Winter Chicken Coop Care, Part 2: How chickens keep themselves warm — and how you can help them

This is the second in a four-part series on preparing your backyard chickens and coop for cold weather.

Most standard laying hens are quite cold hardy (check this handy breed chart). Just look at their names: Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire Red. . . . These girls were bred to withstand cold climates well before the advent of electric heat. So how do they manage to withstand temperatures that send us scampering for the nearest cup of cocoa?

  • Feathers. Obvious, I know. But if you’ve ever slept under a nice down comforter, you can appreciate the insulation that comes standard on every chicken. Well, almost every chicken. Molting birds or those that for whatever reason enter winter with fewer feathers may need extra warmth and protection.
  • Body heat. Chickens generate their own body heat through exercise, natural processes like digestion, and should they need it, shivering. Of course, this assumes a healthy vigorous bird to begin with. Weaker birds may need more protection.
  • The “flock furnace.” Chickens are never more agreeable with one another than in the winter, when they roost closer together to pool their warmth.

How you can help your backyard flock stay warm.

Chicken scratch in the winter provides quick energy and exerciseThey can’t always do it alone, of course, and there’s a lot you can do to support your backyard chickens’ ability to generate and conserve their own heat.

  • Winter rations. Start by providing a good feed. Then add in some greens, leftover fruits and vegetables, and carbohydrate-rich scratch like corn (unless their feed is primarily corn, in which case, choose another grain). Carbohydrates turn to sugar in the body. They digest quickly, raising a hen’s body temperature and triggering the release of insulin, which signals the body to stop burning fat and to store extra blood sugar as fat. (The same is true for humans, by the way.) Just don’t overdo the carbs, and don’t forget the grit they need to digest it all.
  • Fresh water. Hens prefer their water fresh, not frozen. This may mean an extra trip or two each day to the coop for you, unless you use a heated waterer. Warm water will help boost your hens’ body heat.
  • Exercise. If your chooks are more confined during the winter than usual, you need to create new opportunities for exercise. Once or twice a day we toss some grains into their litter for them to scratch for. This keeps them occupied for about an hour, giving them both carbs and exercise. Consider adding a Peck-It-Clean Veggie Feeder to provide fresh greens and veggies plus exercise and interest. Another tip (which some people practice year round) is to separate their water from their feed. Chickens need to drink after every few bites of feed, so this setup forces them to move back and forth between stations. In The Garden Coop and The Garden Ark you can do this by keeping either the food or water in the henhouse and the other in the enclosed run.
  • Clear away snow. Chickens don’t maneuver well in deep snow, and they don’t like cold, damp litter. Keep the run area as dry and clear of snow as possible to protect their feet, legs, and chests from the cold.
  • Widen the perch (sub-freezing climates). Chickens prefer to perch on roosts where they can curl their toes. But in the winter if you give them a wide flat perch — try a 2×4 or 2×6, wide side up — it forces them to keep their toes flat and protected beneath their warm bodies.
  • Protect combs and wattles (sub-freezing climates). Short-combed hens are less susceptible to frostbite in the winter, so if you’re in an extreme winter region, choose those breeds to begin with (that handy breed chart again). Some chicken keepers claim that smearing Vaseline on combs and wattles gives added protection in extreme cold. Others disagree. Might as well try it.

What behaviors or traits have you noticed in your chickens that help them stay warm in the winter? How do you help them along? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Next up, Part 3: Outfitting your chicken coop for the winter.


7 thoughts on “Winter Chicken Coop Care, Part 2: How chickens keep themselves warm — and how you can help them”

  1. Hi,
    I think I made a mistake starting out with ducks and chix. The ducks are such pigs dirtying up the water from the 3 gallon waterer, and scattering food all over. So how do you suggest I deal with these dang ducks. I love them, but they’re a hot mess!

  2. My Mummy Hen is still cosying up with her chick in the hutch which is in the outside run. She shows no sign of moving inside with her buddies onto the perch. We cover the hutch with blankets and heavy rugs at night, but its getting colder, and I fear its getting too cold for them. There really is not room in the coup for the hutch, it’s quite big. I need advice to help move them both inside, but not force Mum apart from chick (8 weeks old), or upset the balance by prematurely making chick perch with the other big scary hens!! Your comments are most welcome, thanks.


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