Keeping Chickens Safe During Spring Cold Snaps

Spring weather can be very unpredictable, so when springtime cold weather hits, protect your chickens and other poultry from the frosty effects.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: photos by Ana Hotaling

Spring had finally arrived at our farm. The hyacinths and daffodils were blooming, the trees were budding, and the temperature was staying at a wonderfully temperate 50 degrees. We moved the Silkie group back out to their summer-time coop and removed the protective winter paneling from the other henhouses.

I started going on long walks and runs on the nearby trails. We spent Easter enjoying the glorious, sunny weather.

And then Old Man Winter decided to remind us that he wasn’t gone for good just yet.

I woke up this morning feeling unrested, that “grab a blanket and a book” feeling that I get on stormy days. I’m sure it has something to do with the changes in barometric pressure. Still, I dragged myself out of bed, fed the cats, and turned to look outside.

The tumbling white flakes almost sent me right back to bed.

Snow No!

Yes, it was snow. In late April. And it was falling quite steadily. It’s still snowing as I write this, eight hours later. According to, it will continue to snow for another six hours.

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And I’m not talking flurries. I mean big, fat flakes of snow that accumulate on my deck, covering the runs, and making it almost impossible for me to see where Butter Duck, our all-white roaming Ancona duck, could possibly be.

Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your point of view—surprise snowstorms at this time of year seem to be a Michigan specialty. I always remember the May I climbed out of the lap pool and had to ride my bike through a snowstorm that started while I was swam.

Because the weather in the northern continental U.S. can be a tad sporty, I was well equipped to handle this galling squall. However, I learned that friends and relatives in Pennsylvania and Maryland also experienced snow and below-freezing temperatures. Winter weather was also expected in other Mid-Atlantic states.

Should you find yourself in an unexpected spring snowstorm, here are four suggestions to ensure your chickens weather the cold weather unscathed.

Read more: Early spring weather requires flexibility from farmers.

Close Your Coop Openings

While I was not about to run around reinstalling all the winter paneling we’d taken down earlier this month, I did make certain that only a couple ventilation panels were open—enough to provide necessary air circulation within the coops.

If your coop vents have shutters or covers, close up the ones that directly face the way the wind and snow blow. This will prevent snow from accumulating inside your coops.

Close any windows that have been opened to let fresh air in, and make certain that all human-access doors are tightly secured. If you know your flock well and know they aren’t about to go outside—and they have a feeder and waterer inside their coop—close the pop doors.

However, if your chickens are curious types that like to stand in the cold snow (like my Ameraucanas), keep their pop door open. And understand that some snow may get in through that entryway.


Check Your Waterers

chickens poultry snow cold duckIf it’s cold enough for snow to accumulate, it is undoubtedly cold enough to freeze water. Luckily, we had not yet pulled the base heaters from our coops’ waterers. A quick check showed still-liquid water in those fonts.

The waterer in our Silkie coop was not as fortunate. There is no base heater there, since the coop is not wired for electricity. (The Silkies spend the winter in our pole barn.)

Of course the water had frozen solid.

My rule of thumb—and one I cannot stress enough—is always have double the number of waterers that you need. This way, when winter weather freezes your flock’s drinking water, you can simply swap the frozen font for a fresh waterer.

Believe me, this is much easier and far less time consuming than having to thaw out a frozen waterer in a work basin or kitchen sink. Just be sure to keep the frozen waterer in a warm place, such as a garage, so it can start to thaw out naturally.

Watch Your Delicates

The first thing I did once I got outside was head over to the Silkies. I am very careful with my Silkies, as they are not winter-hardy birds.

They were crammed into one nest box, hiding from the fluffy white stuff coming in through the open vent panels. I scooped out the accumulated snow and damp shavings, and closed all but two vents. Then I gently unjammed the Silkie pile and set them on their coop floor, where they proceeded to eat and scratch as though nothing were out of the ordinary … well, other than their frozen waterer (which I then swapped out).

If your flock includes non-winter hardy birds or if you have mama hens using their body heat to keep their hatchlings warm, you may want to consider moving these more delicate chickens to sturdier shelter until the cold and snow blow over.

A pole barn, a garden or storage shed, garage or even a basement may provide better protection than a coop for more delicate breeds and for babies. Large cardboard boxes or plastic storage tubs such as Rubbermaid totes can serve as brooders in a pinch.

Remember, this is just a temporary measure, not a permanent change in residence. Make sure your birds have plenty of food and water (as well as shavings) in which to nestle down for the night.

Read more: Spring clean your coop in 10 steps!

Keep Them Busy

Chickens that have grown accustomed to sunny days spent roaming and scratching will not be happy shut up in their coops during a cold snap, whether it’s by your choice or theirs. Unhappy, bored chickens may start picking at each other out of boredom or agitation.

To prevent matters from getting out of hand, provide your birds with a few boredom busters to keep them entertained while the snow falls. Consider the following to keep your birds occupied for hours (and hopefully out of mischief):

  • suet cakes
  • wedges of cabbage or lettuce
  • an ear of cooked corn
  • a couple handfuls of scratch, tossed onto the coop floor

If your flock, like my Ameraucana flock, insists on being outside during the snowstorm, keep a shovel at hand to clear a pathway for them to walk, especially if you have feather-legged birds like Cochins. There’s no reason to risk frostbite or other ailments just because your chickens want to enjoy the cold weather firsthand.

Other Considerations

Even if you just refreshed the litter inside your coop, you’ll want to quickly add 1 o 2 inches of fresh shavings to the coop floor. This will help absorb snow that gets in through any open vent panels. It will also add a layer of insulation to help retain heat.

More than likely, the moisture from the snow will necessitate a change in litter once the storm is over. So keep fresh shavings handy and stay prepared to spend some time henhouse cleaning.

Also set some time aside to check each of your chickens for frostbitten combs, wattles and toes, especially if your birds insisted on being out in the cold.

Should the sudden snowstorm last more than a few hours, make sure to check your fonts to make sure they have not frozen over again. If they have, the previous fonts should have thawed out by now. If not, run each waterer under lukewarm water until the ice in the saucer trough melts and the cover can be removed.

Then focus the warm water on the font’s interior until the solid ice detaches from the font wall and can be removed.

Never underestimate your birds’ curiosity. Do a head count to make sure no one ventured outside and either sought shelter under shrubbery or hunkered down in the snow to keep warm. I’ve had to wrap warm towels around a couple of curious Ameraucanas over the years. And I always seem to have to defrost iced-over duck wings (swimming during snowstorms!).

Your Own Well-Being

Finally, don’t neglect yourself. We have also grown accustomed to warmer weather and sunshine, and may take a surprise snowstorm lightly. Whether it’s January or April, snowy weather can still chill you to the bone. So dress warmly and wear work gloves if you have them.

Thawing out frozen human fingers … just take my word for it that it’s a pain you’ll never want to experience again. And now, I’m off to check on the Silkies and to see if Butter Duck is hiding under a shrub.

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