Keeping chickens in the winter can be stressful for owners of backyard chicken flocks, particularly in years that feature a polar vortex, lots of snow and ice, and record-breaking low temperatures. We turned to a trusted backyard chicken expert, Lissa Lucas, author of the must-have guide My Pet Chicken Handbook, to answer your questions.
Good question! Preparing your flock for an arctic vortex event is a little different than simply preparing for cold winter weather. Winter is typically a gradual transition. If you have cold winters in your area like I do in mine, you want to start preparing before you've even acquired your flock and choose breeds that can tolerate the cold. Too often, people will choose a breed without regard to how well that breed might do in your area. In the U.S., this doesn't always result in disaster. Chickens are generally hardy and the U.S. is mostly temperate. But if you live in Death Valley, then fat, fluffy black cochins are just really not the best choice. If you live in Northern Minnesota or Alaska, skinny, large-combed Andalusians are not your best bet.
In preparing for winter, you need to make sure your chickens have plenty of food and access to fresh (unfrozen) water at all times. That part is common sense. What is not as intuitive is that you also want to make sure their coop shelters them from the wind but still provides enough ventilation to keep the air fresh and dry inside. You'd think absolutely airtight is the way to go, but your flock does need ventilation, or they will be at risk for respiratory illness. Additionally, and also counterintuitively, you don't really want to heat the coop because not only is that a fire hazard—coops are dusty—but it can also interfere with your chickens' ability to get acclimated to the winter cold.
In preparing for a sudden, arctic drop in temperature, adding temporary heat to ease the transition is a good idea. Be sure to do so safely. Again, coops are dusty, and you do not want to start a fire. But presuming you take all the proper precautions, when you have a situation like we did here recently in which the temperature dropped 50 degrees in one day, adding heat to ease the drop is a good idea. So when the polar vortex rolls through again, do give your chickens a little temporary help, if you can do so safely.
Actually, you shouldn't try to keep your backyard chickens warm. That's the most common mistake. Instead, you want to give them the conditions they need to keep themselves warm. Their feathers are very insulating, and generally speaking, chickens tolerate cold reasonably well. A good coop will be several degrees warmer than the outside just by virtue of all those warm chicken bodies inside. Plus, chicken breeds adapted to cold will often have fluffy coats of feathers (as opposed to the very slick, close-lying plumage of birds that are adapted to hot climates).
Feathers provide lots of insulation—this is why down coats are so warm! And chicken breeds that do well in cold almost invariably have small or nearly nonexistent combs and wattles. So the best thing you can do for your chickens is to choose a breed appropriate to the climate in your area. The most common mistake I see in my work providing backyard pet-chicken advice to people across the country is that they don't take their climate into account when choosing their breeds.
Another common mistake has to do with the roosts people use in their coops. Some people want to use metal pipes as roosts. On first impression, it seems like a great idea. After all, metal roosts are extremely sturdy and they're also easy to clean and sanitize. But in cold weather, metal roosts can actually cause significant problems. Your chickens have special adaptations in their legs and feet, with vascular systems specially adapted to deal with cold so they have much less danger of frostbite than most animals. Even given that, the metal roosts are a bad idea, as they constantly conduct heat away from your birds' feet. Instead, provide your chickens with a wide, flat wooden roost so when they sleep at night, their feet and toes are tucked into their feathers and aren't wrapped around an icy surface.
The most common place to see frostbite on a chicken is on the comb, especially if your chicken has a large single comb—meaning the stereotypical chicken comb with multiple points. You might also see frostbitten wattles—the red fleshy bits that dangle beneath a chicken's beak. In the beginning, the frostbite is usually white, and sometimes hard, just what you'd think of if you try to imagine frozen flesh. But afterwards, it turns black as the flesh dies. It's very painful and can make them vulnerable to infection.
One way to help prevent frostbite is to rub a thin layer of lip balm (or, petroleum jelly is often recommended) on the comb. I can't stress thin enough. The idea is to prevent chapped skin, because chapped skin will be more susceptible to the cold damage. But you don't want to slather on any product so thickly that it could freeze on the comb and make the situation worse.
If you were putting on lip balm, how much would you use? Use that much for your chickens' combs and wattles. That works as a preventative. If frostbite has already happened, don't apply balm or jelly. Moisturizers or protectants will not treat frostbite, and rubbing a frostbitten comb or wattles can cause damage. Consult a vet. After all, what would you do if your ear (or your dog's ear) started to turn black from frostbite? Of course you'd consult a professional for medical advice. So, if your chicken gets frostbite, you should consult a veterinarian.
There aren't too many things you need to have on hand specifically for the cold. Lip balm or petroleum jelly, as I mentioned before, are usually a good idea. A safe, temporary heat source for your coop is a good idea in certain circumstances. A heated waterer or an extra waterer (to exchange with the frozen waterer from your coop) are good ideas. You may also want to provide some high-calorie treats like cracked corn or a suet cake designed for chickens. "Games" (like a cabbage hung from a string) can keep them occupied if they're spending more time in the coop. But remember, most chicken breeds do quite well in cold weather, so long as there is a gradual transition to it, and so long as they have appropriate shelter, water, and food.
Choosing hardy breeds is important. The Buckeye and Chantecler are breeds that can weather extremely cold conditions. However, you can also choose breeds that do well in both cold and heat. Cold hardiness and heat hardiness aren't mutually exclusive, so you can get a breed that will do well with both hot summers and cold winters. For instance, the Cream Legbar tends to be hardy in both heat and cold (plus, they lay blue eggs). The My Pet Chicken Handbook has a handy breed selector guide, rating each breed's heat and cold hardiness and other qualities like foraging and laying, so you can make expert decisions from the beginning and avoid problems in the future.
Choosing the right chicken breed is one of the most important choices you'll make whether you're just starting the hobby or are adding to your flock. It can mean the difference between adding joy and adding responsibility to your life. This is something people regard as a no-brainer with other pets. You wouldn't want to keep a high-energy border collie in a tiny apartment, would you? It would be a constant struggle. But a Pug, a Japanese Chin, or an English toy spaniel might do very well. When it comes to chickens, the same principles apply. So, there's more to choosing a breed than just picking one that is hardy. Depending on your needs, you may also want to consider a breed's friendliness, how well they do in small yards, whether they have heritage qualities, if they have great foraging abilities, whether they lay well or poorly, and so on.
Related: How To Build A Mobile Chicken Coop