Believe it or not, in most cases it’s more difficult to care for chickens during the blazing heat of summer than it is during winter. Unlike us, for the most part chickens seem to take winter in stride. However, during the intense summer heat, you may notice that your chickens eat less, drink more water, and lay fewer eggs. These are just a few of the things that can happen during soaring summer temperatures. Here we will focus on how chickens cool themselves, how to recognize heat stress, techniques to keep your backyard flock cool, summer nutritional needs, free-ranging tips, composting suggestions, and we’ll even touch on gardening with chickens.
How Do Chickens Keep Cool?
Chickens do best when the outside temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the optimal temperature for chicken health, egg laying, and brooding eggs and chicks.
Chickens maintain an internal body temperature of around 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Chickens maintain this body temperature using a few intrinsic techniques.
There are cold-hardy chicken breeds and heat-hardy chicken breeds. The biggest difference between the two is the size of their combs and wattles. Size does matter when it comes to combs and wattles, as this is one way that chickens regulate their body temperature. Larger combs and wattles allow the chicken to cool their body more readily. The combs and wattles help cool the blood. As blood flows through the comb and wattle, it is more closely exposed to the temperature of their environment. This technique works well for chickens, but what about those cold-hardy chickens with smaller combs and wattles? Chickens have a couple more cooling techniques.
Unlike us, chickens do not rely on sweating to cool their bodies. Instead, they use evaporation via their respiratory system. As water vapor from the chicken’s lungs and air sacs is exchanged into the air, the bird is able to cool itself. Humans evaporate sweat from our bodies to cool; chickens evaporate water from their respiratory system. When chickens are overheated, they begin to pant. This is often the first sign of heat stress. Panting not only increases the resting breathing rate but also the rate of water evaporation from their lungs. You might notice that because of this, chickens drink more on hot summer days.
It is important to realize that when the humidity level in the air is over 50 percent, it is more difficult for chickens to perform this cooling function because the atmosphere is already quite saturated with moisture.
Chickens also keep cool by holding their wings away from their bodies. The undersides of the wings are less feathered. Lifting the wings allows trapped heat to be readily released. Lifting the wings usually happens in conjunction with rapid panting. This can be a sign of worsening heat stress. Heat stress can be fatal if changes are not made to the flock’s environment.
Cooling the Flock
The good news is that it is not difficult to keep your flock cool and comfortable even on the hottest of summer days. One of the easiest ways is to provide shade. When selecting a spot for your chicken coop, keep in mind tree shade is not only beneficial to help keep the chicken area cool but also can offer some coverage from aerial predators. It is also a good idea to cover the run for shade too. If your run is not built covered, you can provide some degree of shade by simply draping a sheet or tarp over it. You will find that chickens tend to dust bathe in the summer in the cooler soil found in shady spots. Dust bathing can be cooling.
You will also notice that chickens prefer to spend their time outside the coop. Sometimes the coop can be hot. This is not optimal when it comes time to roost in the evening. It is a good idea to have a thermometer inside and outside of your coop, so you can keep an eye on the effectiveness of your cooling efforts.
To keep the coop cool, be sure there is adequate ventilation. Operational windows are an added bonus. In addition to good airflow, remove chicken droppings promptly, as they are a source of heat. A thinner layer of chicken bedding should be used in the summer compared to a thicker layer during winter. Circulating fans can also be added to help keep the flock cool. Plus they help keep flies and mosquitoes away.
Keep the yard foliage and grass around the coop from growing too high, as this can curtail good airflow. Short, trimmed grasses and plantings are best around the coop and run.
Misters in the backyard are also helpful. In addition, some chicken keepers add frozen jugs of water to the coop to help drop the temperature. Chickens can sometimes be found sitting surrounding these frozen bottles of water. Wading pools with ice and cool water are also great at helping to beat the heat.
You may notice that your flock eats less on those hot summer days. This is normal. During sweltering temperatures, chickens consume larger amounts of water. This is in an effort to keep cool. Chickens should always have generous amounts of clean, fresh drinking water. Adding vitamins and electrolytes to the drinking water can also be helpful for chickens during the heat. This helps them to rapidly replenish their internal stores. Some nipple varieties of chicken waterers are attached to coolers. Try adding some ice to the cooler’s water and keep it chilled all day long.
As chickens generally tend to eat less during the day, be sure to provide them with a quality commercial chicken feed. Probiotics and prebiotics can be helpful in maintaining your chickens’ digestive health. Keep in mind the simple of act of digestion generates heat. Feed your flock during the cooler times of the day, whether it is in the early morning or evening. In addition to providing commercial chicken feed, some like to treat their flock to fresh melons and treats from the garden. These all have varying degrees of water content and help to restore their bodies. Consider cutting back on feeding your flock scratch and cracked corn during extreme heat. These tend to have less nutritional value but still generate heat. Better nutritional choices during this time help to keep your flock healthy and their immune systems strong.
Sometimes, as chickens consume more water, you may notice that their manure becomes more watery. This is normal. Just be sure to distinguish watery manure from diarrhea. Diarrhea is an indication that something is wrong.
Free-ranging: Room to Roam
Chickens should not be overcrowded for a variety of reasons, but this is especially true during the summer heat. Free-ranging the flock can be beneficial, as the flock is able to choose where they are most comfortable as opposed to being confined in the coop and run. Supervised free-ranging is encouraged to help curtail attacks from predators.
The birds will utilize misting stations attached to garden hoses as well as hangout spots beneath shady plantings. Chickens tend to be less active during the intense heat of the day, preferring to seek out cool shady spots. It is important to let your birds rest. It is not the time to chase them around the yard or try to engage them.
Poultry predators are present year-round. Chickens can be attacked by aerial predators such as birds of prey or predators from the ground including fox, coyotes, raccoons, opossum, snakes, mink, weasels, fisher cats, and even neighborhood dogs. However, most people do not think of poultry mites, lice, worms, and even flies as predators.
Chickens are susceptible to a variety of chicken mites and lice. Their presence can peak during warmer temperatures. It is important to regularly inspect your flock for these blood-sucking insects. Infestations large enough can lead to anemia and even death. Inspect the coop’s roosts and nesting boxes too. If you discover poultry mites or lice, both the flock and the coop should be properly treated. Houseflies can also pose a danger called “fly-strike.” Keep the chicken area tidy and clean and minimize flies hanging around your flock.
Worming your chickens should never be done during the summertime heat, as it can be stressful for the flock. Worming is typically done in the spring or late summer or fall during non-molting periods. Prior to worming your flock, it is recommended to check their poop for worms by the veterinarian. You may find that your flock does not have worms at all, and you can skip worming them entirely.
Goodies from the Garden
Sharing extras from the garden is also a fun way to supplement your flock’s diet with vitamins and minerals. Pesticide-free grass clippings are a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids. Discarded beet tops, carrot tops, old broccoli, and cauliflower plants are also welcomed treats tossed whole into the run. Tomatoes and squash filled with bugs are simply an added bonus when it comes to treating your chickens.
Try planting a garden just for your flock around the coop. Chickens love to eat veggies, herbs, fruits, and berries. Whether you share a container garden or treats from your own garden, your flock will reap the benefits. I have plenty of tips on gardening with chickens on my website, Tilly's Nest, to help get you started.
Summertime is the best time to create wonderful compost from your chicken manure. Following the traditional 3 to 1 ratio of brown to green, chicken manure and pine shavings seem to create that perfect ratio. Chicken manure cannot be applied directly to the garden, but under the right conditions, can break down within three to six months of composting. Chicken manure composted from spring to summer adds an extra boost of nutrition to the garden and can even be applied in the fall for springtime planting.
When a chicken is unable to cool its body, and their internal temperature rises to around 115 degrees Fahrenheit, the chicken is in danger of perishing from the heat. Chickens severely stressed by heat will pant rapidly, their mouths are open, their wings are held away from the bodies, and they can even sometimes be found squatting on the ground.
Heat stress in the flock can be responsible for a decrease in egg laying, egg size, hatch rates, overall egg quality, as well as thin eggshells. As chicken eggs are almost 80 percent water, chickens will defer egg production in favor of efforts to cool their body through the evaporation process.
Melissa Caughey is the author of the award winning blog, Tilly’s Nest, and best-selling author of A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. She and her flock live on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Melissa regularly presents at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and writes for our publications. Her next book about chickens will be available this fall.