Expert Advice for Keeping Chickens in Winter

A seasoned chicken keeper from New England shares her tips for keeping chickens in winter and how to make your flock thrive.

| November/December 2016

  • Buff Orpington rooster and hen in snow-covered farm field in front of an old out-building in Higganum, Connecticut.
    Photo by Lynn Stone
  • Hand built chicken coop in a neighbor's wooded backyard in western Washington state.
    Photo by Janet Horton
  • Gritty does all he can to keep his chooks warm.
    Photo by Brad Anderson Illustration
  • Cuckoo Moran rooster takes to a perch in winter.
    Photo by Lynn M. Stone
  • Golden-laced Wyandotte hen and rooster standing in antique wooden wheelbarrow in an Iowa winter.
    Photo by Lynn Stone

Suddenly, it’s getting darker earlier, temperatures are beginning to dip, and the flock is starting to molt. Luckily for chickens, they are incredibly adaptable. Chickens are not mammals like us. They are birds. Because of this, their bodies’ interpret weather differently than we do. It is important when selecting flocks that we consider their hardiness in the winter climate. For New Englanders, this means keeping cold hardy breeds. Think of cold hardy breeds like wild birds that do not migrate to warmer climates during the winter. Like the wild birds, they stay put and overwinter. With proper care and management, over-wintering your chickens can be a success with a little bit of planning and proper preparation.

Feather Replacement

Chickens prepare themselves for winter by going through a molt each fall. If more than a year old, chickens will molt each fall to replace their body’s feathers with new ones. Like all birds, they rely on their feathers to keep warm. You might notice that some chickens have milder molts than others, and some chickens seem to lose all of their feathers at once.

The molt is very systematic. The feather loss begins at the top of their heads, then progresses to the chest, back, wings and finally the tail. Fall molts can start as early as August or as late as November. Every chicken molts on his or her own schedule during the fall. As your flock is molting, you may see a decrease in egg production or a complete halt. This is because feathers and eggs are predominantly protein. To help ease the stress of molting on their flock, some chicken keepers like to add vitamins and electrolytes to the water and supplement the chickens’ diets with protein-rich feed and treats during this time. There are also several commercial products on the market to add to their feed during molting. Dried mealworms and sunflower seeds are another great source of protein and make the perfect molting treats.

Tip: If you clip your chicken’s flight feathers to keep them in your yard, you will need to do it again after they molt. Those feathers will return anew.

Coop Prepping

When you start out raising chickens, two of the most important things to decide are where you will build your coop and how many chickens it will house. Consider caring for the flock during all four seasons, but especially winter (and summer). How accessible is the coop? How far away from the house is the coop? Will it be difficult to reach the flock in a snowstorm? It is also important to consider coop size. During periods of nice weather, chickens use their coop for really two reasons. The first is to sleep and the other to lay their eggs. Most chickens prefer to spend most of their days outside in the fresh air exploring. However, chickens will retreat to the coop during times of harsh weather, rainy days and snowy ones too. It is a good idea to allow 4 square feet of floor space per chicken in harsher climates. This way if the chickens must remain coop-bound by their choice or yours they have plenty of room and you can avoid overcrowding.

It is easy to prepare the chicken coop for winter. The most important thing during winter is that the coop provides shelter from the elements and is kept dry. Excess humidity in the chicken coop can kill your flock. It is also important that the coop is not drafty but has adequate ventilation to deal with moisture and the ammonia gases from the chicken droppings. Adding a shed vent in the eaves of your coop easily solves these issues.

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