Last night was the coldest night so far this Winter. It hit a negative four degrees, and when I fell asleep I couldn’t help feeling sorry for our three hens. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re birds, and birds have survived Winters in our trees, year after year. They’re also birds with thick plumage, and don’t experience cold the way we or our other animals might. They’re not very comfortable, and are definitely not happy, but they are okay.
The biggest risk with chickens in the cold is their combs and wattles (the fleshy red areas on their heads and chins). Those parts are prone to frostbite, so I’ve been checking them daily. I’ve read it helps to seal them with Vaseline, so I may try that this evening… another biting cold night is on the way. They have adequate ventilation in the coop (cracks, holes, a drafty window), which keeps their breath from creating a build-up of moisture in the air, resulting in frostbite. For this reason, I don’t keep water inside the coop, except during the day when they won’t come out. Yup, yesterday they surprised me by not coming out of the coop, even after I opened the door. I was amazed. Normally they’re dying to get out, but not yesterday with five inches of snow on the ground, and a cold that felt downright evil. I had to bring food into their house, and a small bowl of lukewarm water. They poke their heads outside the front door, and squawk a little, then immediately go back inside. They’re saying, “Holy Lord, help us. This is nuts!” Talk about being “cooped up,” they’ve got to be going a bit stir-crazy together.
Again, when I opened their door this morning, they would not come outside. I’m considering shoveling an area of ground off so they can come out and peck around, snow-free. I just don’t know if the cold will allow for that… they despise it. To increase their coop temperature for night time, I turn on a red heat lamp at sunset, and leave it on until about 11:30pm. The coop gets pretty warm (anywhere from 30-40 degrees), and then gradually drops off for about 6-7 hours while they sleep. Without the lamp, I’ve noticed the coop stays about 10-15 degrees warmer than the outside temp. In the morning, we turn the lamp back on between 6:00 and 7:00 am. Today is the first day I’ve chosen to leave it on until about 11:00am. the South sun will be warming the house soon, and I’ll shut it off. I’m making sure to give them extra calories, which I’ve read is one of the most important things to do for chickens in the cold- oatmeal, table scraps, and bread crumbs sprinkled on the coop floor. Hens will often stop laying eggs in order to conserve energy, but they’ve been laying at regular production levels through all this stress.
I feel very sorry for my girls, mainly because they’re not having any fun. Most importantly, I do know they’ll be okay. I’m impressed with how well they’re actually doing. Before getting chickens, this was my biggest concern– keeping animals outside during negative temps. It’s just a cold snap, and we’ll be back into the 30’s and 40’s before we know it. I can just see them running and squawking out of the coop with such joy when that happens! My kids are feeling a bit like that today, considering they finally returned to school today.