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Winterizing Your Chickens

Will my chickens be warm enough in the winter? Sure, as long as they have a dry coop that is well ventilated and plenty of food and water to drink.

chicken walking in the snow

Photo: scpgt (Flickr)

Chickens tolerate average cold better than extreme heat if they have a dry coop and plenty of food and water.

As winter sets in, like most chicken owners, I’ve begun taking action to winterize my coop to make life easier for the birds and for me.

There are a few simple things you need to know, and after that, just relax and enjoy the sight of your colorful birds on the white, snowy ground.

A Dry Coop Is A Happy Coop

Dampness, not cold, is the enemy most of the time in your coop. This means you still have to have fresh air circulate in your coop even after you seal up all those cracks and places where the winter wind can creep in. A small wire-covered opening will do the trick while keeping predators out at night.

The birds have all those downy layers of feathers to trap heat in, but trapping the ammonia fumes from the droppings can hurt their lungs or even cause them to get sick.

Frostbite Hurts!

Depending on the breed of chicken, their combs and wattles can become frostbitten, which can be quite painful. Birds with large combs (usually breeds originating from a warmer place, such as Leghorns) are more susceptible to frostbitten combs and wattles. Birds with smaller combs and wattles usually sail through most weather just fine.

Again, humidity plays a role in frostbite, so keep things dry. Some folks try spreading Vaseline or another oil on the comb to prevent frostbite, but it has never worked for me.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on their feet and toes, which also can become frostbitten. (Happily, this doesn’t happen too often.)

Large-Buttercup-comb

Photo: Jana Wilson

A large comb, like this Buttercup's, is more susceptible to frostbite than smaller combs.

I remember the very first winter I had chickens.

I had to cancel a dinner party one freezing cold Sunday evening after going out in the afternoon and noticing that two of the hens with long, thin red combs were flinging blood from the frozen tips of their comb. I panicked and ran immediately to the hardware store for a heat lamp.

Which brings us to the next issue:

To Heat Or Not To Heat

Some say never heat the coop. Others heat at the slightest edge of cold.

I fall somewhere in the middle, tending toward only heating if it gets really cold. The cut-off point for me is 15 above zero and colder.

If you use a heating device, such as a heat lamp or ceramic bulb light, be sure to tie it securely to prevent it falling and causing a fire. Also, place it somewhere above your birds so they cannot snuggle into the light bulb. I’ve had birds with singed feathers more than once!

Eat, Drink And Be Merry

Chickens also need plenty of clean, fresh water at all times in the winter (as well as in the summer). I use plug-in heated dog dishes, which saves a lot of time instead of cracking the ice and adding warm water to the buckets twice a day in the coldest weather.

While the chickens may be fine in freezing temps, eggs can freeze, so be sure to gather them more than once a day.

Make sure your chickens have plenty of food to maintain their body weight in the cold. Extra feed, some cakes of suet filled with nuts or fruit or even plain cracked corn can give your birds a boost. You can throw a handful of corn in the coop in the evening, which helps turn over the bedding and gives the birds a carb-filled snack before hitting the roost.

Taking a few simple steps to prevent trouble and making a point of checking on the birds daily can help them make it through the winter in fine form.

Jana Wilson

Jana Wilson lives on 20 acres just outside of Bloomington, IN and writes her blog, The Armchair Homesteader. In addition to the chickens, she has ducks and a border collie named Winnie who helps her with her various efforts at becoming more self-sufficient.

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  • linda cavanaugh

    if the snow is to high, can they stay in the coop

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