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Keeping Chickens Warm in the Winter
Chickens were originally tropical birds, now domesticated and kept across the globe. As superb producers of meat and eggs, it's easy to understand why so many people rely on them. But if you happen to live in a climate that experiences heavy winters, special considerations must be made to protect your flock against the cold.
The extent of your preparations depends on the size of your chickens and the severity of the weather. Most average-sized chickens will be alright, even at temperatures below freezing, with a few basic steps. Chickens acclimate to cold well and are generally only in danger of frostbite on combs. But if you have smaller chickens or truly heinous winters, you're going to have some work to do.
Some chicken breeds are more cold-tolerant than others. Consider filling your flock with hardy birds less prone to frost bite. Some common cold-tolerant breeds include:
- Buff Orpington
- Plymouth Rock
Chickens are good at regulating their own body temperatures. If they're feeling chilly, they huddle together and their feathers and body heat protect each other. The big trouble is drafts- a windy coop is dangerous to birds and should be avoided at all costs. If you can, insulate the coop professionally. If you can't, you can create makeshift insulation through tree cover, or stack bales of straw along the walls. By keeping winter out, your coop will stay quite a bit warmer than the outside world, which your hens will surely appreciate.
Regarding ventilation: It is very important to keep the interior of the coop dry during winter. The last thing birds need is damp, cold air. Obviously, to prevent drafts, you will need to close any windows in the coop, but ventilation systems above roost height can be kept open. If you want to or need to close all sources of ventilation, change out the bedding and give the coop a chance to air out every day.
Protect Food and Water
In order to keep their temperatures up, chickens need to expend a lot of energy in the winter. Make sure they have access to plentiful food, and you may want to add corn to their diet for added internal heat. Also ensure that their water doesn't freeze over. You can do this by breaking up the ice manually, or by purchasing a water heater.
Chickens are most vulnerable in exposed areas like toes and combs. Frostbite can occur and is actually not the end of the world- it's unsightly and will be painful for a little while, but it will not kill the chicken. Still, nobody wants their chickens in unnecessary discomfort. Provide wooden roosts in winter instead of cold-conducive metal. Rub Vaseline on the chickens' combs during cold snaps to help protect them. Spreading extra straw and shavings in the coop can help them conserve heat when snuggling up fails.
Your chickens may still want access to their yard, so don't shut them up out of hand. Do make sure that they roost indoors at night- they need protection from those drafts!
Don't Use a Heat Lamp or Space Heater
I don't like the idea of using space heaters or heat lamps in a coop. Chickens flap around, roost, peck, and generally knock over anything not bolted down. Any kind of heater in a dry environment with shavings and straw sounds like a massive fire or burn hazard. The potential damage to chickens is not worth the risk of losing them in a fire. Also, having a major temperature difference inside and outside is far more dangerous than allowing your chickens to acclimate. All in all, it's better to let them adjust to the cold than to try to keep them warm.
Winter can be an anxious time for new chicken owners, but relax! If you follow these tips and apply some basic common sense, you and your flock will make it through winter healthy and intact.