Keeping Chickens Cool in the Summer Swelter
Heat Can Kill
The ancestors of domestic chickens occupied the hot, humid jungles of Southeastern Asia, but modern chickens are better equipped to handle the cold of winter than the heat of summer. While chickens are perfectly happy even in bitter cold temperatures with no assistance from us to keep warm, they can quickly become stressed as temperatures rise in the summer. Depending on their breed and condition, chickens can start to feel heat stress at just 80ºF (About 27º C), and as temperatures climb, it only gets worse. Chickens that are able to gradually acclimate to higher temperatures and chickens bred for hotter climates will naturally handle the heat better, but if your weather abruptly changes from mild to sweltering or if you have heavier "cold hardy" breeds, you may need to intervene to save your chickens' lives, even if the temperatures aren't what would typically be considered "hot".
Know the Signs
Chickens who are suffering from overheating will show a variety of signs. It is important to observe your birds and intervene if you see any of the symptoms of heat stress or exhaustion on warm days.
- Panting with an open beak
- Wings drooping or hanging loosely at sides
- Uncharacteristic lethargy or loss of energy
- Watery and/or discolored stools
- Unusually pale combs and wattles
- Seizures or convulsions
Observe your chickens carefully, taking special care with hens who are in the nesting boxes trying to lay eggs, as the exertion of laying can easily push them past their temperature tolerance. If you observe a chicken is suffering symptoms of heat stress, exhaustion, or stroke, then it is time to intervene. Remove the chicken from the situation, and take the steps described in the section below to help it cool off.
Cool the Flock Down
So, you know that the heat is going to be a problem, now what? Here are some easy ways to keep your flock cool in the summer heat:
- Provide shade at all times of day, in all seasons. Even on mild days, birds can become stressed if there is no relief from direct sunlight.
- Make sure your birds have access to clean, fresh water at all times.
- Provide your flock with frozen treats like peas, corn, fruit, or even small pieces of cooked, frozen meat.
- Put ice or a bottle of frozen water in your chickens' waterer to keep their water cold on hot days.
- Place small, frozen water bottles in the nesting boxes during the heat of the day to prevent hens from progressing into heat stroke while laying eggs.
- Hose down a section of the run to cool down the soil and give chickens a soothing place to dustbathe.
- Run a hose with a mister attachment near the run to lower the temperature of their area.
- Provide chickens with shallow pans of water that they can stand in to cool their feet. As their feet cool off, so too will the rest of their body.
- Provide electrolytes in your chickens' water to prevent dehydration. Chicken electrolytes can be purchased at most farm and feed supply stores.
- Build a small hut or tent and run a hose with a mister on it. As water evaporates from the structure, it will cool the interior, giving chickens a retreat from the summer heat. These structures will be most effective in areas with low humidity, and should be allowed to dry out completely between uses in order to prevent pests or disease in the soil.
If you notice a chicken has already begun to succumb to heat exhaustion or stroke, immediately intervene. Hold the chicken gently and dip its legs and feet in cool water. Use your hands to apply water to the comb and wattles as well, being careful not to pour water into the chickens' beak or nostrils by mistake. Encourage the chicken to drink by touching the tip of its beak to water, but again: do not deliberately place water in the chickens' beak, as it may breathe the water by mistake and drown. In extreme cases, you may decide to bring the chicken indoors to recover in the AC, but this will usually not be necessary.
The More You Know...
As mentioned earlier, some breeds handle the heat better than others. If you are still in the planning stages of your flock or wish to improve upon your flock for the future, research heat-hardy breeds that will cope with you summers well, such as sumatras or leghorns, which were developed naturally in very hot climates. Additionally, try to purchase your new stock from sources close to your location, as these birds will be more likely to already be adapted to your local climate, although this is no guarantee.
Larger, heavier birds are the most likely to suffer from the heat, and meat birds are especially susceptible to heat stroke as a result. Lean, light breeds developed primarily for egg laying are less likely to suffer when the weather gets hot, but all breeds should be supervised in the summer to ensure they cope well with rising temperatures.
When using a hose or mister to keep your birds cool, remember to give the soil time to dry out completely after a day or so of use. This may mean you will have to have multiple locations in the run where you can cool your birds off, but by preventing any one area from remaining wet all of the time, you can reduce the risk of pests or disease gaining a foothold. Alternatively, using a hose with a misting attachment will reduce the risk of the soil remaining too wet for too long, as the mister will release a light spray of water that is designed to evaporate before it even reaches the ground.