Our whole family just loves our chickens – and the eggs we get from them are delicious! However, we do worry about them in the cold of winter despite taking precautions to winterize their coup – but should we be concerned?
Chickens can survive sub-zero winter temperatures very well and are actually more troubled by hot weather than the cold. Hardy breeds such as Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Orpingtons, and New Hampshire Reds are toughest in winter and even continue laying eggs.
Let’s look at how we can help our chickens stay comfortable in cold weather, and also discover how nature has given them all they need to survive and thrive when winter weather hits…
What Temperature is Too Cold For Chickens?
Chickens are designed to be hardy (look at all those feathers!) and can survive sub-freezing temperatures. They can even continue to lay eggs in freezing cold weather.
Ideally, chickens like warm weather, but don’t like heat, which seems to bother them more than cold. Provided their coop is dry and free from draughts, and the chooks are able to snuggle up together, they will keep themselves, and each other, wonderfully warm during the winter.
Even though chickens, in general, are fine in cold weather, go for a robust breed if you live in one of the US’s more extreme climates. Go for a special breed of chicken that’s extra-hardy and able to withstand freezing winters. We’ll take a look at the best cold-weather chicken breeds a little later on.
Can Chickens Stay Outside in Winter?
If you have a chicken coop with secure outdoor access, the chickens will happily come and go even during snowy weather. Make sure you have your phone camera handy for their first trip out in the snow! However, as they’re relatively small creatures, it can be kinder to dig paths for them around the coop for easier access.
There are a few things to bear in mind if your chickens will be spending winter outdoors. We’ll take a closer look at preparing their coop for winter in a moment; but in brief, make sure there’s extra bedding and that there’s plenty of room for them to snuggle together. They’ll generate plenty of heat themselves this way.
Access to water is tricky in freezing conditions. You can pick up heated water bowls for chickens in pet stores, farm stores, or even Amazon. These gently warm the water without heating it (if you see what we mean), which prevents it from freezing.
Then there’s food. The chickens will burn up more calories keeping warm in winter, but won’t be able to peck and forage in your yard if the ground is hard. Make sure you have a super-deluxe winter menu planned for them, with plenty of healthy treats like corn, freeze-dried mealworms, and sunflower seeds. You can also give them fresh fruit and veg a couple of times a week.
Word of caution: make sure the chicken run and coop are secure. Predators such as foxes and birds of prey will be hungrier during the winter, and your plump hens would make the perfect holiday dinner.
Can Chickens Freeze To Death?
Well, sadly the answer is yes, but so can any creature. Thanks to their feathers and high metabolic rates, chickens are tougher than most animals; however, they may succumb to the cold under certain circumstances.
The main thing is to make sure they have dry, draught-free accommodation that they can access easily should they need to, and that they are in good health at the start of winter. A poorly or injured bird is more likely to fall sick in winter than its healthy coop-mates. Give all your chooks a thorough health check in the fall, then keep an eye on them throughout the winter.
Losing a healthy chicken to cold weather is rare, provided their coop is properly winterized and they have access to food and water.
How Can You Tell if a Chicken is Too Cold?
If your chicken is starting to suffer from the cold, there are a few ways you can tell. Nobody knows your chickens better than you do, so you’ll be able to spot if they’re not their usual selves. However, here are a few general telltale signs that your birds are getting too cold:
- They huddle in a corner of the coop or snuggle up together more than usual. If your chickens are clumped up together at a time when they’d usually be active, they might be trying to keep themselves warm
- They stand on one leg. Unlike flamingos, chickens prefer to rest on both feet. If they have a one-legged stance, it’s because they’re trying to warm their feet in their feathers, one at a time
- Their feathers are puffed up. Yes, they’re going to fluff themselves up a bit more in cold weather; however, if they’re going around in a permanently puffed state, they’re too cold
- They are lethargic. This can be a sign of all sorts of things, cold included
- How’s their comb looking? A paler-than-usual comb is a sign that your chook is unwell, and again, this can include cold. If you spot white or black on the comb tips, this could be a sign of frostbite and you’ll need to act fast
If you spot any of these signs, it’s time to warm up their accommodation. If a member of your flock seems poorly, bring her indoors and contact the vet.
How Do You Winterize a Chicken Coop? (Should I Heat it?)
Getting your chicken coop ready for winter is a straightforward job for the fall – and the good news is, you don’t even need to install a heater.
As we mentioned earlier, chickens are more likely to struggle with extreme heat than cold, and a heater may change the coop’s temperature a bit too much for them. Electric heat lamps can be tricky to install in your coop, and can pose a fire risk. So, you don’t have to worry about sorting out electric heating for your flock this fall.
So, how do you keep chickens warm in cold weather? Firstly, they’ll do a lot of this job for you. They have two layers of feathers: the downy underneath ones that trap warm air, then the waterproof contour feathers on top. Between them, these two types of feathers provide the perfect winter insulation for the bird.
Then, they have each other. Make sure the coop is designed so the birds can perch together at night to keep cozy. Add extra bedding in case they need it, but change it regularly so it can’t become damp and moldy.
Your main job is to make sure the coop is water-tight and draught-proof. Nothing will make the chickens cold and miserable quicker than snow and rain blowing into their coop or icy blasts of wind blowing in through the cracks.
In the fall, make sure the coop is free from gaps and it’s in good general repair. Hopefully, it’s already in a sheltered spot so snow can’t blow in through the open hatch. When you’re busy making it water-tight, don’t forget to allow some ventilation. It could easily become humid in there, especially if the chickens spend more time indoors, and that can lead to an unhealthy environment and mold growth.
What Chicken Breeds Do Best in Cold Weather?
If you live in a colder or wetter climate, choose a super-hardy breed of chicken. These tend to have super-dense feathers, smaller combs and wattles, feathery feet, and frankly, a bit of an attitude. The thick feathers help them survive freezing temperatures, while the small comb and wattle make them less susceptible to frostbite.
There are some fabulous hardy chicken breeds, including Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, and Delawares. Plymouth Rocks are also chilled-out in the cold, and have a nice nature.
Do you have kids? If so, there are some great breeds that combine outdoor toughness with gentle personalities. Try Silky Bantams or Orpingtons, or the lovely Australorp, which is also a prolific layer.
However, these are adaptable birds. Take a look at these chickens encountering an unexpected snowfall – in Texas, in March. They certainly have plenty to say about it…
Do Chickens Lay Eggs in Winter?
Chickens can lay eggs in winter, although some breeds are more prolific year-round layers than others. If you want a good collection of eggs to see you through the holiday baking and winter comfort cooking, choose a breed that’s known as a good, all-year producer.
Most of the cold-hardy breeds we’ve already mentioned are good winter layers. Try Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Orpingtons, or New Hampshire Reds. You could also add Delawares and Wyandottes to this list.
Make sure your chickens have a cozy, dry place to play their eggs, with plenty of fresh, warm straw. Keep changing the straw so it can’t go moldy, which can be a risk in the winter. Keep your laying hens healthy with a good winter diet, as remember, they won’t be able to scratch around for grubs and bugs like they do in the summer.
As mentioned – all our family love our chickens, so if anything happened to them the kids would be devastated.
That’s why we have chosen hardy breeds capable of withstanding low winter temperatures, and also take care to winterize their coup when cold weather hits in winter.
But knowing chickens actually hate hot weather and are naturally better at handling the cold is a source of reassurance – as it means we won’t be quite so worried about them when the temperature dips below zero. 🙂
Homeowner and property investor Larry Jones founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >