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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!