Chickens actually do OK in the cold

This winter has taught me that chickens are hardier than I thought and they aren’t as birdbrained as I imagined.

The first time I really worried about them freezing was after the snowstorm and brutal cold spell between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had friends house/dog/chicken sit for us, and we weren’t expecting the subzero temperatures (minus 11 degrees at times).

Our chickens are barred rocks, a heritage breed that is well-known for cold-hardiness, and they’re sturdy little birds, but I was still concerned.

As we vacationed in balmy Hawaii, our chickens survived, huddled together, each standing on one leg like flamingoes. They have this method of switching out cold feet, pulling one leg up into their feathers to keep warm. When we came home, I noticed that only one of the chickens seemed slightly worse for wear, with a touch of frostbite on her comb. I started putting Vaseline on her blackened comb until the damaged part fell off and new bits grew back. But other than that, the chickens were fine.

I wondered at the chickens’ stupidity when I noticed some of them prefer to sleep on top of their little coop instead of inside with the others, keeping warm. At first, we tried to correct their idiocy. Every night, the chickens would all be tucked into the warm coop inside the fenced compound. And every night, some of them would wander out single file, like feathered zombies, and roost on top of the coop. In the morning, the rebels were covered with frost and the chickens that stayed put looked fluffy and warm.

One night, I decided to wait until the zombie chickens emerged in the middle of the night and put them back. All the books I have about chickens say that after the sun goes down, chickens enter a kind of “twilight state” and can’t really move or react. Uh-huh. Right. Not my zombie chickens.

I’ll skip the play-by-play and just say that I vastly underestimated the power of a zombie chicken’s reflexes. I ended up with a thrashing, bawking mess of wings erupting in my face and a fat lip courtesy of Little Jerry, the manly hen. I gave up and decided that if they wanted to freeze, that was their business. But they’ve been absolutely fine.

Some chicken owners swear by installing a heat lamp in a coop or insulating the walls during the wintertime. These methods can be useful in extreme situations, but they can create their own problems.

Insulating a coop too well can cause respiratory problems in chickens — it’s gross in there! There’s chicken manure in various stages of decomposition, creating gases. And without proper ventilation, chickens can get sick.

Honestly, we ran a lamp outside the coop for a few days here and there when it was frigid (and the chickens huddled around it gratefully), but it’s not necessary. The lamp is more about supplemental light, which you need if you want your chickens to keep producing eggs when the days get shorter. Their egg production is governed by light, not temperature.

Overall, it seems that a heat lamp inside a coop is more of a risk than a reward, because it can cause a fire.

After this winter, I think my chickens have a better chance of surviving cold than they do surviving a fire. They seem to be good at taking care of themselves, especially Little Jerry, with that right hook.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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