The heat is on

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I’ve never understood fat dogs. Chubby dogs, sure, but those really fat ones that are clearly collapsing under their own weight? Come on. Dogs only eat what you give them; once they get spherical, give them less. It’s really hard (at least for me) to keep yourself from getting fat because you have unlimited access to the smorgasbord that is modern life, but your dog? Just say no.

It’s much easier to call on your animals to be abstemious than to be abstemious yourself. I’m not big on deprivation, but I’m perfectly happy to inflict it on my livestock. That’s why there’s no heat in our chicken coop. They’re chickens. They can tough it out.

Winter quarters

It’s also why we’ve done without one of those gizmos that heats the water. It’s easy enough to keep two waterers, one in the run and one in the house, and switch them out when the water freezes. It means that, sometimes, the water will freeze and the chickens will have to be thirsty for a while until we come out and change it, but they’re chickens. They can tough it out.

It’s not that I’m unconcerned with my chickens’ thirst; I don’t like the idea of their being waterless for more than an hour or so. It’s that, somehow, a water heater seems like a luxury and I have this deeply ingrained idea that chicken coops should be hardscrabble and make-do. Today, it’s the water heater. Tomorrow, it’s hardwood floors and granite countertops.

We had the discussion about the water heater again a few days ago and, when I made the case against chicken coop luxuries, Kevin asked the critical question: Whose luxury is it?

We know a surprising number of people who are considering getting chickens, and we’ve given many tours of Kevin’s (award-winning!) coop and run. The first thing he tells prospective coop designers is that you don’t design your coop for your chickens. Chickens will live happily in just about any enclosed space. You design your coop for yourself.

It needs to be easy for you to give them fresh food and water. Its nest boxes should be easily accessible for egg collection. It has to be economical to build, simple to maintain, convenient to clean. Chickens don’t care about any of those things, but chicken owners deal with them daily.

Chickens, ignoring their waterer in favor of melon rind

A water heater is on the long list of things chickens don’t care about. As long as they have unfrozen water most of the time, they’re perfectly happy. But if they only way to make that happen is to go out there once or twice a day with a thawed waterer, you might start to care. Ever see Jean de Florette?

It wasn’t the actual carrying of the water that I started to care about; it was the requirement that we had to be here to do it. It meant that we couldn’t leave the property for much longer than it took for a double-hulled galvanized waterer to freeze over. Being gone overnight, if temperatures were low, was out of the question.

Yesterday morning, Kevin had a crack-of-dawn flight out of Logan, and our friends Doug and Dianne invited us to spend the night before with them at their apartment in the North End. Doug was thinking about cooking duck breast, and there was talk of a fennel and citrus salad. But it meant not being home in the morning.

No chicken water heater, no duck breast. No fennel and citrus salad. Instead of a lovely evening with friends, we’d be facing a 4:00 AM drive to Boston.

We bought the heater.

And although I didn’t buy it to spare myself the labor of the water switch-out, I’m finding not having to do it luxurious indeed. Now I’m seriously considering hardwood floors and granite countertops.

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Comments

  1. Kim Graves says:

    We have a heater too! It means I don’t have to go up to the coop except in the morning and evening to bring the waterer up and down. And we can be away overnight. This concern of having to always be there is the #1 reason I think twice and eighteen times about goats and pigs.

    I agree with you guys that the coop design is primarily for the humans who take care of birds. But there are a couple of bird only issues to also consider. 1) layers lay best when they get a lot of light. One way is to put in a light bulb. But to me that seems cruel to screw them up that way. Instead I built the roof out of clear plastic roofing to make the most of the available light. My hens back off on their laying during the winter, but only about 15%. 2) Chickens will do quite well in the cold as long as they’re dry. They (like us) give off quite a lot of moisture when the respire, so you need to have enough ventilation to allow moisture to escape. I designed a screened flap I can leave slightly open low on the coop wall for air intake and the corrugated roof allows for air to escape. Cold air comes in through the low flap and warm air escapes through the roof – just like the draw on the chimney.

  2. Whoa there, sister! That’s a slippery slope you’re starting to slide down! I hope you’re not planning hardwood floors and granite counter tops for the coop!!

  3. I really got a smile reading this one. I feel like I have to rationalize spending money on “frivolous luxuries and extravagances” like no one else I know. Since I have a waterer. I have a heater. I even have a heated water bowl for the barn cats. I think you may have stolen my thunder in that department. I do not have hardwood floors, nor granite countertops, nor coordinated ventilation systems for the outside residents around here. I don’t have hardwood floors or granite countertops in my own house! But, like so many things, it’s not so much necessity, as it is convenience and comfort that makes the decisions and arranges the priorities around here. Our convenience and our comfort shapes our decisions and our priorities, every time, without fail. Our animals (Bees, cats, dogs, chickens, guineas, whatever) should be grateful (to whatever extent they are capable of doing.) that we were also given a conscience and the ability to consider things beyond our convenience and comfort when we need to, or should. You guys did the right thing for the right reason. Thank you (again!) for helping me regain some perspective.

  4. Ah, the luxuries, aren’t they great. lol. If I lived in a cold area I would so have a heated water tank for my chickens. Our hens water only freezes a few times a year so a heated one isn’t worth it for us. On the other hand, I love my 55 gallon chicken waterer!! That is luxury for me as I hated refilling the waterer and then proceed to spill it down my leg (or into my boot so it sloshed) while walking to the hen house.

  5. LOVE this post! We don’t have the temps you guys although our waterers did freezer for about 3 or 4 weeks in December (quite unusual for us) and actually, it was a pain in the ass humping buckets of water around, especially when I spilt it on me. Grr. Doubled my morning chores easily.

    Great bit of writing

    Janie x

    PS just think how easily those granite counters would clean down…

  6. After dealing with frozen water several times in December, we purchased a water heater for Sam. With his school and sports schedule, he really didn’t have the time to deal with this and he wanted to make sure the chickens had water. A win-win for Sam and the chickens. Added bonus: Mom and Dad don’t have to take on the chore! 🙂

  7. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know I’m not the only who’s spilled chicken water down her boot. When you carry one of those things, the tray is just at boot-top level, so it’s easy to do, but you still feel like an idiot.

    I know this isn’t a representative sample of chicken owners, but it seems the consensus is that heaters are a perfectly fine solution to a very common problem, and not the first step down the slippery slope to a life of lounging on the couch, eating bon-bons and peeled grapes.