My mother loves tropical flora. When I was a kid, she always planted bromeliads, yucca, miniature palm trees and other floral shrubbery in our landscaping. They brought such beauty to our home during the summer—and died during the harsh New Jersey winters. These hot-weather beauties simply couldn’t stand up to the deep freezes of the region.
Similarly, every autumn, I receive emails from panicked poultry owners throughout the Northern U.S., asking for help with their backyard flocks. The ice and snow storms have started, and their chickens are suffering from the chill. The poor birds are badly frostbitten, their movements sluggish, their feathers brittle. For a few flock keepers, the cry for help is sadly too late. What can they do?
Invariably, these farmers all have one thing in common: The breeds they raise are all heat hardy: Silkies, Japanese Bantams, Egyptian Fayoumis, Seramas, Frizzles. All stunningly beautiful birds, but all of them unsuited for cold, snowy winters without assistance from their owners.
The reverse is also true. Birds known for their winter hardiness such as Cochins, Plymouth Rocks, English Orpingtons, Brahmas and Faverolles don’t fare as well in the heat as their lightly feathered friends. My friend Raya discovered this when she moved from Montana to Louisiana a few years ago. She couldn’t leave her beloved birds behind, but the poor hens wilted in the soupy bayou summer.
What can you do if your birds of choice aren’t a match for your home climate? Follow these three suggestions to ensure your birds can weather the weather.
Air It Out
In addition to a sturdy coop with sufficient space and nest boxes for the size of your flock, the key to keeping heat-hardy chickens happy in cold climate conditions is ventilation. Because of their stylized body carriages and specialized feathering, fancy breeds tend be more sensitive to frostbite. Proper ventilation allows for air circulation within the coop, reducing the dampness that promotes the development of cold injuries.
“Frostbite isn’t caused by cold temperatures alone. It’s caused chiefly by moisture,” notes Dr. Richard M. Fulton, DVM, Ph.D and a diplomat of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians with more than 30 years’ experience in poultry science. “Ventilation is the only way to remove moisture from a coop.”
Delicate breeds and varieties are also more susceptible to respiratory-tract infections, lung-tissue damage, and even death when housed in high-ammonia conditions that can occur in coops using deep litter for winter heat.
“Birds are very sensitive to built-up ammonia,” says Fulton. “They experience detrimental effects at ammonia levels that humans often don’t even detect.”
Thorough ventilation allows for gases from decomposing litter to escape the coop, preventing their accumulation and the harm they might cause.
For winter-hardy breeds living in sweltering climates, a well-ventilated coop is crucial. Chickens seeking shelter from a hot sun will often retreat to their coop. The press of multiple bodies can elevate the heat inside a henhouse to intolerant levels. Proper ventilation lets that accumulated body heat escape while allowing for fresh air to flow freely within, cooling the coop.
Providing satisfactory ventilation doesn’t mean keeping your coop windows open, however. In colder climates, a pair of 2-by-10-inch openings, positioned on opposite walls, supply your henhouse with plenty of healthy fresh air without unduly chilling your flock. Larger vents in warmer climates function more effectively to keep your chickens cool. Whatever size ventilation openings you use, ensure your birds’ safety by covering the spaces with hardware mesh to prevent access by predators.
Provide Unlimited Water
Regardless of whether it’s chilly or scorching, chickens always need an adequate supply of water.
“Birds can only survive about three days without drinking water,” says Fulton. “Without sufficient water, chickens will suffer from dehydration regardless of the weather.”
In tropical and torrid climates, birds—especially cold-hardy standards such as Brahmas and English Orpingtons—drink as much as triple the amount of water the same birds would in cooler or temperate climates. Chickens regulate their body temperature by evaporating water through their respiratory system when they pant. Insufficient water prevents them from maintaining proper body temperature. This can lead to heat stress and death in hotter climates and, in colder climates, sluggish activity and system shutdown. A scanty water supply also adversely affects your layers’ egg production, which relies heavily on water consumption for the formation of eggs. You might find yourself refilling water fonts or swapping out frozen waterers several times a day, but your flock will be the healthier for it.
Adjust Feed and Treats
With their trim body carriage, fancy breeds such as Fayoumis and Seramas have minimal body fat to help keep them warm when the temperatures turn frigid. During the winter months, supplementing regular feed with heated grain mashes (such as oatmeal) in the morning and scratch grains in the evening not only keeps your flock members happy but also provides them with the extra carbohydrates they need to stay warm.
For Cochins and other winter-hardy breeds, as the temperatures increase, their desire to eat will decrease. Avoid offering scratch grains and instead consider supplementing your birds’ feed with chilled grapes, cherry tomatoes, peach slices, berries and other fruit that contains a lot of water. Don’t overdo these cool treats, however, as indulging your birds with these sweets might keep them from eating the nutrient-laden feed they need to stay healthy. Also, too much water-based fruit can lead to dehydrating diarrhea, which can be dangerous in hot temperatures.
If your coop is outfitted with electricity, consider installing base heaters for your metal water fonts. This keeps your birds’ water from freezing, and also fancy bantams such as Silkies seem to enjoy congregating near this source of safe heat on cold days. Another option to keep your delicate birds warm during the winter is to install heating panels, which radiate heat safely without the dangers of overhead heating lamps.
If you have a water source near your run, a mister provides a gentle spray that can keep your birds cool without soaking them. Hardware and home-improvement stores often carry inexpensive misters to facilitate keeping your cold-hardy chickens cool in high-heat regions.
If you are just starting on your chicken-keeping journey, fully research your breed choices before you buy your birds, and consider selecting ones that will flourish, not flounder, in your climate.
As for my mother, she still landscapes with tropical flora—except now she does it in Florida, where the plants thrive in a setting better suited to them.