How to Care for Chickens in the Winter

Winter’s almost here. It’s going to be your first with chickens, and you’re wondering how you should care for them. Should you bring them inside? Buy a heat lamp? Learn to knit a chicken sweater on YouTube?

Before you jump over to YouTube, know that you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) do any of those things. Your chickens are able to handle the cold much better than they can handle the heat, and they’re naturally able to adapt to seasonal changes.

Chickens Can Stay Outside

Chickens can stay outside in the winter because they have great instincts and abilities to fend off the cold. What they do is insulate themselves from the cold using their feathers. When they feel cold, they’ll ruffle their feathers to create a blanket that’ll help them trap body heat.

You know they’re trying to stay warm when they appear all puffed up. You may even see them standing on one leg, tucking the other inside the “blanket” so that they can reduce the amount of heat loss.

A chicken sweater, although cute, is unnecessary. It’d be like wearing a sweater over another sweater. It may also confuse the chickens and disrupt their natural ability to self-regulate as the temperature changes.

The best thing you can do is help their bodies generate heat. You may notice that your chickens eat more in the winter than in the summer, not unlike us humans actually! When chickens digest food, they generate a ton of heat. It’s a good idea to feed them some high-energy scratch before bedtime so that they can digest the grains and keep warm throughout the winter night.

How Cold Is Too Cold?

Surely, chickens can’t stay outside if it gets too cold, right? What if temperatures drop to freezing? Surely, nobody can survive those temperatures, right?

Well, it depends on the breed. Generally speaking, when given the chance to acclimate, chickens can tolerate temperatures of 10°F (-12°C) or lower. And some breeds such as Australorp, Buckeye, Chantecler, Cochin, Orpington, or Plymouth Rock are more winter-hardy than others. They have thick, downy feathers that help them get through extreme winters no problem, be it Alaskan or Canadian winters where the temperature routinely dips many degrees below zero.

As we’ve said, chickens do well in the cold!

Say No to Heat Lamps

There are a couple of major reasons why you shouldn’t put a heat lamp (or space heater for that matter) in the coop. The first is that it affects your chickens’ ability to acclimate. Their bodies get confused – they wonder, why is it so warm in here and so cold out there? And that makes them vulnerable because they don’t know how to adapt.

The second reason has to do with safety. We’ve heard countless stories where chickens knock into or peck at heat lamps and space heaters, or how they’re installed incorrectly, and either the chickens electrocute themselves or start a fire.

Instead, “spot heating” with a flat-panel heater – just above where the chickens roost – is not a bad idea. It’s a safer option and you won’t heat up the whole coop. If you’re not entirely convinced that your chickens don’t need artificial heat, and you would like to provide them with a bit of warmth just in case, choose flat-panel heaters.

The important thing to remember is to avoid creating a huge contrast between inside and outside temperatures. Monitor the temperatures, and never raise temperatures inside the coop more than a few degrees.

How to Winterize a Coop

While your chickens can spend the winter outside, their well-being still depends on having a safe, winterized coop. Here are the things you should do to winterize a chicken coop:

  • Minimize draft. Any windows, openings, or gaps that would cause wind to blow into the coop should be closed off. This is important because wind can pass through the feathers of your chickens and take away all the heat that they’ve trapped underneath the “blanket” to keep themselves warm. Draft does your chickens a huge disservice!
  • Provide ventilation. Despite closing off the coop, it’s still important to have some openings that provide ventilation to keep moisture out. It’s a good idea to place vents in the roof. That way moisture can escape through the top and the wind won’t blow directly on your chickens. Ventilation is important because moisture buildup – caused by droppings and respiration – can cause frostbite. Besides, chickens need fresh air.
  • Insulate the coop. Stacking straw bales around the exterior of the coop (not interior because mold can form) is an excellent way to provide insulation. This easy and effective way to add warmth is another reason why heating the coop is unnecessary.
  • Change bedding often. As your chickens will be spending more time in the coop during the winter, bedding should be changed often to prevent moisture buildup.
  • Offer flat perches. Chicken owners in Alaska have found that round perches were causing their chickens to lose their toes due to loss of circulation and frostbite. If you currently have a round perch in the coop, replace it with something flat, like a 2×2 or 2×4 piece of lumber.
  • Improve laying with lights. One factor that causes your hens to lay poorly during the winter is lighting. Research shows that hens need approximately 14 hours of light per day to lay an egg, and that production can slow as early as September when the days get shorter. To encourage laying, you can “extend” the day by using artificial lighting. You can use a 9W fluorescent or LED light bulb (with a timer for your convenience) to light up the coop. Just make sure you add the extra hours before dawn – not dusk – because sudden darkness can cause your chickens to panic.
  • Prevent boredom. Chickens are like children. If they’re bored they get up to no good. They might peck at each other and start fights. It’s much easier to handle boredom in the summer when they can spend a ton of time outdoors. But in the winter they tend to spend more time in the coop. Offering some activities – like hanging a swing or a head of cabbage – are ways you can prevent boredom.
  • Make sure the water doesn’t freeze. Last but definitely not least, your coop needs unfrozen water! Some owners joke that they have a harder time keeping the water – rather than their chickens – from freezing. The easiest solution would be to buy a drinker that has a built-in heater. Otherwise, you can buy backup drinkers to switch out the frozen one.

Treating Frostbite

Frostbite is an all too common problem for chickens in the winter, in spite of all your best efforts to keep moisture and wind away. Chickens can get frostbite on their combs, wattles, and feet. When that happens, place a warm, damp hand towel on the frostbitten area to thaw it out.

Never use a blow dryer to treat frostbite, as this would be utterly painful for them! After the area has thawed, apply Vetericyn to the area to encourage healing, relieve pain, and prevent infection.

Winter is Coming…

…but there’s really nothing to be worried about. Your chickens are naturally better prepared for winter than we are. Just remember to stock up on extra feed and scratch, and provide them with a safe, winterized coop, and they’ll be all set.

There are way better things to learn on YouTube!

Have Fun Out There!