Grit Blogs > Lessons Learned From the Flock

Cold Snaps in the Coop – What to do?

Wendy E. N. ThomasThere’s some very cold weather in the Northeast these days and we are consistently getting dangerous temperatures that dip below zero. When it’s freezing like this, we make sure our kids have all the proper winter clothing on when they go outdoors (yes, even the hat that “ruins” your hair style) and we kick ourselves for not bringing in the mail which we had absently mindedly left on the car seat after getting it yesterday on our way to the store. Now we have to boot and coat-up to go outside in the cold just to find out what bills need to be paid.

Those of us with chickens can feel a bit of guilt during these cold snaps. The poor things, we think as we periodically check in on the coop hoping that we don’t find birds that have frozen to death. They must be absolutely miserable.

It’s this feeling sorry for them that causes a few chicken owners to even put heating lamps in their coops. They think they’re creating a spot, like Bob Cratchit’s candle where the chickens can come over and warm their feathers, if only for a little while.  It worked when they were chicks, they remind themselves, why wouldn’t it work now?

But it just doesn’t work that way. In the typical coop, a heating lamp does more to assuage the guilt of the owner than it does to keep the birds warm. A typical lamp using a 150watt bulb is simply no match for temps below zero. And with chickens being chickens, there is a good chance that the light will get moved. I’ve heard of more than one coop fire starting from a heating lamp that had fallen over.

Instead of the lamp, the more effective move would be to inspect the henhouse for cracks in the walls, if you can provide protection from the wind (while still allowing ventilation at the top) you’ll do more for your birds than any lamp ever could.

And while I’m wouldn’t say that the chickens have a great time in the extreme cold, they do well on their own. Chickens handle the cold because they are supremely designed to keep themselves warm.

Take a good look at your flock. Doesn’t it look like the birds are a little “fuller” than usual? That’s because the hens know to fluff up their feathers when it gets cold. By fluffing up, they are creating small air pockets that trap the heat from their body. It’s literally how a down coat works.

Some night, go out to your coop and place your hand between two roosting birds. When you feel the heat that is generated from their bodies, you’ll probably feel a little better about leaving your birds in the cold. Honestly, with our old house, I think that on some nights, our flock stays warmer than we do.   As long as your hens have plenty of roosting bars and can roost together, they will huddle next to each other creating the same heat of your very best down blanket. In extreme cold, because they already know what to do, your flock will be just fine.

There are a few flock health considerations to keep in mind when the temperatures drop:

  • Extreme cold can cause stress in a flock and with stress can come pecking behavior. Regularly inspect your flock to see if any birds have injuries or large amounts of skin exposed. Birds that have been compromised should be moved to a rehab area until they have healed.
  • Even with feathers, creating heat requires energy. When it gets very cold, consider supplementing your chicken’s diet with seeds and some suet for added fat.
  • Water freezes quickly, it is especially important during extreme cold to make sure your flock has a constant supply of water.

fluffed up chicken
A “fluffed-up” chicken who knows how to keep herself warm. 

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jeanernst
12/23/2013 1:27:59 PM

Hi Wendy -- I just needed to respond to this article. My husband and I have raised chickens for about 10 years now, and have always had light and heat in our coops. We live in northern Wisconsin where the winters can be long and brutal. I've seen chickens in coops in the wintertime without windows, without light supplement. They look dreadful! As far as the heat is concerned, we use a 250 watt heat lamp with a cage. It sits over the water fount and is more necessary to keep the water thawed than to heat the chickens. Most people we know that have chickens do not do this and their chickens get a drink of water possibly once a day, maybe. People actually think that eating snow is OK. We're aware of people with unheated coops that their chickens lose their combs, toes, and other body parts, as they slowly, cruelly, freeze to death. I've also been told that it is unusual to get hens to lay well in the winter. We have 24 hens that average 23 eggs a day! I think that goes a long way toward proving that we're doing something right. I just think that not providing for your animals year around is inhumane. If we didn't have heat in our coops, take tonight for example as it's going to get to 15 to 20 below, the water would be frozen solid and it would be below zero in the coops. With the heat, at least one side of the water fount is thawed at all times and the coop will probably be around 25 degrees in the morning. Now, that said, one has to monitor the situation. It should never get above 40 degrees and there should be vents near the top of the walls in the coops. If it gets too warm, it will be humid and wet and the hens will suffer from that. Bottom line, if you're going to have animals, it is your responsibility to protect and care for them, and folks, use some common sense!


annette engelbert
12/23/2013 9:38:33 AM

I agree with not heating the coop but while on the site from Grit the article on chicken coops suggest heaters in the coop. I guess the other article writer needs to read your article.


nebraska dave
2/8/2013 1:49:49 AM

Wendy, sounds like good advice to me. Our chicken houses were had very low ceilings which made cleaning a real pain in the back as you couldn't stand up straight inside the coop. It did keep the heat lower down to the roosts for the chickens. We also had screened windows with shutters that closed for winter and opened for summer. Have a great winter chicken care day.