My chickens love being outside. I keep a light in the coop to welcome them inside during bad weather, when it gets dark early and the rain leaves the open-air chicken pens and runs in puddles. They’ll stand in a downpour, drenched to the down, and if I bring them inside the coop they’ll just go back outside again.
But they hate the snow.
Last night, a storm blew in unexpectedly, picking moisture up from Lake Tahoe and dumping it right in the center of Reno. Tree branches, which had not yet lost their leaves, snapped beneath the heavy, wet snow. Transformers blew and power lines went down all over the city, and I scraped pounds of white precipitation from the coop’s roof. This all happened after dark. My birds were safe and cozy inside their coop and didn’t realize anything had happened until they came outside the next morning.
The ducks were fine but the hens were not amused.
Squeaking and squawking, they stood within the door of the coop, glaring at me as if to say, “Really? No. I don’t think so.” As the snow melted the ducks meandered out to frolic in the growing puddles. The chickens stayed well under shelter.
But they were fine. Even the molting chickens found shelter.
Chickens have an amazing tolerance for cold, especially anything with “New England,” “English,” or “Icelandic” within the name. Their biggest danger is frostbite when precipitation hangs in the air and the temperatures drop very low. Though snow isn’t their favorite thing, it’s not dangerous as long as the chicken can move out of it.
I don’t have to worry much about my chickens today because all that snow is currently melting into deep puddles. Within the next few days, the puddles will dry a little and I can throw straw into the mud to give them a dry place to walk. If this occurred in January instead of November, where there’s a higher chance that the snow will stay for a few months, I’d need to plow a walkway for them and give them a few squash or other vegetables to keep them busy within their limited space.
What does a chicken coop need in preparation for snow and other cold weather? If you’re prepared ahead of time, you won’t be scrambling to help your chickens during a dense snowstorm.
A Draft-Free Coop: I don’t mean an airtight coop because air circulation is necessary to prevent frostbite and to remove ammonia. But there should be no drafts near where chickens sleep. In my homemade chicken coop, I have long windows, covered with hardware cloth, just above the level of the perches. When my chickens sit roost they can look outside. But when the cold weather approaches, I staple 6mil plastic over the windows except for a thin strip at the top.
Good Air Circulation: As I stated earlier, air circulation is necessary to prevent frostbite. When chickens excrete, the poo won’t freeze because of good insulation and the presence of warm, feathered bodies. The moisture rises to the level of the chickens. And if it can’t escape, it will cling to combs and feet when the temperature drops at night, causing frostbite. Roosters and hens with large combs are in greatest danger. You want that moisture to escape where it can do no damage. If you don’t have a functioning cupola to gather the humidity and release it outside, you can cover high windows except for the uppermost portion. Or you can drill two-inch holes in the walls at the very peak of the coop. Another option which helps keep humidity down is cleaning the bedding often or placing droppings boards beneath the roosting bars, so you can scrape the poo off each day and remove it from the coop.
Warm Bedding: It’s amazing how much warmer a coop stays if you just cover the floor with deep straw. I keep a bale handy for cold snaps. If the weather looks like it’ll turn nasty, I rake the old, poopy chicken bedding out into the chicken pens and runs where the chickens can use it to get above the cold ground. I then throw in at least six inches of deep, dry straw. Normally I just pull a flake from the bale and throw it in, not bothering to break up chunks, because the chickens enjoy doing that themselves. And the extra exertion adds more heat to the coop.
Fresh Water: This is essential for their health. If they don’t have enough water, egg production will drop and the chickens can’t regulate body temperature because much of their heat is provided during digestion. If your climate only reaches freezing temperatures at night, go out first thing in the morning with a full jug . Warm tap water quickly thaws a thin layer of ice. In colder climates, or in the thick and barren winter, try a heated chicken waterer or an electric fount base. Heep these away from combustible materials such as straw or coop walls. Setting electrical equipment on cinder blocks lowers fire danger while still keeping water within chickens’ reach. Put it just outside the coop so it doesn’t spill and add dangerous humidity. Be sure your birds can reach the water during daylight hours with little effort.
Dry Food and Grains: Part of a chicken’s heat-regulating system is digestion. A hen eats more in the winter, which raises her metabolism and helps create more heat. So she needs access to foods high in calories. Keep plenty of dry feed available and supplement with scratch grains. Throwing a handful of grain into fresh bedding keeps the birds occupied as they distribute the straw around the coop.
Something to Do: If your winters are long and heavy, the chickens could get bored and start picking at each other. Give them something else to pick at. Bore a hole through the center of a cabbage and hang it from a beam so your birds can push and chase the vegetable around. Give them foods which might require a little work, such as a whole pumpkin that they can peck apart to find the seeds. And though it’s not necessary to keep chicken pens and runs snow-free, covering it with a tarp or piece of plywood during storms will keep the inside much more welcoming for the birds to come out and play.
That’s the burning question, isn’t it? And I do mean “burning.” Because I know people who have lost chickens to coop fires in the midst of winter.
I am opposed to heated coops. When I first started keeping chickens, I hung a heat bulb high and away from any walls, bedding, or birds. I have since stopped that. I never felt quite right about it anyway and lost a lot of sleep as I trekked to the coop several times each night to ensure nothing got too hot. My chickens are fine as long as I close the drafts and use fresh bedding. They huddle together, forgetting their pecking order for a few cold nights then rekindling rivalries when the sun shines.
New chicken owners run to me each winter, concerned about how uncomfortable their babies are. They want to bring them inside or put a space heater out there. When I tell then to just close drafts and leave them out there, they argue.
Your chickens will be fine.
What about Chicken Sweaters?
I laughed the first time I saw the picture of chickens clad in bright red sweaters while walking in the snow. Now I groan each time a Facebook friend tags me in the same picture, insisting I make sweaters for my birds.
Chicken sweaters are a bad idea. I know, I know. They’re super cute. But they’re dangerous.
Not only is it a strangling hazard; it also keeps the chicken from regulating body heat naturally by fluffing feathers. A sweater holds humidity against the bird, rubs the sensitive skin and fragile new feathers of a molting hen, and harbors lice and mites. It makes it easier for hawks and owls to grab and keep their prey. And a rooster’s claws can get caught in a hen’s sweater as he tries to mate.
People have kept chickens in cold environments for thousands of years without electric heat or sweaters. They used the deep litter method, secure coops, fresh bedding, wide perches, and good ventilation in their chicken pens and runs to keep their birds warm. When it snowed, they gave the chickens a way to exercise while avoiding the white stuff. And just as their birds survived harsh winter after harsh winter, so can yours.