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.

Watering Backyard Chickens – Winter Water

Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.

Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.

Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.

For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.

Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.

Let Electricity Do the Work

By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies.  They all work.

Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing.  Thermostats soften the electric bill.

A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs.

These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.

A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.

Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks.

It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.

Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens.

Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production.

Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.

If There’s No Electricity

Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable.

Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Take advantage of free heat from the sun.  Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
  2. Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
  3. Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink.   Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.

Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores.

They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake.

Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail.

Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid.

Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected.

Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.

Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof.

Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.

When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.

Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.

Ventilation in Chicken Coops: Water Is Essential, But Can It Be Harmful?

Ventilation in Chicken CoopsProviding clean, free choice water 24/7 is the most essential aspect of management when keeping your poultry healthy.

As those of us in cold climates know very well, it is a challenge to keep water liquid during harsh winter temperatures.

Poultry will actually need more water in the winter because of the dry air.

There are many options for you to choose including:

  • Hauling warm water multiple times a day and breaking ice
  • Heated buckets and waterers
  • Heated bases
  • Keeping the coop above freezing

All these solutions have their benefits and drawbacks. Keep in mind that anything involving electricity provides a potential cause for shock and fire. Be safe!

Can water be potentially harmful?

Yes. Water, in vapor form from breath, evaporation from wet litter and water sources can cause unsafe conditions inside your coop.

It seems counterproductive to have a well-ventilated coop when you are trying to keep it warm, but this is one reason airflow is important.

High humidity in the coop can cause condensation and a wet environment causing these potential problems:

  • Wet feathers that lose their ability to insulate; especially in fancy breeds (Silkies, Frizzles, etc)
  • Icing on perches, windows, electrical outlets
  • Frostbite on wet combs and wattles
  • A breeding ground for bacteria and microorganisms that can cause disease

How can you tell if you have this problem?

Check windows for ice accumulation on the inside, this is a sign that the humidity in your coop is high.

Also, check your birds’ feathers for ice accumulation and to see if they feel wet. Birds who are wet will be cold and more susceptible to sickness.

Brave the cold. Keep water where it belongs, fresh liquid in your birds’ waterers!

Read more about the importance of airflow and ventilation in chicken coops

Poultry Winter Care for Varying Climates

We all know the importance of preparedness for winter, especially for our feather friends, but sometimes that means different things to different regions of our country.

Winter can sure mean something else to a Minnesotan in comparison to a Texan, so read on (and reference our handy map!) to find the best winter readiness tips for your portion of the US.

Poultry Winter Care

Zone 1 – Coldest Region:

  • Heated waterers. Dehydration can happen (yes, even in winter) if your chickens don’t have an adequate water source.
  • Eliminate coop drafts. Plug cracks in walls or around windows with caulking or bits of fiberglass insulation that can be pushed into gaps with a screwdriver. Bits of cloth work in a pinch.
  • Avoid metal perches. (Think of your tongue to a metal pole on a cold day, same discomfort can apply to your chickens).
  • Keep feeders filled and treat the hens to some extra grain. Corn and scratch are low in protein but high in cold fighting energy. Chickens also eat more when it’s cold.
  • Put a coating of Vaseline on combs and wattles. These are the body parts most likely to be frostbitten. (Thinking ahead, consider buying breeds that have tiny pea combs, which are much less likely to freeze than breeds that sport large single combs.)
  • Warm the birds – slightly. There is an enormous difference between zero and 25 below zero.   It’s not necessary to make the coop warm but it is important to take the edge off extreme cold. Warming the interior of the coop to zero on very cold nights will help the birds come through the chill in good shape.
  • Coop ventilation. Obviously you want to prevent drafts in your coop, but a small vent in the top corner can help to keep air fresh in an otherwise tight, sealed up space.

Zone 2 – Middle Region:

  • Water source. Again, making sure your chickens have an adequate water supply that isn’t freezing is key to overall health and egg production.
  • Safe outdoor option. In this middle region of the country, you might consider outdoor options for your chickens during the day. A great consideration would also be an automated pop hole door set to a timer that allows your chickens that outdoor time during the day, while still keeping them safe and warm at night.
  • Back-up plan for power outages. Consider the possibility of loss of power due to ice storms or other weather conditions. Take extra precaution during these times to make sure your chickens still have access to water.

Zone 3 – Warmer Region:

  • Keep coop clean and dry. This is always an important consideration, but wintertime in the warmer regions might mean more moisture build-up, thus requiring a little extra care in the way of coop cleanliness.
  • Wind protection. Although the temperatures might not warrant extreme measures of protection, it is worth noting that wind and cooler temps can leave your ladies feeling a bit cold. So keeping an eye to the forecast and planning accordingly can help in coop comfort.
  • Chick preparation. The southern regions of the US will likely be receiving chicks much earlier than in the north, so planning for their arrival will be part of your winter checklist.

So remember, with a little foresight and planning, winter is sure to be a lot more comfortable this year for both you and your chickens. No matter where you’re located!

Chickens in Winter. Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet.

Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates.

Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons.

First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight.

This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once.

They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer.

The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.