Winter’s Coming!!

I woke up yesterday morning, and the ground was white.  A mad scramble ensued….finding winter coats and snowpants and hats and mitts and scarves before we had to trundle the kids off to kindergarten.  How is it that winter catches us by surprise….EVERY YEAR?!?!?  I mean….we live in Canada….It’s November….what did we think would happen???

I hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to backyard flock keepers.  Winterizing your coop, or re-homing your hens to someplace with a source of heat should be on everyone’s agenda (or probably should HAVE been a few days ago).  I hope everyone knows that chickens are not native to our climate….they evolved in the sub-tropical jungles of Borneo (lucky them!). 

Chickens have a fairly wide ability to cope with heat and cold, but as you’d expect from their historical home, they deal with heat better than cold.  Laying hen welfare experts (ie people a WHOLE lot smarter than me!) say that chickens should have their environment maintained above 10 C.  The upper limit of whats called the thermoneutral zone is around 30 C.  Outside this range (10-30 C), hens have to work hard metabolically to maintain their body temperature.  I have personally seen frostbitten hens.  It’s unfortunately not uncommon to see chickens with gait problems because 1 toe is shorter than the others, or stubby little combs….both of which are long-term legacies of frostbite damage. 


Blackened comb tips from frostbite....the black areas will fall off, leaving a blunt, gnarled comb


Frostbitten foot
There is no doubt that these conditions are painful and can be debilitating.  Some breeds are more cold tolerant than others…as a rule of thumb, larger breeds, and those with smaller combs (pea combs) do better in the cold. Heating a coop can be as simple as wiring a 60 watt lightbulb into the coop.  Realize, however, that this will totally mess up their lay cycle, since their day length will effectively be 24 hours.  They will go out of lay, and will be difficult to bring back into production in the spring.  A well insulated coop, several birds housed together, and a very small heat source should be plenty, but only you can know what will work for your coop.  If you are worried about frostbite, and there is an especially nasty bunch of weather on the way, there is some protective value in putting a vaseline coating on all the featherless parts (wattles, combs, legs, feet), but this should not be your primary way of protecting your birds.  Give them access to a warm area, then let them decide if it’s worth it to wander in the run, or stay bundled up inside.  A more crucial consideration is making sure that the birds are never out of water.  Birds have no teeth, and store food in their crop (basically a skin bag on the front of their necks….my grandmother has a similar looking appendage, but she can’t store seeds in hers).  If a bird has access to feed (which is generally dry), and her water supply is frozen, several nasty things can happen.  She can get feed impaction, in which a ball of damp feed can harden in the crop and get stuck, damaging the lining, or the food bolus can begin to rot, or fungus can take root because of the stasis (called crop mycosis), or just serious discomfort.  Heated dog bowls are available that won’t freeze up, watering systems that keep a small trickle of running water, or just providing water several times per day can get around Mother Nature, but, again, only you can decide what will work best for you.So, bundle up, and go forth to care for your chickens….then when winter REALLY shows up, somebody HAS to make one of these, and send me a picture… will be the talk of the neighbourhood!!!I

I GOTTA do this in my yard!



6 responses to “Winter’s Coming!!

  1. Hi Mike,

    Interesting article. I’ve commented on your content here:
    We are an Australian forum of so don’t often deal with frostbite. Thanks for sharing your information. Let me know if you’d like any of that changed.


  2. Hi, I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping you can answer my questions about heating during the winter. We get down to -26 C (-15F) during Jan & Feb. I was thinking of using a low wattage incandescent light bulb, but just read an article on here that those light bulbs create a strobe light effect and stress out the birds. Is there a different type of heating element that would be better? The Chicken Chick told me that I should NEVER put in a heating element in the coop as the birds will produce their own heat. Also, what alternative lighting should I use if an incandescent light bulb shouldn’t be used? Would an LED light bulb be ok? Thanks!

    • Shaie, your information is incorrect….it is fluorescent bulbs that can cause the strobe effect for chickens (they also don’t give off any heat). I think putting a source of heat in the coop is important. The function is to make it warm enough that you can let in enough fresh air to keep the ammonia down, without chilling the hens. Whether you use a light bulb, or some other heat source is up to you, but I wouldn’t shy away from heating elements, as long as you can make sure it is safe, and that the coop doesn’t get too hot

  3. Great! I did remember wrong about the different types of light bulbs. Thank you very much!

  4. Can you advise me what to do with a hen who has a completely frozen comb? I see no healthy tissue so I am afraid to “dub” it off. Will it eventually fall off and heal on its own? She is eating and drinking but I think stopped laying eggs. Her feet and waddles are fine. They are all in a heated coop now, but it happened while we were on vacation and had wind chill in the -40’s. The wind was so strong it blew the roof off the coop so they were exposed for about 20 hours until we got home and bolted it down. Lessons learned. The other hens just have some black tips that look like they will fall off. I just worry about her since it involves her entire comb.

    • Hi Lori,

      Sorry to hear about your problems…..keeping chickens in the winter is certainly a challenge. I would suggest leaving the comb alone. The dead parts will slough off, and the live parts will recover. Keep an eye on her though…..if the flock-mates start pecking at the injury, you will need to isolate her until she is entirely healed.


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