Keeping Your Chickens Healthy This Winter

As George R. R. Martin loves to remind us, “Winter is coming,” and now it is almost upon us. While other folks might be worrying about preparing for the holidays or making the most of their limited daylight, chicken owners have their own unique set of concerns about the health and productivity of their birds.

One of these, as always, is predation, which remains a threat to backyard flocks year-round, even as many predators go into hibernation or migrate to avoid the colder weather. There are many simple steps coop owners can take to protect their birds from the weather and maintain their productivity in the face of dwindling daylight, several of which will also help keep winter predators at bay. In addition to those, however, there are always a few more things the cautious chicken owner can do to make sure their chickens make it through the winter unscathed and uneaten. 

Install an automatic door on your chicken coop. An automatic coop door might seem like an unnecessary expense, but they’re worth their weight in gold once winter comes and the darkness starts setting in earlier and earlier. Getting the hens in by nightfall is probably the easiest and most important thing an owner can do to keep them safe from predators, and an automatic coop door is especially helpful in the winter. As a bonus, many automatic doors are light-sensitive, so they can adjust the hens’ bedtime with the changing hours of sunrise and sunset, regardless of when their owner gets off from work or back from the store. The one concern for people in wintery areas looking to outfit their coops with an automatic door is to make sure the motor and other hardware can withstand the inevitable freezing and icing that comes with high winds and subzero temperatures.

Clear the area around the chicken coop. Predators, especially ground predators, are masters of hide and seek, and the closer they can get to the chicken coop without being seen, the more likely they are to view it as a safe and regular source of food. Winter, unfortunately, increases these opportunities several times over, between the fallen leaves, accumulating snowdrifts, and growing piles of firewood and unused equipment. Keeping these handy hiding spots far away from the coop and trimming back high grasses, low-to-the-ground bushes, and overhanging tree limbs will all help encourage prowling predators to seek food and shelter someplace else, far away from your hens.    

Maintain protection from above. Anyone with an outdoor run knows that hawks and other birds of prey are one of the biggest threats to homegrown chicken flocks, even in winter – while some species of raptor migrate, others do not. Fortunately, stringing some chicken wire or hardware mesh over the top of the run is usually more than enough to keep the swooping predators at bay. This remains true in the winter; however, harsher weather and heavier precipitation – snow, hail, freezing rain – means this high-strung chicken wire is one of the coop’s most vulnerable defenses. Owners should check its impregnability regularly, especially after a particularly heavy storm or other weather event.

Keep your coop clear of snow and ice. The annual battle against ice dams is a long, cold, exhausting one. However, chicken coops present another, smaller front in the war. After all, ice dams on the chicken coop present all the usual risks of warping and leaking, which is just as unpleasant for your chickens as it is for you, in addition to the question of that warping and weakening presenting the perfect holes to allow weasels, snakes, and other predators into the coop. These holes are especially troublesome in the winter, when the coop is more appealing to intruders, not only an all-you-can-eat buffet, but also a warm shelter from the harsh weather outside.

Clean up after your hens. Most predators will be dealing with a decrease in food sources in winter, which will make not only your hens, but their leftovers significantly more appealing to hungry predators, especially rats and other small creatures to whom some leftover chicken feed would be a significant boost in their diet. Making a pass at the end of the day, or at least every few days, to clean up any food scraps, feed piles, etc. lying around the coop and especially the run will go a long way in discouraging these foragers from making a habit of dinning at the Chicken Coop Market, which would inevitably escalate into stealing eggs and maybe even chicks.

There are many reasons winter presents a special challenge for chicken owners, from decreased egg production to the risk of frostbite. Unfortunately, predation is just one of these challenges, and one that doesn’t go away the rest of the year, either. The good news is that a little prevention goes a long way, and there’s no reason that, with a little foresight and a healthy vigilance, your entire flock of hens shouldn’t emerge in the spring, happy, healthy, and fully intact, ready to keep laying, playing, and living a happy hen life. 

Caring for your flock in extreme cold

In extreme cold, measures can be taken to warm the coop

There’s cold…and then there’s extreme cold!

Generally well cared for chickens easily handle temperatures down to zero or a few degrees below. But once in a while the mercury drops to 20 or even 30 degrees below zero.   That’s extreme cold for both chickens and their human caretakers. When it gets that frosty chickens need special care.

Anyone living where the thermometer could plunge should stay tuned to weather forecasts. If subzero temperatures arrive a flock owner normally has a few days to prepare, and the following actions can help the birds survive in reasonable comfort:

  •  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.
  • 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.   

As a first line of defense, you can try sheeting off portions of the coop to make the overall space smaller and easier for the chickens to warm with their own body heat.

If you are confronted with extremely cold tempratures, your last resort may be to use brooder lights to warm the coop. A chick brooder heat bulb in a porcelain socket fixture positioned CAREFULLY in the coopwill reduce the chill… but be careful. Bulbs get very hot. Keep them away from anything combustible and the hens, which could get burned. Suspending the fixture from the ceiling and away from roosts and anything that could catch fire will warm the air.  NOTE: using heat lamps in your coop in the winter is usually not encouraged. However, some situations may call for this drastic measure.     

Coops lacking electricity present warming challenges, but filling a five gallon pail with hot water, covering it, and putting it in the coop can add a few degrees to the interior temperature without creating a fire or burning hazard.

Over most of the country normal weather winters come and go without extreme subzero temperatures, but when the mercury plunges it is important to take action to keep hens alive and healthy.