The sweltering, sultry, stifling days of summer are almost upon us, and I am fully in my element. I don’t know about you, but I crave the heat when it’s the dead of winter. Once the summer arrives, I look forward to all of the ways to soak the sun—and vitamin D!—deep into my bones before the wind starts to howl and the leaves begin to change again.
Like all of us, chickens reap enormous benefits from sunshine, too, but they aren’t too keen on the heat itself: In fact, serious heat can be downright deadly to your feathered friends. It’s not a personal preference on their part; most of our laying breeds are simply not designed to tolerate heat as well as cold, and without proper supports in place, they may pay the ultimate price for it.
1. Watch The Weather
Just as you would during winter, monitor weather patterns during those dog days of summer. Learn to anticipate weather extremes for your area, figure out how they’ll impact your poultry, and take action—you don’t want to be caught off guard when a heat wave hits!
Depending on where you live, the summer months may usher in waves of extreme dryness or wetness along with the climb in heat. Extremely damp conditions, especially if they persist for days or weeks on end, can create the breeding grounds for pests and disease, such as coccidiosis, that could harm your birds. During wet, hot weather, provide them with a covered, dry area to get out of the elements and keep their feet and feathers dry.
2. Keep The Air Moving
Airflow is the enemy of heat. OK, that may sound like an ancient proverb, but it’s not. The science, however, is pretty sound. Keep air moving—ideally moving hot air out of the coop and moving cool air in—to give your birds relief from the heat. I’m not suggesting you rig up a fancy air-conditioning system for your chickens. It’s much simpler than that.
Every coop should have adequate ventilation in place, especially for hot summer nights when birds are roosting together, generating more heat than any single bird would. In addition to built-in ventilation, pop open doors, if they have wire mesh covering them to protect from predators.
A good coop ventilation system isn’t only a summertime investment. In fact, ventilation is just as important during the winter months when unventilated coops can cause an excess of moisture to build up, and that brings its own set of problems. Consider this investment of infrastructure a lifelong, all-season one.
3. Exploit The Shade
Beating the heat often means getting out of the sun. Even with the biggest and fanciest coop, sporting all the bells and whistles, most chickens will want to spend their days out foraging or roaming out of doors. Under the shade of a roofed run, chickens can get out of the sun’s rays during the hottest part of the day. But if your flock pastures in large open areas, they may not have a shady place for respite. It’s really easy to create shade, though:
- Move portable fencing to an area with bushes or trees that offer cover.
- Plant bushes or trees in your chicken’s (uncovered) run or outdoor enclosure.
- Provide your chicken flock with a small structure, such as a repurposed doghouse or children’s playhouse.
- Put up a shade umbrella, sunshade or similar structure. If you would take it to the beach, it’ll do the trick for your birds.
- Place shady spots and reliable cover in a flock’s ranging area doubles by providing much-needed cover from aerial predators, too.
4. Feed Frozen Treats
Are we going a little over the top here? Maybe, but your girls work hard to lay those beautiful eggs, so why not treat them when they need a little pick-me-up most? In fact, in times of extreme heat, hens may feel so stressed (or dehydrated) that their bodies put the pause on reproductive functions—which means no eggs. So, it’s in everyone’s best interest to pamper your ladies a bit, right?
Freezing water can be as simple as dropping a few ice cubes in your flock’s water font. Freezing treats takes a bit more thought and planning. When choosing foods to freeze, think of fruits and veggies with high water content that freeze easily and cleanly. A few favorites include:
- watermelon halves
- a variety of berries
As with any treat, remember that moderation is the key. As delicious as they are, treats should never take the place of age-appropriate feed.
5. Skip The Scratch
Commercial chicken treats, in the form of cracked corn or scratch, are great at bulking up birds for cold weather. The consumption of such treats increases body heat, which is a great thing in the dead of winter.
However, what makes it great in the cold is exactly why it should be avoided during the warmer months. Skip the scratch in the summer, and offer greens from the garden, vegetable kitchen scraps, mealworms, sprouted seeds or another green, protein-packed treat instead.
6. Provide A Continuous Water Supply
It should almost go without saying, right? Fresh water is an absolute must for beating the heat, and—in addition to protecting your chickens from predators—supplying clean drinking water is the most important tenet of keeping chickens. While fresh water is critical in all seasons, chickens can go downhill very quickly in a very short amount of time without water during hot weather. Dehydration is the fastest killer of chickens (other than predators, of course!).
The solution is simple: Provide ample fresh water for your entire flock daily during the summer. If you find that your birds go through their water faster than a day, dish out the dough and invest in a larger waterer or several water fonts placed throughout their coop or run.
If there’s any chance you won’t be able to get to the coop to water them daily, having these additional watering stations set up can be a lifesaver—literally! When it comes to water, too much is always better than too little.
7. Select The Right Breeds
Some of your heat-beating precautions will begin before you even have chickens to care for. It’s important to thoroughly research the best breeds for where you live and then only choose breeds suitable to your climate.
The good news is that there are more than 160 chicken breeds, and whether you keep birds for meat, eggs, for show or ornamentally, there are breeds that suit hot and cold climates. Some favorite warm-weather breeds include Welsummers, Silkies, Leghorns, Naked Necks and many game breeds.
What If The Heat Beats Us?
Even when the best systems are in place, some chickens still succumb to the heat. Old or sick birds are the most likely victims of heat exhaustion and dehydration, but others, such as birds low in the hierarchy that are being kept from the water by alphas, are potentially at risk, too.
Conduct a quick visual check of your birds each day, especially on days of extreme weather. Some early signs of dehydration include:
- panting with beak open
- wings held out from the sides of the body
- pale combs and wattles
- labored breathing
- cease in laying in hens
Of course, some of these symptoms are indicative of other ailments, so take those signs as an overall guide, not a hard-and-fast list. Remember, being a chicken keeper is a bit like being a detective!
If you discover that a bird shows signs of heat exhaustion and/or dehydration, remove her from the flock. Calm her by placing her in a dark, quiet, cool room—a basement or laundry room is great. Offer water with electrolytes, such as water lightly sweetened with honey or sugar, and moistened feed, and guide her beak to the water if she doesn’t find it for herself. Many birds in the throes of dehydration, if caught early and prompted treated, can bounce back within 24 hours.
This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Chickens.