When it comes to my flock and the weather, I tend to worry a lot more about the summer heat than I do about the winter cold. This might seem odd as temps where I live can be below freezing for almost half the year. But the reality is, chickens can do a pretty good job at staying warm. Staying cool, however, when the heat index is pushing triple digits, can be challenging.
Even in northern climates, your average backyard chicken can expire due to excessive heat.
So how hot is too hot?
I’m not sure that there is a specific number that I can share, regarding terminal heat levels. Interestingly, a chicken’s internal temperature is around 106 degrees – but that doesn’t mean an outdoor temperature of 106 is still safe. Just like us, their bodies are generating heat. A lower outdoor temperature is definitely desirable.
Also, one must also factor in humidity levels, wind conditions and things like insect pests that can add to a chicken’s stress level.
Can Baby Chicks Die From Heat?
For those of us who have raised chicks, we know just how critical brooder temperature is. Generally, the problem is trying to keep the chicks warm enough. However, excessive heat can be just as bad, which is why so much attention is given to the placement of the heat lamp.
Chicks are especially vulnerable to temperature as they have not yet developed the means of regulating body heat. If placed in a position where they are unable to cool off, a chick will expire very quickly!
In a situation of high heat, the amount of time that you have to help your chicks is a very small window. These tiny little birds are completely covered in down, which is a great insulator. Any heat that is generated will stay very close to their bodies.
For this reason, I use the ‘Perfect Brooder’ as the longer length allows more room for the birds to find the ‘sweet spot’ with regards to temperature. Chicks grow extremely fast, and the smaller the brooder, the harder it is to get away from that hot heat lamp.
How Do Chickens Regulate Heat?
Being mammals, we tend to think of sweating when it comes to being hot. But chickens don’t sweat. They handle high body heat in a completely different way.
Chickens regulate body heat through their combs and wattles. These fleshy appendages are essentially heat sinks for the birds.
You can think of combs and wattles operating like this:
As the chicken’s body generates more heat than is favorable, extra blood is pumped through the comb and wattle. These large pieces of skin that are attached to their head (generally red in color) do not have any kind of insulation – at least in the form of feathers, as is the case for the rest of the chicken’s body.
With the outdoor temperature being less than the chicken’s normal 106 degrees, heat loss occurs. This process of pumping extra blood through these fleshy radiators will continue until enough heat is bled off and the desired internal temperature is achieved.
Likewise, in the winter months, very little blood is being pumped through the combs and wattles as the outdoor temperatures would quickly rob your chicken of the heat needed to stay warm.
Now that we’ve established how combs and wattles work, it’s easy to understand how chickens can overheat. The more the outdoor temperature rises, the smaller the difference between a chicken’s normal body temp of 106 degrees and the outdoors – in other words, there is less cooling potential.
Consequently, the hotter is gets, the more blood has to be pumped for cooling. And the more a chicken’s body has to work at pumping blood, the more internal heat is generated – which in turn calls for even more blood to be pumped.
It’s a viscous cycle that if not properly addressed can cause your chicken to overheat.
### Important Note ###
Chicks don’t have combs and wattles. These fleshy heat dissipators won’t develop for a few weeks. Consequently, if you see your chicks panting from being too hot – act immediately! Get them out of the heat, put a fan on them, do whatever you need to do, just do it quickly as their small bodies are not yet equipped to manage things.
Chicks will expire far faster from heat than a mature and developed adult chicken.
Which Chicken Breeds Are Most At Risk From Overheating?
Today, there is an enormous range of chicken breeds to choose from. And each of these breeds has its own set of unique characteristics. Some breeds of chicken will do very well in a hot environment, while others may struggle to stay cool. Here are some general characteristics to look for.
- Weight – Fat birds may be good for eating, but generally the bigger the body, the more heat they generate.
- Coloring – As we all know, the color black tends to absorb heat. I can always count on my Australorps over heating before the rest of the flock as Australorps are all black. Even my Barred Rocks, which are a mixture of black and white, are able to tolerate heat better than the Australorps. This is not what I expected from a breed that originated in Australia.
- Feathers – All chickens have feathers but some breeds have a LOT more. The Cochin and Brahma breeds for example, have feathers all the way down to their feet. If you live in a very hot environment, it would probably be best to pick a breed that doesn’t have insulation on its legs.
- Comb and wattle size – Remember, body heat for a chicken is regulated by their combs and wattles. So it stands to reason that a chicken with a very small comb and wattle will have a harder time keeping cool than a chicken with a large comb and wattle. Buckeyes are a good example of this. The comb on a hen is very small, consequently it did not surprise me when I saw my girls panting earlier this summer.
### Important Note ###
While breeds such as the chunky Orpington or the small comb Buckeye might struggle a little during periods of high heat, they tend to do very well in colder weather. The Buckeye, for example, with its small comb is much less susceptible to frost bite than say the White Leghorn.
With all the options that are available, it’s important to choose a breed that has characteristics well suited for your specific environment.
The White Leghorn might have a tough time in my northern climate, but they’d do great in Texas!
A Chicken’s Age And Heat Stress
A chicken’s breed is not the only factor that has input on their ability to deal with heat. As mentioned above, chicks have very little they can do to regulate their body temperature. That ability will not be completely developed for a few months. But it’s not just the young birds that have problems.
A chicken with some mileage on them is sure to perform a little under prime. They might still have really big combs and wattles, but the blood might not flow through them like it used to. However, don’t be quick to assume that your bird is doomed. Each chicken is unique. You never know, but grandma hen might just have something to show those youngsters!
Signs Of Heat Stress In Chickens
There are a few signs that you may see indicating that your bird is struggling to stay cool. None of these are a written guarantee that heat stress is present. However, they are something that you, as their caretaker, should be mindful of.
- Panting – Nothing says hot like panting. It’s kind of weird to see your bird acting like a dog, but they will walk around with their mouths open if things are too hot for them. This is generally the first indicator of heat stress.
- Wings elevated – When really hot, chickens will walk around with their wings slightly lifted from their bodies. To put this in perspective, imagine wearing a really heavy coat and the weather suddenly turns warm. You will most likely open it up, and if really hot, flap the sides of it a few times in order to cool your torso. This is the same thing for your chicken.
I generally see this behavior after the panting – meaning the panting wasn’t enough to get rid of the internal heat.
- Lethargic birds – If your chickens are laying around and panting, then you could have a serious problem. This type of behavior usually happens as the heat stress becomes more advanced. You still have an opportunity to act, however you should recognize that your window to resolve things is getting smaller.
- Diarrhea – Raise chickens for any length of time and you’ll know what poo is supposed to look like. As disgusting as it sounds, you will recognize when something isn’t right. If you find messy stool in a run with lethargic panting birds, then understand that at least one of the members of your flock has advanced heat stress.
- Seizures – If your chicken is having seizures due to heat then you are just about out of time. This is a full blown emergency that requires immediate action!
### Important Note ###
Some people swear by the comb and wattle indicators. And in truth, a pale looking comb can be a sign of heat stress. But… it can also be the sign of a lot of other things as well. Consequently, I generally don’t give a lot of attention to the color of a comb or wattle. This isn’t because I don’t care, it’s just because I have a lot of birds to monitor and panting or wing lifting is a much more reliable tell of heat stress.
Ways To Prevent Heat Stress For Your Flock
Raising a flock of chickens requires different types of care at different times. Just like humans, baby birds are much more ‘hands on’ than their older brothers and sisters. So it’s good to know what is most critical for the chicken at the stage of development that it is in.
But even recognizing the different needs of a chicken at each stage of its life, there are three all-encompassing things that will help prevent heat stress in your flock; shade, breeze and fluids.
- Shade – This is one that I can not stress enough! If you keep your birds in direct sunlight all of the time, it’s going to cause problems when the temperature goes up. Even a little bit of shade can cause relief. Providing shade for your flock should be at the top of your priority list – even higher than fluids as fluids can be obtained through organics such as berries whereas shade is either present or it’s not.
- Breeze – Breeze is especially important for your indoor brooder. Chicks are generally kept in smaller areas as it is easier to maintain a specific temperature. However, if you are negligent in your monitoring, you can find that things have gotten too warm when you were not looking. With their limited ability to cope with heat, chicks can find themselves in a bad position very quickly, unable to escape.
- Fluids – I know that I said shade was the most important, however, that does not mean that fluids aren’t extremely critical. No matter what you are, a drink of cold water on a really hot day can do a lot for you. Chickens should always have a reliable supply of clean water to drink. And if at all possible, place this waterer in a shady place as hot water tends to grow things (think pond scum) that aren’t necessarily good for them.
### Important Note ###
It’s worth saying that these three things not only apply to your birds in their run or brooder, but to the temporary flock that is residing in the chicken tractor. I realize that chicken tractors are generally well ventilated, but a good one should absolutely have shade.
Our chicken tractor has a fairly large tarp over it providing considerable protection from the sun. That being said, even with the chicken tractor placed in the shade of a large tree, our birds required regular monitoring when the heat index hit triple digits. At one point, all of them were panting by mid-afternoon and this kept me tossing in cold grapes for them to swallow, as well as, ice cubes in the waterer.
Ways To Treat Heat Stress In Chickens
What’s that old saying, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’? Clearly, as caretakers we are going to work very hard to ensure that our birds stay healthy. But sometimes things just get away from us. Here are some ways to help your bird suffering from excessive heat.
- Cold treats – Ingesting something cold can go a long ways towards reducing body temperature. Personally, this has been my first ‘go to’ response when I see chickens panting or with their wings slightly elevated. Things like grapes, blueberries, watermelon or leftover corn on the cob is absolutely great for hot chickens – especially when these treats come straight out of the fridge.
- Cold water to drink – While I’ve never noticed chickens avoiding the lukewarm water that’s in the waterer at the end of a hot day, I have noticed chickens getting excited about a bowl of fresh cold water that I’ll bring out in the late afternoon. It might just be the fact this is something new to try. But regardless, the entire flock will gather around to take a drink of the new cold water. This is definitely good for them and for my peace of mind. This is also an appropriate treatment for birds that are panting or with wings slightly elevated.
- Electrolytes – This is something that can be very helpful for chickens in the advanced stages of heat stress – such as diarrhea or lethargy. There are all kinds of ‘home-made’ remedies that have been suggested for this, and I’m sure some of them are valid. However, it was recommended to me, by the local wildlife rehab center, to use Pedialyte. Dehydration is something they deal with constantly and they use Pedialyte not only for their mammals, but their raptors and ducks as well. Pedialyte for children is generally easily available for purchase.
- A cool dark place – If you have the means, then putting your over-heated chicken in a cool dark place will do wonders for them. Give them half a day of this, along with some Pedialyte water and you will be amazed at how well they can turn around. Just be careful how long you keep the bird away from the flock, as a single chicken is a stressed out chicken.
### Important Note ###
Some people recommend frozen treats as a way of cooling off. However, I avoid this practice. You have to remember that chickens don’t chew food – they only gulp. And if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed a piece of ice, you know how it can burn in your throat. For this reason, I only offer treats that are not frozen.
Also, there are some who recommend giving your chicken a cool bath of water. I would consider this only in extreme situations. Chickens and ducks are completely different animals. And for whatever reason, my chickens have always gone to great lengths to avoid the sprinkler. As to why this is, I can only speculate. However, if I know something can stress out my chicken, then generally try to avoid it.