My chickens don’t like the winter, especially if it snows. It can take them a couple of days to adjust to the idea of snowfall. Every time it happens. If it melts, then snows again, they have to adjust all over again. Which means, they don’t leave their coop on many winter days. Once they do venture out, they walk like cats with tinfoil on their paws, fairly offended and loathing every step.
This makes the coop, well, extra organic. My nose is used to chicken smells most of the time, and in the cool temperatures, there is not much to smell. But it can look pretty bad. Since I’m not spending much time lending them comfort out there, I like to remind myself of some things I have learned and observed about the winter care of chickens.
1. The coop, according to the book Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition, is actually healthy for the chickens if allowed to reach a sort of homeostasis. Cleaning it too often is like never letting your children get dirty and build up appropriate immunities. I go months sometimes without cleaning the coop. They are, after all, just birds. Particularly if they have some room to roam in the fresh air, or at least have ventilation if they stay in for the day, there is no cause for concern. Besides, have you seen how quickly they get it filthy again? It’s like they are trying to flaunt it in your face. There is usually no reason to keep the coop like a country cottage in a magazine spread. Unless you sit out there once in a while and read them stories.
2. Chickens acclimate to the temperatures. If I fiddle with trying to heat things, it can upset their ability to handle the cold the way they are designed to. This could be especially problematic if I am not consistent with such heat manipulation, and since I can easily picture myself being inconsistent, I go with “natural chicken heating.” Why fight it?
3. Natural chicken heating involves feathers and shared body heat. Winter is a not a happy time for a solitary chicken. You should probably bring IT into the house or find it a new home. And if you have one that has molted at an inopportune time, you might want to check on it frequently. But a flock? That is another matter. They huddle and cuddle, not without some squabbling, but nonetheless, they end up helping to keep each other warm.
4. Chickens need more food in the winter. This could be partly because there is no free range buffet, and all the compost from fall garden clean-up is frozen solid. It is also surely due to burning calories to keep warm. Don’t neglect to feed them just because they are being “stubborn” about laying eggs in the deep winter.
5. Keeping water drinkable is The. Biggest. Challenge. for me regarding winter chicken care. I am very grateful for the two ways of helping with this that my engineer-husband came up with. They are a cement heating stone, that you, too, could make at home; and a foam insulated tower for the top of the water silo. I know other methods people have tried. I have one friend who put a pond heater in a small insulated cooler and suspended it. There are drip nipples for the chickens to drink from. The trouble with these narrow dispensers is that they still often have such a low volume of water flow at the point of departure, that they freeze right as they try to drip when it gets down to the single digits. With my heating stone and insulated silo placed inside the coop during the most frigid spells, the chicken water stays liquid, meaning that I don’t break my feet or hands trying to knock a frozen block out of water containers, then refill the containers only to have it freeze again within the hour.
6. Not all predators hibernate. We caught another skunk last month in the trap right outside the gate to the chicken coop. It was one of the few days I had left the chicken pen gate open to let the birds forage amongst the rotting fall debris of the neglected garden. Why the skunk went into the trap instead of into the chicken pen is a mystery, as there was not any bait in it. I have no way of knowing exactly when it was trapped, if the chickens had already gone to roost in their coop for the night, or if they turned up their noses at it as they marched past at dusk. Whatever the scenario, I am thankful to still have all of the backyard chickens. I have also seen many large hawks hunting in fields very close to my acre yard, so I am being careful about how much and what hours my chickens are out on the town.
7. Having chicken care to do in the winter helps get me outside and more likely to engage in other outdoor activities. I noticed this recently after being sick for a while. The lack of activity (and a helpful daughter around to care for chickens when I needed help) had decreased my overall circulation and the cold was truly intimidating me. However, I went out to care for my birds and felt invigorated and inspired. I got out for my first run soon after, and feel even better. Walking by all the gardens and yard each day, on the way to the pens, stimulates my thoughts for yard care, which is great, as long as I squelch any temptation to panic at the work load. Plan with dreams tempered by reality.
8. This is a good time of year to set up mouse traps. Where there is chicken grain, there will be mice. In the winter, the creepy critters have fewer options and tend to hang out in the feather heated coop a lot. My favorite mouse trap is the peanut butter log roll over a water bucket. Take no prisoners. Mice spread disease and don’t lay eggs.
All in all, taking care of chickens during the winter can be simple, with a little planning and perspective. There is time for contemplation and planning chicken coop improvements. Last year, I was blessed with electrical connections to the coop, and the accompanying outlets, so that I don’t have to use horrendously long extension cords to plug in my heating stone. However, my coop is still a hybrid of an old goat feeder with some nesting boxes my husband built onto it. Not that I’m not appreciative, but I am interested in a coop that I can get into to clean without walking like a crab and getting my hair wrapped around the roosting poles that I am hunching under. See, I do clean my coop sometimes.