Ever since my husband put the walls, door and windows onto the new shed he built, I’ve been joking about how it would make the perfect new home for more chickens.
This morning, he mentioned temporarily housing our eight chickens inside the new shed overnight, when the temperature dips down near 0 degrees F. In many places north of here, it’s going to get even colder than that this winter. While my husband’s idea is a compassionate one—and selfless, considering how much he loves his new 96-square-foot man space—housing the flock in the shed might not be the right answer for dealing with bitter cold nights.
If you’ve considered keeping your chickens in a seemingly warmer place temporarily, consider that in a larger building, like our empty shed, the flock cannot heat the entire space. In fact, they might feel much colder in a larger space than they would if they were to be cooped up in their normal, ventilated space where they are already accustomed to heating it themselves. Upstairs in their small mobile coop, my chickens huddle together in a small area where they keep each other warm.
Moving a flock to a space that is actually colder for them can tempt one to supplement heat. However, sudden temperature changes can be deadly—i.e., we could risk burning down the new shed.
Most of the time, chickens don’t need supplemental heat, just protection from the cold. Consider that extreme temperatures are relative, and as a human, you’re not a good judge of living outdoors with feathers. If you’re raising cold-hardy breeds, the chickens will be fine most of the time as long as you provide enough feed, liquid water and a cozy, clean, ventilated space.
In general, if your chickens leave the coop to hang out in the run or to free range, they’re warm enough. They might even enjoy some time in the sun. If they’re too cold, they’ll be reluctant to leave the coop, even to eat. That’s when I like to serve warm breakfasts.
Danger of Extreme Cold
For a flock that’s adapted to cold temperatures through the natural changes of the seasons, the biggest threat to them is frostbite. Ornamental breeds with less body mass can also be in more danger in cold weather. Much of a flock’s frostbite risk happens right inside the coop, where moisture accumulates simply from respiration and poop buildup in the bedding.
If you find signs of frostbite on your chickens—pale white or black areas on combs and wattles—look immediately to the ventilation in your coop, and make sure to keep bedding clean and dry.
Have an Extreme Temperature Plan
Remember, chickens don’t experience cold temperatures the way you and I do. Your flock’s idea of a warm coop won’t feel warm to you.
Before the cold air comes, I move the coop parallel and next to the privacy fence to block direct winds. The positioning will help the chickens keep their body heat inside the coop. I generally keep the ladder down so the chickens can walk down for breakfast in the morning when they’re ready, but when the cold falls into the single digits, I button up the coop a little tighter, pulling the ladder up and locking the hens upstairs. However, the ladder doesn’t fit tightly; if it did, we’d lose some ventilation.