When I walked out to the coops this morning to open the doors and check on the birds, I was harshly reminded that it is indeed "that time of year" again, as I cursed myself over forgetting to defrost a waterer that had completely frozen solid.
Domestic poultry are hearty birds. Turkeys, being descendants of the North American native have evolved naturally to withstand severe winter temperatures, while some chicken breeds have been selectively raised over millennia to adapt to regions as far north as the arctic circle. There is a reason some winter parkas are lined with bird feathers, and despite their bare feet it's not unusual to see ducks happily splashing about in ponds on the verge of freezing. Nevertheless - us humans being fairly intolerant of winter, and poorly equipped to handle the cold without additional layers and heating elements, we have a tendency to project our feelings onto the creatures we keep.
I'm sure we've all heard the saying "if you're cold, they're cold - bring them in!" often shouted by animal rights activists- in truth this is often far from accurate for most species, and in some cases this type of anthropomorphism can cause more harm than good, or set our animals up for even more stress or illness. With a little bit of diligence, we can ensure our pets are happy and healthy outdoors through the winter months without overdoing it, and allow them to exercise their natural abilities to thrive through whatever weather gets thrown our way.
Here are a few of my recommendations for preparing your coops for winter...
- Avoid too much insulation & pay attention to ventilation: Many people like to add additional layers of insulation to their coop, but for the most part this may not be necessary. Poultry are equipped with multiple layers of downy feathers that help keep them warm. Unless you have a very small number of birds, or special breeds that are not cold-hardy it is not generally necessary to add insulation to your coop. It is important to ensure your coop does not have excessive drafts, (4 solid walls and a roof with air vents placed along the upper portion of the roof) but you also do not want to block essential ventilation since too much stagnate air can cause moisture build-up that can lead to respiratory illnesses and frost-bite. Wrapping plastic around 3 sides of your outdoor run can reduce wind exposure, and hanging cloth over large ventilation holes can reduce the bite of high winds while still allowing airflow. Vents along the upper edge of the roof should not generally need modification.
- Avoid heating the coop: Adult fully feathered birds do not need extra heating, and in fact unnatural heating of the coop can introduce its own set up problems such as creating a fire risk, or reduce your bird’s ability to cope with fluctuations in temperatures if you lose power or are hit by sudden heavy storms. If you must provide additional heat for more sensitive breeds, or younger birds who may have trouble warming themselves, a "cozy coop" style heating plate mounted on the wall can create a warm corner in your coop that birds can choose to roost next to. Be sure to read all safety instructions and check electrical connections regularly for signs of wear and damage. I do NOT recommend the use of heat lamps ever used inside a chicken coop due to the risk of fires. You can help your birds produce more of their own body heat by providing foods that increase body temperature: offer cracked corn, scratch grains, oatmeal and suet to your birds as an evening treat before they go to bed for those particularly frigid nights.
- Keep fresh water accessible to your birds during the day: Access to clean drinking water is probably one of the biggest challenges during the winter. Water bucket heaters are a great way to keep water from freezing, but you must be sure to connect them to a properly grounded outlet and check electrical connections regularly for wear and corrosion. Another trick to avoid water freezing so rapidly is to place a closed water bottle filled with salt water inside your watering can - this in some cases can keep water from freezing for a whole day, but must be checked regularly to avoid frozen buckets. Water should not be kept inside the sleeping portion of the coop during winter: the excess moisture can contribute to the risk of frost bite. If you must keep water inside the coop due to design, you may need to increase ventilation. Ice & frost build-up on the windows of a coop are a good indicator that there may be too much moisture inside your coop. Your chickens will not need to access food or water at night while they are sleeping.
- Watch out for predators: Winter may be tough for us, but it is even tougher for wildlife. Although it's important to always be mindful of natural predators and securing your coops - the scarcity of native prey and natural foods often causes wild predators to become more bold, and seek our livestock as an easy target for a meal. Check the perimeter of your fencing regularly. If you use electric fence you may need to clear snow or move wire higher to prevent grounding issues. Doors and gates can also be tricky when iced over or frozen, so taking a little extra time to clear paths and defrost latches could help save your flock from an intrusion from a predator. Your birds may also be more susceptible to aerial attacks from hawks or owls due to the reduced foliage and tree cover - consider adding a covered area or awning for your birds to seek shelter and safety during the day if you do not have one.
- Encourage your birds to get out: Some birds are less enthusiastic about winter than others and may refuse to come out of the coop when there is snow on the ground. You can encourage your birds to come out for fresh air and exercise by shovelling a path from the coop door, laying down extra straw for them to walk on, and offering extra food and treats outside the coop in the run. Getting your birds to come out of the coop during the day is also important to reduce the amount of waste and ammonia build-up inside where they will try to spend more time keeping warm.
Every flock is different, and every household has their own way of managing their flocks, so these ideas are merely meant as a few quick tips for how I keep my birds happy and healthy through the winter months. There is always more to learn and I encourage anyone who is faced with their first year keeping poultry through the winter to talk with others in the community, and learn from them the many ways that work (or not) to managing their flocks.
Stay warm out there!