More than a millennium ago, Celtic farmers observed Samhain (pronounced: SAH win). It’s a time of many rites and rituals, and the basis for today’s Halloween. One such practice was the return of one’s livestock from summer pasture to their winter barns. Before being penned, the animals were driven between two large bonfires to extract any demons or spirits that attached themselves to the animals during their six months of ranging. Now, I’m not advising everyone to pre-roast your chickens by herding them between bonfires (as if chickens could be herded), but I am indeed suggesting that our Celtic forebears set an excellent precedent: using the end of October as a marker for cold-weather measures. In early October, I start watching for lacy, frosted windowpanes, a stillness in the forests surrounding our property and that overall pale-wheat color to the land. Those are my signs that it’s time to bring the chickens in.
Bring in your chickens? Why kind of crazy talk is that? True, if you live in the southern United States, where the winter low might reach 50 degrees, there really is no need to change your birds’ outdoor routine. (Summer heat is a bigger concern.) If you live in northern regions, however, like those of you already dealing with snow in Montana and piercing winds in the Midwest and Rockies, bringing your birds in for the winter might be a good idea. There are different degrees of cold-weather sheltering, depending on how you raise your flock. The following four guidelines will help ensure that your chickens have a safe home for the winter holidays.
Foraging becomes pretty bleak during the winter months. Free-range birds find it increasingly difficult to subsist on what they find outside. With all but the evergreens losing their leaves, safe perches that obscure your birds from keen carnivorous eyes also become hard to find. The cold season is difficult for predators, too, as many of their main food sources hibernate or migrate to warmer climes. Free-ranging birds can become an irresistible target for winter-starved hunters. Protect your foragers by bringing them into a coop with an enclosed run for the winter months.
Chickens That Aren’t Cold-Hardy
We northerners can’t help ourselves sometimes. Beautiful heat-hardy birds just capture our attention. We add them to our flock, despite their being ill suited to our chilly environment. Because of their low body mass and their typically large combs and wattles, chicken breeds such as Sumatras, Japanese Bantams, Cubalayas, and Fayoumis have difficulty retaining heat as the cooler temps set in. These and other heat-hardy chickens need a draft-free, well-insulated, floored and heated home for the winter in regions where sub-zero temps and deep snow are commonplace. They are at higher risk for hypothermia than cold-hardy birds such as Wyandottes, Orpingtons and Plymouth Rocks. A penned-off section of a barn outfitted with roosts makes an ideal shelter for these warm-weather fowl.
The Fancily Feathered
Polish, Houdan, Silkies and other crested birds typically have a difficult time getting around thanks to their signature feather pouf, which cascades over their eyes and often obscures their vision. As a result, these chickens startle easily and frequently do not recognize potential hazards until it is too late. These troubles only worsen in winter. The birds often cannot see icy patches and are at serious risk of injury from slips and falls. In addition, ice crystals seem to thrive in the crests of these fancy breeds, potentially causing breakage and frostbite. Chickens with feathered feet, such as Faverolles, Dutch Booted Bantams and (again) Silkies, have similar feather-weather issues. Silkies are a case unto themselves, as their barbicel-less feathers offer poor insulation against bitter winter weather. If you raise fancy-feather fowl—especially to breed or for exhibition—a climate-controlled winter coop is de rigueur.
Anyone who has ever raised an Orpington, Silkie, Brahma or other mothering hen knows full well that a girl will go broody whenever and wherever she darned well pleases. In the middle of your patio construction site? Yep. In the pile of leaves you raked but hadn’t yet gathered up? Yep. In the middle of a January blizzard? Yep. They might not lay many eggs because of the reduced daylight, but what they lay, they brood. And while a broody hen by nature radiates high-body temperatures in order to incubate her eggs, she tends to weaken because of her limited nutritional intake coupled with her continual fueling of her high-body heat. In addition, there is always the possibility that her eggs can freeze, especially when the temperature drops below 0. Transfer your winter broody to a warm, comfortable winter brooder in your barn, shed or garage that can accommodate her and can expand to shelter her brood of chicks for the next few months.
Last Monday, I received a weather notification that the temperatures were expected to drop to 30 degrees overnight. That afternoon, we were busy in the pole barn, turning on heating panels, adding fresh flaked shavings and preparing our winter brooder for our Silkies. Once the brooder reached a comfy 68 degrees F, we transferred our little puffballs from their movable chicken tractor to their toasty winter shelter. Sure enough, frost covered the windows and grass the next morning. No bonfires were involved, but we did bring our flock home for the holidays—and just in time.