Right now, my newest flock is encountering winter for their first time. And for the record, they don’t like it! Even with their food outside (right where it’s always been), they are refusing to leave the coop. Apparently, they would rather go hungry than walk through a couple inches of snow to get something to eat. Unfortunately, where we live, there are more months of shoveling snow than mowing the grass.
It’s going to be a tough winter for this flock!
Fortunately, despite the fact that the water dish has been freezing over four times a day, my hens are not showing signs of cold. They have a definite disdain for the feel of snow on their legs and feet, but the temperature doesn’t seem to be an issue. And this does not surprise me.
A fully feathered mature chicken of the right breed can sustain the prolonged freezing temperatures of northern climates without supplemental heat.
For the record though, chickens are not immortal and there are some things that you will have to provide them in order for them to get through the winter. However, a source of heat should not be one of those things. So long as your chicken is a ‘cold hardy’ breed, then they should be able to maintain their own body temperature with adequate food and water.
Can Chickens Stay Outside In The Winter?
Our flocks have primarily been free-range birds. We do this because we like the idea of them being able to come and go as they please. And during the summer time, everyone seems to make the most of it. It’s not uncommon for me to let the birds out in the morning and not see them again until dusk.
However, once the snow starts to fall, so do the extended adventures away from the coop. It’s not the cold or the frozen ground that stops them, but rather the snow.
A chicken’s anatomy is less than ideal for snow and for this reason, care must be taken for the flock that ventures outside in the winter.
Their skinny clawed feet offer very little surface area. Consequently, they sink…at least until the snow hits their body. As domesticated chickens are generally more round than tall (fat), the birds can be quite easily stranded in even as little as six inches of snow, as their feet can’t find anything to push off of. This is a very bad situation for a chicken to be in!
Not only will the bird be unable to flee predators, but it will not be able to get food…water…or out of the wind.
For this reason, it’s good to keep a close eye on your flock as they venture out into snowy conditions.
With our flocks, I will clear paths from the coop out to various low branched pine trees. This way the chickens can get outside, even if it’s just to hang out under a tree. I also set up bales of straw around some of the sizable bushes as this provides them yet another way to pass the winter months.
When To Use A Heat Lamp For Chickens
The impulse to provide your flock with heat is completely understandable. After all, heat plays such a critical role in their rearing as chicks. Without adequate temperatures, starting at 90 degrees, the young birds will expire. And as this is ingrained in you, as you care for the cute little fuzzballs, it’s no wonder that a person would begin to worry as the outdoor temperatures start to approach freezing.
So when do you offer your flock supplemental heat?
It all depends on their feathers. Any chicken that isn’t fully feathered, most especially fuzzy baby chicks, will need a source of heat in order to maintain body temperature. Their feathers are their protective clothing. Without them, they are exposed.
To really get a grip on this, think of the Alaskan Malamute. This breed of dog can pull a sled across ice in sub-freezing temperatures, and have a really good time doing it. They love to play in the snow. However, without a full coat of fur, they would quickly loose their body heat and start to shiver.
This is the concept for your ‘cold hardy’ breed of chicken. A fully feathered bird will be able to trap the warm air around their body, enabling them to stay warm. However, should there be a hole in their protective ‘coat’, they will quickly loose heat. And the bigger the bald spot, the more body heat they will loose.
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Another situation where you might want to consider giving your chicken access to heat, would be for injury or sickness. In this manner, their bodies don’t have to expend so much energy on staying warm and can use this saved energy to work on getting better.
Can Chickens Freeze To Death?
While chickens do a very good job of keeping themselves warm, it is critical that you provide a place that is dry and out of the wind. A wet chicken in the winter time is a bad deal. A wet chicken in the freezing wind is a disaster.
Without some form of modest protection against the elements, even the hardiest of chickens can freeze to death. For this reason, a flock owner must take a proactive approach against the onslaught of the winter’s cold.
As mentioned above, a chicken will need a place that is out of the direct wind. Be careful not to make things air tight, though, as this will retain the negative aspects of their waste – namely ammonia. However, as long as you have provided some form of ventilation, feel free to build as much of a wind block as you can. For our main coop, we block off all but a few inches of the window on the windy side of the structure. The window on the sheltered side will remain open, as this helps with evacuation of the ammonia, but the amount of air going through is significantly reduced.
Another critical part of our winter care is by giving the birds ample amounts of straw. This acts as a sort of dry towel for them to burrow into.
For the record, it’s not usually their feathered parts that are the issue, but rather the parts of the chicken that don’t have feathers; mainly their legs and feet. These are the parts that are coming into direct contact with ice and snow. And without the feathers to insulate things, moisture quickly builds up on their bare skin which only serves to dissipate body heat even faster.
Chicken’s Water In Winter
While it’s obvious that your birds are going to need lots of calories to stay warm, an often overlooked aspect of winter care is water.
A chicken’s body is going to work hard to maintain temperature and as such is going to need a good supply of fluid. Otherwise, your flock will run the very real risk of becoming dehydrated, despite the fact of being surrounded by snow.
While the method of supplying water is not fixed, the need to provide a chicken with drinkable water in the winter is absolute.
Whether it’s a heated waterer that requires electricity or simply repeated trips out to the coop to replace the frozen water – you need to provide your flock with a reliable source of H2O. To not do this responsibly is to put your birds at risk.
Raising a flock of chickens in the northern winters is not without its challenges. It’s not impossible, but there is a learning curve; both for you and for the chickens. Much like raising a new batch of chicks where you need to show them ‘this is food, this is water’, it’s not unusual to show the new flock ‘go here to stay warm’.
For our newest chickens, I allowed the birds to stay inside the coop on the first day of snow. It’s a new thing for the girls and I can relate to their hesitation. Call me a ‘soft sap’ but I even provided them with a little food and water inside the coop, just to make it easy on them.
However, on the second day, I had to clean the coop out as the poo has accumulated over the last 36 hours. Consequently, the flock was evicted as I cleaned things up. I can tell you that my actions in forcing them out were not appreciated.
The birds flew out and landed in the middle of the run, where they promply sat and grumbled in protest.
Now here is where being their caretaker comes into play.
After finishing with the coop, I returned to the house and waited. Honestly, I was not surprised, when after an hour, the birds had not moved from the spot where they had landed (after being forcibly vacated).
Not only were they at risk from predators (being completely out in the open), but with the windchill being in the teens, the birds were at risk from the cold. Seeing this, I returned with a broom to gently ‘shoosh’ them towards the closest bush that I had surrounded with bales of straw.
All but one of the chickens got the hint and waddled their way over towards the dry haven. Fatty Patty, one of our Easter Eggers, didn’t take the hint, choosing instead to wait for me to pick her up and carry her over to the rest of the flock.
It’s been a few days since then, but the girls are starting to get the routine. Point of fact, this morning was the first morning they decided to come out of the coop on their own – and that’s a HUGE first step. There are plenty of paths swept clean for the birds to wander. And the snow isn’t yet deep enough to leave them stranded. I just need to establish the right behavior and they’ll be good for the cold months that are certain to come.