When the time comes that robins ascend upon our yards and chicks hatch right and left, it can be tempting to start bringing home just about any little fluff ball you see. However, it’s especially important for those of us that live in climates with colder winters to be aware of how cold-hardy our potential new chickens are. (And likewise, the opposite is true when picking out birds for a hotter climate.)
Growing up surrounded by chickens, I remember seeing some cases of frostbite when the combs would start to turn black after a winter cold spell. Things like that are never fun, and it can be challenging to know how to help your birds best. Of course, the longer you tend to a flock, the greater a chance that you’ll run into illnesses or injuries. But we want to do what we can to help prevent maladies and encourage good health in our birds.
If you live where freezing temperatures are often a part of the winter months, consider breeds that have certain attributes, such as:
- smaller combs & wattles, as this will allow for less exposed skin to succumb to frostbite.
- breeds with heavy feathering or a thick coat of feathers to help shield against the bitter winds. (Be careful if you also have hot summers, because some of the heavier-feathered chickens will also be more susceptible to overheating.)
- feathered feet or heads. Some chicken-keepers choose breeds that have feathered feet or a pompom of feathers on their heads instead of a comb (e.g., Silkies) as this can also help keep the bird warm and cut down on the chances of frostbite.
Some cold-hardy chickens to look for include Australorps, Chanteclers, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, Dominiques and Opringtons.
Winterizing Your Coop
I generally get a kick of motivation as autumn begins to wrap up and I can feel a little bite in the air each evening. I start cleaning up around the homestead, putting tools away that were used often during the warmer months, finishing any last little jobs outside and somewhat preparing for the promise of colder days.
Our coops should also benefit from these last-minute clean-up sessions as we run through a checklist to prepare them to function at their best for our flock. After all, even if you give them the option to free-range, chickens will likely spend a bit more time inside the coop during winter than they would during summer. From sealing up major drafts to adding a new layer of litter on the floor to cleaning out any waterers and feeders, there’s plenty we can do to help our chickens transition smoothly into winter.
If your coop tends to have several major drafts, make it a point to cover openings with boards (and even a layer of plastic if you can), caulk around any loose windows that might be about to come out, check the floor for any broken or weak spots, and repair any damaged nesting boxes or roosts. Look for loose nails or broken pieces of glass that could damage their feet.
While you’ll want to reduce as many of the drafts as possible, be careful that there’s still proper ventilation to avoid ammonia buildup from the droppings. Some drafts are OK so long as the birds have a way to get up off the floor when they roost and can warm themselves sufficiently.
To do a quick check of ammonia levels, bend down and put your face within 10 to 12 inches off the floor. If your eyes and nose start to burn, there’s already too much ammonia. If high levels are present, it can cause your chickens to quit eating and slow (if not halt) egg production, as well as cause serious health issues such as respiratory damage.
To help prevent this problem, it’s best to have good air movement and dry litter, as moisture, poor ventilation and a large quantity of birds in a confined area can all cause ammonia levels to rise. If there is an attached run, check it for any holes or openings. Look for debris or anything that could be harmful.
Consider wrapping the pen in a tarp or heavy plastic to help cut down on the amount of wind blowing through and offer a little more protection.
Summer can be difficult with the extreme heat and humidity at times. But winter is also a struggle for chickens when the wind picks up and temperatures drop. For this reason, it’s good to do a health check-up on your birds before the snow falls, as well as periodically throughout the year.
Regardless of the season, there are several things to look for.
- Behavior: Are your birds lethargic, withdrawn or depressed?
- Combs & wattles: They should be the appropriate pink (depending on age and rooster/hen), full and fleshy.
- Eyes: They should be bright and clear with no signs of discharge.
- Crop: Check for a sour crop by smelling the chicken’s breath. If it smells like rotten milk, it has a sour crop.
- Vent: This is where poop and eggs exit the body. It should be clean and moist, pink in color. Watch for mites.
- Legs & Feet: Look for any injuries or wounds. If found, watch for discharge from the area.
- Feathers: Check for mites or flies as well as major bare spots anywhere on the bird. Any birds with open wounds should be removed from the flock to prevent damaging pecking.
- Poop: Watch for worms. It’s also important to look for signs of blood (especially if the poop is runny) as it could indicate coccidiosis.
Sometimes there are simple fixes to whatever injury or ailment your chickens have run into. But other times (especially if a bird has failing health due to old age) it’s best to humanly put chickens down rather than let them struggle through the winter.
During the nights, chickens should be kept from sleeping on the floor of the brooder house if possible and trained to sleep on a roost or other elevated surface.
Oftentimes, if you enter the hen house at night you’ll find several of the birds clustered together asleep to help keep warm. They will fluff their feathers and settle in together, covering their feet and tucking in their heads.
While we humans must bundle up to venture outside, chickens can often adapt quite well to cold weather if given the proper tools.
While a properly functioning coop and plenty of fresh water and feed will likely be enough for your chickens to make it through the winter, sometimes during a particularly cold spell it’s helpful to try and make them a little more comfortable.
There are many opinions on the safety of using heat lamps. But if hung properly away from anything flammable and checked now and then, they can be helpful to warm your hens.
Implementing the deep-litter method in your coop will also allow more of a barrier between the floor of the coop and the outside elements, especially if your coop is elevated (like mine is).
Instead of the routine cleaning where the coop is emptied of all current dirty straw and debris, the deep-litter method allows you to leave the soiled bedding that is already there, turn it over and add new straw to it. The droppings and soiled bedding will decompose over time on the floor of the brooder house, naturally creating heat inside the coop.
Another benefit this method can offer to your chickens is that, as helpful microbes grow in the litter, they help your flock build immunity.
The nutrition of your flock is always important, and chickens will need greater quantities of protein provided during the winter months. For free-range chickens, their winter diet will generally be much less varied as greenery and plants will no longer be available. Even if they’re let outside to roam, brown, dead grass will be the main dish available.
One way to offer them more greenery is by sprouting grains ahead of time in your home and then feeding them gradually over a period (but before they start to mold or go bad). You can do this with grains like wheat or barley.
Providing safe kitchen scraps can supplement their diet and help keep your chickens from getting too bored. Before they go to roost in the evenings, a bit of scratch grains can be offered as a snack. As the birds digest it throughout the night, it will help warm them from the inside out.
Be careful of how much you feed, though, as scratch grains and cracked corn are full of carbohydrates. As you limit those treats, offer plenty of their regular feed around the clock so they can continue to feed if they want.
The term “stocking up” happens to be a favorite of mine. I love the feeling of a well-prepared home and full pantry. The same feeling also applies when I finish filling the storage containers with grain or feed for our outside animals.
Taking the time to make sure your inventories are well stocked will be beneficial not just in case of a price hike or a run on certain products, but for weather-related issues as well. You don’t have to prepare months in advance. But it’s good to get into the habit of having a least a week or two’s worth of feed in case the roads are icy, or you just aren’t able to make it into town.
I try to keep an adequate supply of our regular feed on hand. There are also several other things you might want to put in your cabinet:
- regular feed (grain, layer supplement, broiler supplement, etc.)
- scratch grain
- oyster shell or grit
- medicated chick starter
- bedding (pine shavings, straw, etc.)
- diatomaceous earth (DE)
- commonly used medications (including saline, wound-treatment spray and extra electrolytes)
- extra equipment (feeders, waterers, heated waterers, heat lamps, etc.)
While some of this (feed, bedding and some medication) you’ll need to continue to use and then replenish to avoid mold or degrading quality, items such as feeders, waterers and heat lamps can all be picked up at garage sales or farm auctions and stored in a shed until needed. If you patiently hit the sales and auctions around your local area (especially if you live near any rural areas), you’ll be able to find most things without having to purchase them for a higher price at the farm store.
Just this past summer, I went to a garage sale a few miles from home and was able to get a chick feeder, waterer, heat lamp and extra bulb for a small amount. If nothing else, consider it a little extra money you can put toward new chicks!
Read more: Watch out for bumblefoot in the flock.
Winter Ailments & Remedies
As the days get shorter and nights get colder, there are a few common ailments you might find popping up in your flock. Although you can do a thorough health check-up early in the season, sometimes the weather can take a toll on their bodies.
One of the more common problems to show up in the cold months, frostbite is most likely to affect any exposed skin or extremities such as the feet, combs and wattles. Frostbite occurs when the fluid in the cells becomes so cold that the cells freeze and die. This will eventually cause a change in both color and texture of the affected area.
If you believe a chicken has become a victim of frostbite, it’s best to move it to a warmer location and let the affected areas gradually warm up again. Don’t try to rub the areas or quickly warm them. Watch the rest of your flock closely in case others are suffering, too.
Some ways to prevent frostbite include:
- Apply petroleum jelly to the combs and wattles before your chickens roost at night
- Make sure the coop is dry and not too drafty
- Provide roosts or elevated surfaces for your flock to roost off the floor
- Use supplemental heat such as a heat lamp (although this can be a fire hazard if not used properly)
This is caused by a fungus that typically grows in warm, moist places (which might include feed or bedding). The spores travel by air and can affect multiple birds in a flock.
Birds can be even more susceptible to catching pneumonia if their immune system has been weakened after a spell of extremely cold weather or high levels of ammonia present in the coop.
One of the best ways to deal with pneumonia in your flock is to work hard on prevention. Keep the coop dry and clean with good ventilation. If the litter becomes wet and moldy, remove and replace it.
While it might seem like this is a more heat-related problem, it is extremely easy to run into the problem of waterers freezing solid (if they’re not heated waterers) and chickens being unable to drink. If your hens are unable to drink, they’ll eventually stop eating and then quit laying eggs.
If you’re unable to provide a heated waterer (or just don’t feel comfortable with the extra heat or electricity in your chicken coop), bear in mind that you’ll need to go out and break/refill their waterers more often.
Most common breeds of chickens are able to handle winter fine if properly cared for and in good health. Don’t overthink it and try to coddle them too much. They have warm, dense feather coats to keep them toasty. To keep your flock from getting too bored during the long, chilly days, offer a small amount of treats (such as sprouted grain) or scratch grain. This will not only give them something to peck at and digest, but it will entertain you as well to watch them!
Winter Emergency Kit
If any of your chickens has gotten too cold, there are some simple ways you can help warm them back up after the bite of winter.
Watch to see if the other birds are pecking at the ill one. Determine if it needs to be brought inside, whether because of the rest of the flock or just the extent of its chilliness.
If so, take it into a warm room and allow it to gradually reheat. Avoid putting any direct heat right onto it and give it plenty of time.
Offer water with some extra minerals or vitamins added to it. After this much trauma, it will have likely caused quite a bit of stress on the animal’s body. Be patient and try to do what you can to help replenish its natural reserves.
If you notice the comb, wattle or another area starting to show signs of frostbite and turn black, leave it alone. Don’t try to cut it away or pop any blisters.
Watch for signs of infection, and allow the dead skin to dry up and fall off. New skin should be waiting underneath.
Continue to monitor the rest of your flock for any signs of a cold core temperature or frostbite.
A few things that you might find handy to have on standby include:
- disposable gloves
- bandages and non-stick gauze
- a small, sharp pair of scissors and a pair of tweezers
- syringe or eye dropper
- petroleum jelly (to prevent frostbite on combs and wattles)
- wound care liquid that can be sprayed on open wounds or infections
- saline solution
- electrolytes (to help replenish a worn-down bird)
- cornstarch (to help stop bleeding of wounds)
- Epsom salt (which can be used multiple ways, including soaking foot infections, cleaning a vent or in case of an egg-bound hen)
- contact information for your local veterinarian or extension agents in case of a situation that feels a little overwhelming
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.