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.
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…
Winter Chicken Care: Common Questions and Answers
Do I need to heat my chicken coop?
If you’re looking for the short answer, no. If you’re looking for the long answer, keep reading.
But it gets below zero where I live!
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 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 man-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, 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.
Reasons not to use a heat lamp in winter:
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 it to catch 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 breakage or a power outage, your entire flock could perish. 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 bodies go into shock and hypothermia quickly sets in. 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.
How chickens survive in 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 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. 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.
Even though it may not look like it, those birds are perfectly warm without your intervention.
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.
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 proper 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 air to circulate in and out of the coop for the birds to remain healthy.
How do I have ventilation in the coop without causing drafts?
You want your coop to be well insulated and closed enough to keep out drafts, but air still needs to escape and enter the coop. Proper ventilation is essential to maintaining flock health in the winter.
Dust, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and moisture need to be able to leave the coop and fresh air needs to be able to get in. The best way to get ventilation in your coop is to cut some small windows where the wall meets the ceiling. These windows only need to be 1-2 inches tall and however wide you’d like. They can be cut between studs. Be sure to secure hardware cloth over the windows after you cut them. Predators can squeeze through small spaces and chicken wire or screening won’t keep them out.
The overhang from the roof outside the windows will prevent strong winds from blowing into the coop, but the open windows will allow polluted air to get out and fresh air to get in. This way your coop will be well ventilated but not drafty.
A word on 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.
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!