Cold Snaps in the Coop – What to do?

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By Wendy E. N. Thomas | Feb 4, 2013

There’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.

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

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