Anticipating Winter with Chickens

As summer’s heat transitions to fall’s balmy days and cool nights it’s time to think a few months ahead. January is on the way, and for much of the northern hemisphere that means blustery cold wind, ice, snow, and long dark nights.

Winter is a challenging time for both people and chickens. Humans prepare by bringing coats, long johns, mittens and hats out of storage, checking the furnace, and closing the home’s holes and gaps with weather-stripping and caulking. These tasks are important to do! And, remember the chickens, too.

Chickens evolved in the sultry jungles of Southeast Asia. It is amazing that these tropical animals survive icy winter cold and continue laying eggs as snow drifts pile up outside. Many common chicken breeds sport layers of fluffy down under their outer feathers. They keep hens toasty warm, and with proper care, chickens are likely more comfortable during winter than when the temperature and humidity zoom upward in July.

Anyone keeping chickens in an icy area should prioritize sticking with hearty breeds well suited to surviving cold. In general, large brown egg laying, fluffy feathered breeds, like Orpingtons, Brahmas, New Englanders (Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and Plymouth Rocks), Wyandottes and several others thrive in cold. Smaller white egg layers often have a large comb and sparse feathers and are less suited to life where winter’s chill takes the breath away. 

In summer a chicken’s comb acts like a radiator, giving off body heat and helping keep the hen cool. That’s helpful in July but is a January liability. Combs frostbite. The most winter hearty breeds have a small pea or rose comb that’s less likely to freeze than tall single combs.

Even the most winter hearty breeds need protection from winter’s chill.  Pleasant fall days are the perfect time to prepare the coop and chickens for the coming chill.  Here are several fall projects to keep the flock health through winter.

Electricity

Few items are as handy during winter as electricity. Electrically heated founts keep water liquid and eliminate the tedious chore of replacing frozen water buckets with fresh water.  Electricity also enables plugging a light into a timer so the birds have the 15 hours of daily light that stimulate laying. Set the timer so lights come on a few hours before the sun peeks over the horizon. Finally, having switch operated lights in the coop makes checking birds after dark easier than using a flashlight.

It may be convenient to stretch an extension cord from the house to the coop, but it’s not a good idea. Extension cords aren’t made for continual use and most aren’t built to withstand severe weather. Hiring an electrical company to run power to the coop may be the best investment a chicken owner ever makes, and it might not be too expensive.  

Cords will be safe, and fall is a great time to get this task done.

Killing Drafts

On sultry evenings chickens love sleeping as cool breezes flow over them. Windows on opposite sides of the coop help create cross ventilation. In winter summer’s breeze transforms into a draft wafting through the coop, threatening to frostbite vulnerable combs. To reduce drafts and let more light through soiled windows clean the  glass and close windows as the temperature drops.   

Nearly all coops have plenty of cracks between boards, at the edges of windows and doors, and where the roof joins the walls. An inexpensive caulking gun filled with a tube of silicone caulk quickly plugs cracks and holes. Caulking doesn’t usually work on wide cracks but expanding foam does. Caulking supplies are available in every hardware and home store. The chemicals work best when the temperature is above freezing.

Keeping Water Liquid

Chickens can’t drink ice. The biggest challenge flock owners have on arctic days is keeping water liquid. If the coop has electricity investing in a heated waterer solves the problem, but many coops lack power. The time-tested way to let the chickens enjoy a drink is to bring a fresh bucket of warm water to the coop and remove the frozen one every few hours. It works, but it is a labor-intensive chore. These days most people are at work or school and can’t make frequent water switches.

Insulation works. Chicken body heat will keep a well-insulated coop a few degrees warmer than outside temperatures, helping keep chickens comfortable and slowing the water freezing process.  Insulating the coop also keeps it cooler in summer. Fall is a great season to insulate a coop’s walls and ceiling.

Insulation also works with water containers. Some insulated waterers are made for chickens, but a re-purposed bait bucket may be less expensive and works just as well.   These are plastic buckets lined with Styrofoam and sold to anglers who want to keep their minnow water from freezing while they ice fish. Cut a small hole in the lid so the chickens can access water, fill the bucket with lukewarm water, and it will resist freezing for several hours longer than an un-insulated bucket. Insulated bait buckets can be purchased at stores that sell fishing gear.

Mice

Mice are one of nature’s craftiest animals. They sense that winter’s coming and seek comfortable warm places to overwinter. Spilled feed becomes nutritious mouse meals. Caulking holes and cracks helps exclude rodents, and fall is the perfect time to set up a trapline in and near the coop. 

Commonly available snap traps have been successfully catching mice for over a century and work perfectly in the technology age. Be sure to set them in places where children and chickens can’t access them. Mice tend to run next to walls, rather than cutting across open rooms. The most effective way to set snap traps is to place two or more together next to a wall with the trigger side close to the wall.  A dab of peanut butter on the trigger is irresistible to a hungry rodent. Often there are plenty of mice in a coop, so keep trapping until no more furry feed thieves are caught.

Avoid mouse poison. Mice sometimes eat a poison meal and die in inaccessible places where their decaying bodies stink. There’s also the scary possibility that chickens or children can access poison.  A final reason to avoid poison is the threat it poses to one of the greatest friends of chickens. As long as hens are securely locked in a tight coop each night owls will patrol outside.  Few animals are as efficient at catching mice and rats as these beautiful predators.  Sometimes a mouse will eat poison, stagger outside and be caught by an owl. The poison transfers and the helpful mouser either sickens or dies.  

Feed

When the temperature dips, chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers to most efficiently trap body heat and eating more. It takes energy to produce that heat, so always keep quality feed available to help keep the girls warm.

Heating the Coop

Chickens are tough birds. As long as they are draft protected and have plenty of food and water they’ll thrive even if the mercury drops to zero. Most parts of the United States rarely experience super cold, so heating the coop isn’t needed. But if the mercury falls to 20 or 30 below zero adding warmth could save chickens. Heating the coop to a balmy temperature isn’t needed but taking the edge off a super cold night will be appreciated by the hens. The same heat lamp used to brood chicks last spring will often raise a coop’s interior temperature from 10 or 20 below to a balmy zero.  

Be fire safe.  Most coops are flammable, so make sure any heat source is positioned away from combustibles.

Fall is a good season to be outdoors but it’s winter’s harbinger. It is the perfect time to winterize the coop so hens will be comfortable and keep laying even as blizzards rage outside.

Chickens & Snow!

Although chickens evolved as tropical birds enjoying Southeast Asia’s balmy weather, they have an amazing tolerance for cold. Inner feathers nearly as fluffy as goose down keeps them toasty during all but the most frigid temperatures.   

While chickens may not be bothered by cold, they don’t like snow! A comical activity is to open the coop door the morning after the season’s first snow and watch birds zoom outside, stand befuddled in the strange cold white fluff, and then rush back indoors!

Most people raising backyard flocks like their birds to have access to fresh air and room for outdoor exercise year round. Snow poses a problem, since few birds will venture out into a snowy run.

Fortunately there are several temporary and permanent ways to keep the run snow free, allowing the birds outdoor access no matter what the weather is.

A permanent solution is to cover the run with a roof.   Corrugated metal or fiberglass is relatively inexpensive and easier to install than a plywood/shingle roof. With sides of wire mesh and a simple but permanent roof overhead, chickens enjoy winter fresh air and outdoor exercise without having to walk on snow.  In addition, a roof provides cool summer shade and protection from aerial predators all year.

Temporary roofs also keep snow off the ground. Simply positioning a picnic table outside the pop hole creates a temporary roof.    Although it only keeps a small area snow free, the birds will enjoy being out of the snow underneath it.

Other temporary roofs can be as easy as spanning a sheet of plywood across two sawhorses positioned near the run’s door.  Wind easily rips plywood off the horses, so it helps to weight it down with a few well-placed rocks or cinder blocks. Temporary roofs also protect against overhead predators and are easy to remove in the spring.

A final way to keep runs snow free is to wield a snow shovel. It is work and using “elbow grease” takes only a few minutes to clear a small space. Your chickens will appreciate the effort.