It seems that the weather is getting more extreme year to year, and hurricanes and tornadoes are popping up all over the place. We hear storm warnings all the time and they usually turn out to be nothing, but last summer we got hit with Hurricane Irene and I realized just how unprepared I was to handle severe weather when it came to protecting our backyard flock.
Here in Southeast Virginia, our biggest threat is hurricanes, but they often spawn tornadoes in their wake. The advice here goes for not only hurricanes and tornadoes, but also blizzards if you live in the northern climates.
We have our hurricane preparedness kit in the house with flashlights, batteries, canned food, bottled water, a battery-operated radio and such, but we really didn't have anything prepared when it came to the animals.
Flying debris, flooding and high winds that could blow your coop over are all concerns when a hurricane or tornado is predicted. Also not being able to get to the feed store for several days for feed because of blocked roads or power outages, injuries that may need to be taken care of and a lack of electricity to power your well are also of major concern. Plan now so if a storm is headed your way you will be ready.
We first heard the warnings that Hurricane Irene was changing course and heading right for us in the early evening last August. With visions of the opening scene from The Wizard of Oz running through my head, I ran down to the barn.
First, I let the chickens out of the coop and left all the windows open. Barn and coop windows and doors should be open during storms involving high winds to let the air flow through and hopefully not lift up the structure. Our coop is not very large or heavy and just stands on cement blocks so it could blow over or be lifted by heavy winds very easily.
(One note: conventional wisdom dictates that larger animals, horses, cows, etc. should be let free during storms because they have a better chance running loose than in stalls where they could be crushed if the barn collapses, but chickens are so small and light that they would blow away too easily, so barring a direct tornado hit to your 'bunker' they will be far safer 'cooped up' in a sturdy structure.)
I decided that the chickens would be safer for the time being out in the run/paddock area while I prepared a hurricane shelter for them. Since it was already getting dark, they immediately sought the high ground and roosted on top of the run fence.
I decided the safest place for them to weather the storm would be in the tack room of our barn. There is only one small window and the room is raised about a foot above ground level, so no worries of flooding. I put down a plastic tarp to try and keep the floor as clean as possible and then set up some temporary roosts for the chickens using wooden ladders.
I set out feed (enough for several days) and water and then filled as many buckets as I could find with fresh clean water in case we lost power to our well or I wasn't able to get back down for a day or so. I filled some tubs and baskets with straw and fake eggs so they would know where to lay their eggs.
I gathered all my first aid supplies and made sure they were handy in case of any injuries due to the unfamiliar surroundings. You want to be prepared for lacerations in case of a broken window or trampling due to panic.
One product I always keep on hand is Bach Rescue Remedy for Pets. It is a homeopathic liquid that eases stress and calms not only chickens, but also cats and dogs, in times of anxiety, illness or injury.
When everything was set up, I ushered our little flock to their new temporary quarters. By now it was dark and they were noticeably nervous with the wind starting to pick up considerably and it had already started raining.
They were understandably confused at first, but a fresh bale of straw kept them busy and their minds occupied.
I turned off the lights and shut the door securely, confident that they were as safe as they could be. The hurricane hit overnight and raged all the next day. The following evening I was able to safely get down to the barn during a lull in the wind and driving rain to check on things. I opened to tack room door to find quite a mess (we had the ducks to thank mainly for that!) but everyone was fine. And a few had even laid eggs in one of the baskets.
I refreshed feeders and waterers and tossed some sunflower seeds in the straw. I was worried about pecking issues with them all being in such a small space for a prolonged period of time so the sunflower seeds would keep them busy.
It ended up being two full days before I could safely let everyone out and back into their run. We suffered only minor damage and lost only two trees, so I was grateful for that. The tack room needed a thorough cleaning, but I was able to drag most of the mess outside on the tarp, which I hosed down and let dry in the sun.
After this experience, I know that I will be far more prepared in the future for impending weather. Here is my flock hurricane preparedness list:
1) Fully stocked first aid kit
2) Plastic tarps
3) Buckets and barrels filled with water
4) Feed to last at least a week
5) Several bales of straw
6) Treats including sunflower seeds and other things that can be scattered for them to find to keep them busy and prevent pecking issues
7) A safe, dry (preferably windowless) area - could be a garage, mud room, basement, barn stall, etc.
A lack of proper planning could result in losses or injury to your flock, so take some time to figure out what your storm preparedness plan might entail.