you to do that complete natural cycle where all the excess of the garden goes into the chickens. The chickens turn it into eggs and fertilizer. It goes back into the garden. It just keeps going around.”

Since she’s been at it awhile, Tompkinson said the heavy lifting of chicken care is outfitting a coop so it’s chicken ready.

The three coops on her property all had other purposes but were converted into coops. One she used for 10 years was a jumbo-sized doghouse.

Basic requirements included raising the coop off the ground, building a roost to nest, attaching a flat feeder, providing a water container (heated in the winter) and hanging a light.

The light is to maximize egg laying for hens, not as a source of heat.

“They have to have 17 hours of light (a day) to lay,” Tompkinson said. “You don’t want to have a bright light. It can be a 40-watt bulb.”

Tompkinson calls Harvey Ussery’s book, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock,” an essential resource to raising chickens.

It’s made raising them a little simpler at times, adding to her acumen that’s grown over the years.

She’s learned many tricks of the trade, taking special care in chicks that arrive through the mail.

It doesn’t take long for even chicks to recognize Tompkinson’s voice after the initial fear.

“Before I was just terrorizing them by talking to them,” Tompkinson said. “Now, they’re going, ‘Oh yeah, there are always good things when she talks. She must be OK.’

“They do get used to you.”