If you keep chickens outside in the winter, it’s important to gear up for cold weather and take steps to protect against predators, keep your hens warm and dry, and maintain your chicken coops. See 5 tips to make sure that you have the same number of hens in April as you did in September!
Unfortunately, in addition to all of the seasonal concerns about frostbite, cold weather, and snow removal, winter chicken owners also have to contend with the same year-round problems they were facing in the summer, including the threat of predation. Even as some predators go into hibernation or head south to warmer climes, others become even more determined to turn your hens and their eggs into a meal, as other food sources dwindle and the coop comes to represent not just food, but warmth. So, in addition to all the regular precautions against predators, chicken owners should probably take a few extra steps
5 Tips for Keeping Your Chickens Safe This Winter
1. Seal the cracks. The run-up to winter is always a good time to look for cracks, gaps, and uneven seams in a building, to keep out the wet and the cold and help regulate the temperature inside. However, for chicken coops, this weatherproofing serves a second, arguably even more important purpose, which is to catch the places where ground predators might sneak into the coop. The risk of a snake or cat sneaking into the coop and trying to make a home there only increases as the weather turns colder, as the animals are searching not just for a meal but also a warm place to sleep, sheltered from the weather.
The more you can search out and seal any holes in the wall before the weather really gets cold, the better. However, note that some air needs to be exchanged to prevent ammonia build up. Open the top vent or higher windows slightly so fresh air can enter and stale air can exit.
2. Elevate your coop. This one, ideally, is something owners took into account when building the coop, and not just now that winter is rolling around, but even if the coop is already built, renovations aren’t impossible. Even a small elevation—a foot or so off the ground—will be enough to prevent rats and any other small animals that might target chicken eggs for a tasty meal from making a home underneath the coop; higher elevations that allow hens to walk underneath the coop can also be a major space-saver. Elevated coops have other advantages in the coldest and wettest season of the year, namely that they protect against flooding and water damage and also tend to have better-regulated temperatures, since the floor isn’t directly on likely-frozen ground. Learn more about building chicken coops.
3. Install an automatic door on your chicken coop. An automatic chicken coop door can be a godsend for a busy chicken owner, or even just one who loves to sleep in, but it can also be a crucial weapon in the war against predators. Because you can time an automatic door to open and shut at certain times of the day, it not only saves you work, but also guarantees the hens are in by a certain time of the night, ideally at or before dusk, which is of course when many predators, like foxes and owls, prefer to strike. Most doors can be set up on either a timer or a light sensor, the latter of which will come in handy throughout the fall and the spring as the length of the days starts to change. The one thing to be aware of is that the necessary motors and electronics may find it harder to operate in areas with particularly harsh or icy winters, so owners should take care to read the reviews and find one that will stand up to their particular type of winter weather.
4. Don’t forget the raptor deterrents. Although one of the most familiar sights of the changing of the seasons is the long Vs of geese heading south for the winter, and one of the most heralded signs of the return of spring is robins and other songbirds returning to the trees, depending on where you live, the hawks, owls, and raptors that threaten chicken flocks may or may not migrate south for the winter. This means the same raptor deterrents that were so important in the summer—whether commercially available specialty products or do-it-yourself shiny distractors made from old CDs and reflector tape—should stay up all winter, where they might even be more effective because of the shine and glare off the bright white of the snow and ice.
5. Stay on top of the maintenance. As anyone who has lived in an area prone to harsh winters will tell you, your outdoor structures are about to take a beating, chicken coops and fences included. A sturdy coop and strong fencing are important not only for protecting the birds from predators, but also for keeping them safe from the harsh weather and preventing them from wandering off, so winter is the time to kick the regular inspection schedule into overdrive. In addition to the regular weekly or bi-weekly inspections of the coop and fencing for holes and weak spots, owners should do an especially thorough inspection after a particularly severe storm, as well as staying on top of clearing snow on and around the coop before water damage, ice dams, or ice heaving starts to cause permanent problems.
Winter presents unique challenges for chicken owners, from the weather to the natural changes in a chicken’s laying schedule. Fortunately, the unique challenges presented by winter predators are usually easily solved with a little bit of planning ahead.
Will Chickens Get Too Cold in the Snow?
All this talk about winter might make you wonder: Will chickens get too cold in the snow? Not usually, but it depends on the breed and age of the chicken. A chicken’s body temperature is around 106 degrees Fahrenheit and they have their own naturally protective layer of thick feathers, so they are better equipped for winter than we humans are!
Cold-tolerant breeds can withstand winter temperatures without extra heat. Yes, there are chickens that are very winter-hardy! In fact, you want to be careful not to overheat chickens. Never raise the temperature more than a few degrees or the hens will have trouble adjusting in and outside the coop.
That said, similar to humans, chickens’ bodies use a lot of energy to keep warm, which can affect egg laying. You can help them some simple ways:
Feed and Water: Energy needs increase in winter. Feed and water birds more often when it’s below freezing. Feeding chickens corn will turn on their digestive system which will produce heat. Consider heated waterers so the water does not freeze.
Body Heat: Bunching the flock together lets chickens huddle together and roost to keep themselves warm.
Insulate the Coop: Get insulation panels from your local hardware store; you can even use cardboard!
Keep the Coop Dry: Remove any wet spots daily. Provide more bedding than you would in other seasons so that the birds have a place to burrow and stay cozy.
Keep an Eye Out for Health Problems: Look for common signs of your chickens getting too cold, including a lack of egg laying, lack of activity, sickness, and/or frostbite, especially with older chickens. In these conditions, this is a good indicator that they may need a heater.
Give Chickens a Choice: Many chickens love the snow; some don’t. Whatever their preference, hens can tolerate snow, cold air, and ice water. Let your hens explore and roam, or stay inside if they so choose. There is very little muscle in the lower part of bird legs and feet and their tissue receives just enough heat to avoid frostbite as well as enough oxygen to keep the body working.