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How to Care for Chickens in Winter: Your Questions Answered

Winter chicken care can be confusing to beginners and established chicken keepers alike. But we’re going to answer all of your questions so you know how to properly care for your flock over the cold winter months.

During the winter months we get emails almost daily with folks asking questions about caring for their flock in the cold winter weather.

Why all the confusion?

The problem is there are many different schools of thought on raising chickens in winter. Particularly when it comes to the issue of “Heat vs. No Heat” in the chicken coop.

We are very firmly in the no heat camp, even though temperatures can drop to 25 below zero here. We’ve never lost a chicken to hypothermia, or experienced severe frostbite on any of our birds.

If you’d like to know how we manage winter chicken care for our backyard flock to keep our chickens warm without heat, read on…

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A white chicken in the snow.

Winter Chicken Care: Common Questions and Answers

Do I need to heat my chicken coop? It gets below zero where I live!

Chicken keepers who live in very cold climates often worry over their flock when the temps regularly drop below zero. The short answer to this question is no, you don’t need to add heat to the chicken coop, even in freezing temperatures.

Chickens can live quite comfortably in temperatures below zero, even without a supplemental heat source.

It helps to remember that chickens are not the same as people. While you couldn’t survive in a non-heated building outdoors in subzero weather, your chickens certainly can.

Chickens very rarely show signs of distress in cold weather and can survive just fine up to -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and some chickens can do just fine when it drops lower than that.

There are plenty of wild animals that live outdoors all year long, even in weather that’s 35 below, and they do so without human-made shelters. Your chickens are lucky to have a coop they can stay in when it gets too cold, and that is literally all they need to stay warm.

If you really think about it, small birds such as sparrows and finches live outdoors in the bitter cold winter and they survive just fine, despite their tiny size. If sparrows can survive without heat, your chickens can too, because they have built in characteristics that help them survive.

A black and white chicken walking in the snow.

What are Your Reasons For Not Using a Heat Lamp in Cold Temperatures?

Using a heat lamp is one of the most dangerous winter chicken care mistakes you can make.

The number one reason against using a heat lamp? Heat lamps cause many coop fires every year, killing entire flocks and sometimes spreading to houses and other outbuildings.

It’s incredibly difficult to properly secure a heat lamp so that it won’t fall down. Think about the fact that chickens fly, and rather erratically at that. Flying chickens knocking into heat lamps day after day can cause them to loosen and fall.

Even if the heat lamp is properly secured, debris such as feathers can float up into it and get caught in the lamp, causing a coop fire.

Another good reason to avoid the heat lamp is the risk of it suddenly going out without you noticing.

If the heat lamp suddenly dies due to light bulb breakage or a power outage, your entire flock could perish.

Why?

Because chickens need time to acclimate to temperature changes. If they’re used to the coop being warm in the winter and the temperature suddenly drops, their body temperature drops too, and they can go into shock and suffer from hypothermia.

This can happen in a matter of hours, and you may not notice until it’s too late.

No one thinks it will happen to them, until it does. Year after year we hear of heat lamps starting fires in coops, causing death to entire flocks and damage to coops. Don’t let this happen to you. Heat lamps should never, ever, be used in a chicken coop

If, after reading this article you still feel that you need to heat your coop in the winter, please use a flat panel heater instead of a heat lamp. A flat panel heater installed by a professional would be a much safer choice for the chicken coop.

A flock of chickens outside in winter.

How Do Chickens Survive Cold Winter?

Well… if chickens don’t need a heater to be comfortable in winter, then how exactly do they stay warm when the temperature drops?

Chickens, like most animals, have built-in protection from the elements.

One way that chickens stay warm in winter is to fluff up their feathers, creating an air pocket between the feathers and skin. This holds the warm air radiating from the chicken’s body and keeps them comfortable even on the coldest nights.

This is exactly why you shouldn’t put sweaters or clothing on your chickens. I’ll admit that’s adorable, but it’s actually doing them harm because it’s restricting their ability to fluff their feathers and in fact making them colder than they would be without the sweater.

Chickens also cluster together on the roost and cuddle to keep each other warm. Sleeping on the roost keeps the chickens off the cold floor of the coop.

Always make sure there’s plenty of roosting space for your whole flock so they’ll be more comfortable in the winter!

Still don’t believe that chickens are warm without supplemental heat?

The next time you have a chilly night, venture out into the chicken coop. Place your hand under the wing of a chicken, or between their feathers, right next to the skin. I think you’ll see that your chickens are doing just fine in the chill.

A Dominique chicken walking in the snow.

Why Do I Need to Eliminate Drafts?

Drafts will cause your toasty warm chickens to become frigid cold very quickly. If air is blowing on the chickens it disrupts the pocket of warm air they’ve created by fluffing their feathers, causing them to catch a chill.

While you want to eliminate drafts to winterize the chicken coop, you don’t want to seal it off completely. Ventilation is still critical for healthy birds.

Eliminate drafts by closing the chicken entrance to the coop at night and on very cold days.

Insulate the windows in the coop the same way you would windows in your house, caulk to prevent air leakage, and put some sort of barrier up on the windows. This can be plastic, cardboard, or wood. Seal up any large cracks around doors and on walls.

What’s the Difference Between Ventilation and Drafts?

While you want to close off drafts and wind in your coop, you still want it to have good ventilation.

A draft is considered to be wind or breeze blowing on your chickens. Even a small, light draft is enough to disrupt the feathers and cause a chill.

Leaving an open window or door in the coop is like leaving a fan blowing on your birds all night, it’s great for the summer but bad in the winter.

Ventilation, on the other hand, is air circulation throughout the coop. While you want to prevent drafts in the coop, you still need fresh air to circulate in and out of the coop for the birds to remain healthy.

Our chicken coop has ventilation holes in the top of the wall, near the ceiling. This lets stale air out and fresh air in without constantly blowing air on our chickens.

A chicken outside in winter.

How Do I Prevent My Chickens from Getting Frostbite?

Frostbite is caused by cold combined with moisture. If the coop is just cold, frostbite won’t form.

Moisture builds up in the coop from the chickens breathing, their waste, and water getting spilled from founts. Moisture is inevitable, but if your coop is airtight, the moisture can’t escape, and combined with the cold, makes for the perfect environment for frostbite.

Chickens with large combs are more likely to get frostbite than others. Some breeds of chickens are more cold tolerant than others and may be a better choice if you live in a cold climate.

If you do happen to have some large combed chickens in the winter, you can prevent frostbite by eliminating drafts but allowing good ventilation in your coop.

Some chicken keepers put petroleum jelly on the larger combs and wattles of their chickens, but we personally haven’t found this to be helpful.

The best way to prevent frostbite is to get rid of the moist air in the coop, or only keep chickens that are appropriate for cold climates.

A chicken walking in the snow.

What Breeds of Chickens are best for cold winters?

When it comes to raising chickens in winter, breeds definitely matter, and could be the difference between your chickens being perfectly content and being miserable.

Some chicken breeds just aren’t meant for cold temperatures.

Chickens that have large combs and smaller bodies, like the Leghorn, are really better suited to warm climates. They have trouble regulating their temperature and are more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia than their big-bodied cousins.

To get a full list of cold climate breeds don’t miss our post on cold hardy backyard chickens.

Two chickens outside in winter.

How do I keep their water from freezing?

It’s absolutely essential for chickens to always have fresh water available to them, especially when the temps drop and the chickens are trying to regulate their body temperature.

Over the years we’ve tried all the tricks to keep chicken water from freezing and even wrote a whole post about it, you can read it here. The number one best way to keep the water liquid is to get a base heater for your water fount.

A closeup of a chicken.

Why does egg production drop in the winter?

The shorter days of winter mean less sunlight, naturally, and less sunlight is a trigger to your chickens to turn off or slow down on egg production for the season. Why? Chickens naturally divert their bodily energy to two things at the start of winter.

One is molting their old feathers and growing beautiful new ones, and the other is staying warm and surviving the cold temps.

In order to focus on those important tasks their bodies naturally take a break on the reproduction front.

Many chicken keepers provide supplemental lighting in the winter to keep their flock laying all year round.

We personally don’t do this as we like to keep our chickens as naturally as possible and prefer to give them an egg laying break over the winter. If you’d like to read more about supplemental light, don’t miss this post!

What Can I do to Winterize the Chicken Coop?

If you’re a detail oriented person, we have a whole post dedicated to winterizing the coop. If you’d like the quick tips, here you go!

  • Try using the deep litter method to provide a little extra warmth to your flock
  • Stack hay bales or straw bales against the walls of the coop to help insulate the hen house
  • Put a thick layer of wood shavings on the floor of the coop
  • Keep all doors and windows tightly shut on very cold days, this will preserve the heat that’s already in the coop from the chicken’s body temps.

I hope you have enjoyed this list of Chicken Winter Care tips, please feel free to leave comments below if you have more questions!

Would you like more information about winter chicken care? We have a handy post with 6 tips and tricks to help you keep your chickens warm in winter!

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Jessica L Henshaw

Friday 21st of January 2022

Hi today I lost a chicken no animal touched it it was eating drinking one minute then the next minute she was foping around trying to get up then flooring around then she died after a hour of this any idea why it is cold her negative 7 degrees but my coop is winterized I d like to know if u have a answer casue I don't want to loose anymore chickens we have one rooster and the rest are hens my egg layers

Meredith

Sunday 20th of February 2022

I'm sorry for your loss, chickens die from all sorts of natural causes. I couldn't begin to know why your chicken died, but it does happen out of the blue from time to time.

Sheila

Saturday 17th of October 2020

I have chicken coop that has the bottom portion with hardware cloth around it and a ramp leading up to the door to go inside their little house. The entire coop sits inside a run that has a roof and all walls and closed except for at the very top which has hardware cloth. There are food and water are kept in the lower outdoor portion of the coop. Do I need to shut the door to the house at night?

Phil Meyers

Monday 5th of October 2020

I have 20 baby chicks 2 weeks old ,now being kept in my garage in a large refrigerator box turned in it's side .part of the box on top has been cut out 3 inches from the side leaving a lip around the top with a feeder and watered hanging from the top to about 4 inches off the bottom .It keeps the wood chips from getting mixed in with the food and water.I have a coop built with wood about 2 feet off the ground and 1by 8 boards as a walk right at ceiling level that seems to be perfect for my 4full grown chickens. How long before I can safely put my new chicks in the coop here in zone 6 ,central Kentucky?My coop is 8 ft wide by 16 ft.long and a ceiling height of 8 ft.my old birds sleep on the perimeter walk that is on three sides at 1 ft. off the roof I mean lower than the roof ,they seem to like the flat surface to sleep on and sit down on their feet to keep them warm.

DONNA MCCALLUM

Monday 28th of October 2019

I have 3 birds given to me as babies in May ( one Orpington hen, one I think is part bantam hen and has feathers on her legs so not sure, and the other is a lavender Silkie rooster) I kept them in a chicken tractor at night and bad weather for the summer and attached it to a converted trampoline pen as well as let them free run when I would be at home.I wasn't planning on them being here for winter as they were to go somewhere else but the plans fell through so now I am quickly getting something ready. I have a little shed attached to our deck that I am converting into a coop for the winter.It was used as a boiler room when we had our above ground pool. It has no windows but has a roof with vented soffits. We have insulated the walls.Should we insulate the ceiling or leave it as is for ventilation or insulate most of it (I worry about condensation.)? It can get to -35C here but average about -20 to -15C most of the winter. Not sure in your articles what temp you are talking about. I plan on putting a heated dog dish in for their water or like the one lady mentioned about a cinder block with a light in it to keep pot of water thawed. But am wondering about extra heat as it is only three birds. and also what kind of light as they may not get actual sunlight as there is no run attached.Will they need a UVB light as well as a light bulb?

Meredith

Wednesday 30th of October 2019

Hi there,

You don't need to worry too much about insulating the ceiling, insulating the walls will be plenty. Do make sure there's an opening where the ceiling meets the walls so fresh air can get in. A regular light bulb would be fine for inside the coop, you don't need to give them anything special, but I would find a way to let them get outside in the winter. They'll be much healthier if they can go outside on days where it's not too cold or snowy.

DONNA MCCALLUM

Monday 28th of October 2019

Aslo was wondering if I should leave the floor with just dirt or remove the sidewalk blocks and wood that we had put down for when we had the boiler?

Charlotte

Thursday 24th of January 2019

Ok to bring chickens into the garage on cold nights? I have four chickens who are doing just fine with the cold so far this winter (their first), despite drops to near zero (Fahrenheit). However, temps are about to plunge into the negatives for about a week and I'm thinking of putting the chickens into the garage at night. I have a mobile chicken run that fits neatly into the garage. The garage is attached to the house and, though unheated, will stay in the teens or 20s probably. No cars would be in the garage. My concern is that being moved back and forth might stress them out physically (change in temps) and psychologically ("Help! I am in a strange new place!"). Any advice?

Meredith

Sunday 27th of January 2019

Hi there, that would be a great idea as long as the garage isn't heated. If it is heated, it would be too much of a shock for them to go back and forth. I wouldn't worry to much about stressing them or confusing them. If you move them at night they'll be mostly in their zen sleepy state anyway.

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