It’s safe to say we humans are fascinated by the weather. It’s discussed frequently in local and national newscasts. It’s most likely something you consider before leaving the house and or making plans. We cope with the weather by adding or subtracting clothes and using tools such as umbrellas and scarves. We can get in the air conditioning or central heating depending on the need.
But our chickens can’t do any of these things to deal with weather changes.
Chickens use physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations to deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at them, and they’re pretty good at it, too. But we can help make things easier for them. Working in concert with our chickens, no matter the weather, makes for a happy and productive flock.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
Many chicken-keepers say the heat is more difficult to deal with than cold, and I agree. Heat stress is real, and it’s not always caused by temperature alone. Heat combined with humidity can be brutal.
Temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity can be just as hard on a chicken as temperatures in the 90s with little humidity. It’s about the temperature spikes, the longevity of the spikes and the bird’s ability to acclimate.
Think about acclimation in terms of human comfort. If we get a 60-degree early spring day after we’ve been living in the 30-to-40-degree range, then that day feels hot. In the middle of summer, after we’ve been living consistently with 80-degree days, then a 60-degree day feels cold.
Chickens have a normal body temperature between 105 and 107 degrees. If a bird gradually acclimates to the weather, then its body can adjust. If heat and humidity happen quickly or for an extended time, the body has a harder time adjusting.
The harsh reality is that if a chicken’s body temperature reaches 115 degrees, it can die.
Adapted to Heat
Chickens don’t sweat to cool off in hot weather like humans. They have no sweat glands. Here are some ways they are adapted and they adapt their behaviors to cope with the heat and keep their body temperature in a safe range.
- Sparse Feathering: Breeds from hot climates are genetically adapted to have reduced feathering to allow more body heat to escape.
- Spread Wings: Chickens will spread their wings to expose more body surface, and lift their feathers to let heat escape.
- Social Distancing: You’re not going to see your chickens spending time close together when it’s hot whether outside while free-ranging or roosting at night.
- Seek Out the Shade: On a hot day, you’ll find chickens under trees and shrubs and often in the shaded dust bath.
- Get some ZZZZs: Resting takes less work than foraging, so chickens will stay still during hot afternoons.
- Large Combs & Wattles: In hot weather, larger combs and wattles are a good thing. That’s why you see Mediterranean breeds that live in a hot region, such as Leghorns, with this adaptation. As blood travels through the comb and wattle, heat is released, cooling the body. Larger combs and wattles equal more space to release heat.
- Watery Poop: Warm water is excreted from the body to enhance cooling.
- Panting: Chickens pant around 85 degrees. Panting allows a chicken to bring cooler air into the body and get rid of excess heat as water vapor.
- Gular Flutter: While panting is effective, sometimes it’s just not enough. During those times, chickens will rapidly vibrate their throat muscles increasing the rate of water evaporation.
Helping with Heat
Human help won’t take away hot weather, but it can provide ways for our chickens to lower their body temperature.
- Do provide shade, whether it’s through your garden plantings or man-made structures such as decks, awnings or umbrellas. Give your birds a place to get out of the sun and rest.
- Do provide fresh water frequently. You can put some ice in the water. Just be sure not to make it so cold that it’s a shock to the system.
- Do provide some cool treats such as frozen blueberries or watermelon. Chilled food is a nice heat buster and also provides extra hydration.
- Consider providing a shallow pool of water. Your chickens can stand in this and transfer some body heat through their feet.
- Do not keep your chickens locked up in a hot coop where the heat can easily intensify to a dangerous level. Open the coop windows and door, if possible, and add a fan to increase air circulation.
- Do check on your chickens often and be prepared for some of the side effects of heat stress such as reduced appetite, reduced egg laying and eggs with thin shells. Encourage your birds to eat in the cool of the morning or the evening.
- You can also offer electrolytes in your bird’s drinking water to help counter the effects of heat stress. This can be as simple as adding a 1/4 cup of baking soda per gallon of water or purchasing premade electrolytes from the farm-supply store. Premade electrolytes usually come in small packets that look like the yeast packets of three that you get in the baking aisle. Follow the packet directions.
Heat Stressed Out
If your chicken starts showing signs of severe heat stress—labored and rapid breathing, excessive drinking, weakness, unsteady walking or lying prostrate on the ground with eyes closed—stay calm and work to slowly decrease your bird’s temperature. You can do this by moving the bird to a cool location in the shade, dipping its feet in cool water and putting it near a fan.
The idea is to gradually decrease its body temperature, not shock it. Don’t move your bird into air conditioning, as that sudden cold can be a shock. As your bird recovers from heat stress, keep it cool and comfortable with water (and added electrolytes) and food.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Cold is a lot easier to deal with than heat. Along with your bird’s adaptations, human help can go a long way toward keeping your chickens comfortable when the temperature dips. Here are a few ways chickens help themselves during cold weather.
More feathers equals more warmth, so you’ll see cold-weather breeds such as Cochins and Brahmas with heavy feathering. Regardless of breed, adult chickens will molt annually in late summer/early fall.
During molt, chickens will shed old feathers and regrow new. With new feathers in tip-top shape, chickens have better protection from the elements. Chickens will fluff their feathers to trap body heat closer to the skin. They will also tuck their beak under their wing feathers to breathe in the warmth.
Small Combs & Wattles
Less surface area means less chance of frostbite.
Feathered Legs & Feet
While feathered legs and feet can mean more warmth for a bird, they can be a detriment if they get wet and freeze. Make sure that birds have a place to stay dry during the winter, especially during snow and ice events.
While summer weather equals social distancing, winter weather brings everyone together. Roosting close together and tucking feet and legs underneath their bodies creates warmth. If you see your birds standing in cold weather on one leg with the other tucked up into their feathers, this is a behavioral adaptation that halves the amount of heat lost from a chicken’s limbs.
Chickens have a specialized adaptation called “rete mirabile” which means “wonderful net” in Latin. This net of blood vessels acts as a countercurrent heat exchange. As warm blood flows from the heart to the extremities, it warms the cooled blood returning from the extremities, thus conserving heat from the body core.
Grabbing the sun’s rays is an easy way for chickens to warm up without expending energy. Note that you will see chickens sunbathing during the hot summer months, too.
Sunbathing is a way for birds to control parasites. As they spread their wings and adjust their body stance, certain parts of the body are exposed to heat. Parasites don’t like the heat and move to other parts of the body that are easier for a chicken to reach and pick off the pests.
Sunlight also helps convert chemical compounds in a chicken’s preen oil (located in the uropygial gland where the tail meets the body) to vitamin D, which helps maintain good health.
When is the weather too cold for chickens, and how can we humans help? There’s no right or wrong answer for exact temperatures. Chickens acclimate to cold weather just as they do to warm weather, so a heated coop is not necessary, but frostbite can set in quickly in a matter of minutes and have devastating effects.
On the less severe end of frostbite, roosters in cold climates can be seen with missing tips on their combs and wattles from frostbite. On the severe end, chickens can lose toes and even limbs. It’s not pretty, and it’s painful.
Keep out the Cold
There are many easy ways we can help keep our chickens comfortable during winter.
- Consider adding an extra layer of bedding for warmth and always keep your coop clean and dry. Excess moisture from waterers and droppings leads to frostbite, and the ammonia buildup can damage your chicken’s lungs. Ventilation, not drafty breeze, can help reduce ammonia buildup.
- Always give your chickens a dry place to rest away from snow and ice. This can mean adding tarps to your run so it stays dry. It can also involve clearing snow and ice paths in the yard. If the snow is not predicted to be heavy, simply lay down a few pieces of sheet wood in the yard before it snows, then lift them once the precipitation is passed.
- Check on your chicken’s water often and change out icy water throughout the day. To help make this task easier, you can purchase heated livestock water bowls.
- For comb and wattle protection, rub a thin layer of petroleum jelly into your chicken’s combs and wattles. This protection doesn’t last forever, so reapply as necessary.
- Consider raising the height of your watering area so your rooster’s wattles don’t dangle in the water making them vulnerable to frostbite.
No matter what the weather is, exercise common sense for you and your chickens. Sometimes, the weather just gets out of hand and extreme human intervention is necessary.
For instance, during a recent polar vortex, I decided to move my flock into the garage. This was for their safety as temperatures were dangerous and my flock was too small to keep warm in the coop. Plus, it was dangerous for me to be exposed outside.
The garage wasn’t heated, so the birds could remain acclimated to the cold. But access to electricity and running water did provide extra protection for my birds and me.