Whether you’re getting baby chicks for the first time, or you are an experienced poultry keeper, when it comes time to add birds to your flock, thinking about your year-round climate increases your chances of success. While there are no hard-and-fast rules concerning which chickens will survive and thrive in a given area, there are breeds that are more suited for cold-tolerance, and other breeds that are better suited to regions with extreme heat.
During certain times of the year, even areas with moderate climates may have weather that is less than conducive to the health and well-being of your flock. Giving thought to some of these issues will certainly not hurt when you are making the decision of which breeds you want to raise.
Numerous books and websites offer advice on both cold and heat tolerances for different breeds of chickens. Researching a breed’s tolerance to both, before acquiring, is always a good thing to do. The only problem is the fact that terms like heat and cold can be very subjective. Ninety degrees Fahrenheit, anywhere, is hot; 120 degrees, such as can be experienced in many desert areas, gives a whole new meaning to the word hot. A breed that survives in 90-degree weather may not fare so well if the temperature rises another 20 or 30 degrees. The same is true for cold areas. Fifteen or 20 degrees Fahrenheit is definitely cold; 20 degrees, or more, below zero, begins to make the 15 or 20 above look and feel rather balmy.
Certain areas, such as the Central Valley of California, are generally considered very temperate climates. However, as anyone who has spent much time in the region can tell you, summer heat waves can be almost unbearable. While the summer heat may be good for developing sugar in fruit and wine grapes, it can be devastating to poultry flocks. During the years I lived in California, I lost Cochins, Rhode Island Reds, and even Mediterranean breeds (normally thought of as heat-tolerant) during Central Valley heat waves, and I’ve seen commercial flocks of White Leghorns have sizable mortality losses during the same periods.
Today I live in northwest Minnesota, a world away from California’s Central Valley. I still keep chickens, but now have an entirely new set of concerns each winter. Large combs and wattles can become frostbitten on the tips, or even freeze solid. While many birds can survive this horrible experience, it is painful and not something any poultry keeper wishes on his or her flock. Even more devastating are feet and shanks becoming frozen. This is not only painful for the birds, it is generally fatal. Once thawed, the frozen legs and feet actually decay and fall off, rendering the bird disabled. Even if the bird survives the infections that commonly set in, it often has to be euthanized, or simply gives up the will to live, and dies soon thereafter. Many publications and websites advise poultry owners to apply Vaseline or petroleum jelly to the combs, wattles, and even shanks to avoid freezing. This works to a point, but 20-below has a way of permeating through petroleum jelly, in very short order. One of the safer bets is to choose breeds that can live in and survive climatic extremes, if you live in an area that experiences them.
Lighter-weight breeds of chickens usually do better in the heat, compared to heavier-weight breeds. Birds do not have sweat glands, so they must use other methods to expel heat from their bodies. The first way is respiration. On hot days, you will notice chickens standing around with their beaks open, panting. They will often hold their wings away from the body, in a drooping position. If you give them a shallow dishpan or tub, with 6 to 8 inches of cool water in it, you will often see them standing in it, soaking their feet and cooling down that way. It is actually a rather humorous sight. You may also notice them taking a dust bath. All of these are normal actions in extreme heat.
They will also seek out shade. However, it is still good to keep an eye on them, several times a day if possible. Birds that are down and do not get up when approached may be suffering heat distress. Birds that are prostrate on the ground, unresponsive, panting, with eyes closed, even with water, shade, and air circulation all present, are obviously in extreme distress. Cold-water baths will sometimes revive them, and the bird may survive. However, egg production in hens, as well as fertility in breeding cocks, generally drops significantly, sometimes permanently, after such an experience.
If you live in areas that have extremely hot summers, you may want to think about concentrating on lighter-weight breeds, such as the Mediterranean classes of fowl. These include such breeds as Leghorns, Andalusians, Sicilian Buttercups, Minorcas, and Anconas. White Leghorns are the chickens generally used as commercial layers. They can also be a nice bird for the home flock. One drawback to any Mediterranean breed is the fact that they can be rather nervous and flighty. They often startle easily, especially White Leghorns. They generally need to be kept in a pen or run that has chicken wire or some other covering on the top, to prevent them from flying out and going places you don’t want them to go. Mediterranean breeds are generally prolific layers and lay white eggs.
These breeds (with some exception) have large, single combs. The comb is made up of heavily vascularized tissue and is another one of the bird’s cooling mechanisms. Arteries and veins crisscross each other in such a way that heat transfer continually occurs. A network of shunts opens and closes as the blood is pumped through the comb, giving time for heat transfer and escape to take place.
If you want breeds that are calmer and lay colors of eggs other than white, consider Australorps, Speckled Sussex, or Ameraucanas (Easter-egg chickens). All three do fairly well in both hot and cold weather. They are very hardy, good layers, and extremely gentle. Any of these three can easily be turned into pets, and if you don’t watch it, they might just follow you into the house if you leave the door open.
The Leghorn is one Mediterranean breed that also has standardized varieties, with smaller combs. There are Rose-comb White Leghorns, as well as well as Rose-comb Brown Leghorns. The Leghorn breed will do extremely well in cold weather, provided the combs and wattles do not freeze.
The three breeds previously mentioned — Australorps, Speckled Sussex, and Ameraucanas — are definitely winners when it comes to cold-weather survival. They are three of my favorites. Another one of my favorites is the heritage breed, Dominique. The Livestock Conservancy recognizes these little black-and-white barred birds as America’s first chicken breed. They were popular in Colonial times and moved west with the settlers. They are calm, good layers, and actually make good pets.
Other popular winter-hardy breeds are Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, Brahmas, Delawares, and Rhode Island Reds. Lesser-known breeds include the Russian Orloff, Chanteclers (developed in Canada and considered their national breed), and Java Fowl. Javas also do well in hot weather. The Java is not exactly rare, but is a very old breed that is unknown to many people. It has a place in poultry history, as many of the breeds we know and love today have Java parentage somewhere in their ancestral lineage. One other historic breed that makes a good choice for cold weather is the Dorking. A little larger bird, this bird’s ancestry goes all the way back to Roman times and was one of the fowls bred and kept centuries ago in England. Pilgrims likely kept Red Dorkings at Plimoth Plantation.
Many of the birds mentioned above, with some exceptions, have smaller combs and larger bodies that suit them well for the cold weather. The exceptions that have single combs include Dorkings, Australorps, and Orpingtons. Hens’ combs are generally small enough to avoid severe cold-weather damage, but the cockerels’ comb grows rather large and can be a candidate for frostbite. If you only keep hens, as many poultry keepers do these days, you shouldn’t have too many problems. If you are concerned about frostbite, some source of heat, such as an infrared heat bulb, may be beneficial on extremely cold nights. Just make sure it is secured well so it doesn’t fall or get knocked off, causing your chicken coop to catch fire.
In the event that you wind up with a breed not ideally suited to your climate, make sure you have a way to keep them sheltered from climate extremes. Using things like small box fans and shading material can help dispel heat, and precautions like heat bulbs in small coops can help in severe cold. Take care and enjoy your birds!
Find our complete guide to chickens, with 25 breeds and their characteristics.
Doug Ottinger writes from northwest Minnesota, in the ‘Land of the Frozen Chosen.’ He has 40-plus years experience keeping and raising various kinds of poultry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture, with an emphasis in poultry genetics and breeding. He has experience in commercial as well as small-scale hobby production.