The chickens in winter

It was about a year and a half ago that Kevin designed our chicken coop. We talked about it a lot – how big, how many nest boxes, what kind of predator protection. One of the central questions was whether to run electricity so we could heat it, if only with a light bulb, in the winter.

I seriously considered it until it occurred to me (after an embarrassingly long time) that people in cold climates have kept chickens for centuries, and electricity is a relatively modern innovation. My great uncle Frank, who had a subsistence farm in central Minnesota, would have laughed at the suggestion that his chicken coop needed electricity. He didn’t even have it in the farmhouse.

Still, when the weather gets cold, it’s hard not to worry about the chickens. They’re out there, with snow in their run, ice forming in their water, no heater in their coop. I can barely stand it when the house is below 70 degrees, and they’re out there when it’s 20.

And then I remind myself. They’re birds.

All winter long we watch the sparrows and chickadees, and do we worry about them? There they are, tiny animals with body weight measured in grams, scrounging for seed in the dead of February – and they’re just fine. Because they have feathers.

Everything I’ve read suggests that chickens do remarkably well in the cold. Their combs might get a touch of frostbite, but that’s about it. And last winter – our first with chickens – seemed to bear that out. While we lost one of our eight birds, it was almost undoubtedly either liver disease or post-traumatic stress disorder, and not exposure, that got her.

The flock even seems to have something of an affinity for cold. This morning, I brought them the waterer that had spent the night in the house, but they preferred pecking at the ice in the one that had spent the night in the run. While I stood there, trying to convince them to drink the water that was actually water, they started pecking at my boots, eating the snow off them.

They draw the line, though, at snowshoeing. Kevin and I felt sorry for them, all cooped up, and we opened the run door so they could free-range while we split a bunch of wood. They bunched up at the door, looked at the snow for a while, and then went back inside.

Whenever we split a bug-infested log, we’d bring it over to them for extermination, and they seemed perfectly happy with their diet of snow and carpenter ants, even if it was 30 degrees out.

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  1. Is that Blondie in front, looking as though she sees something the others don’t? It’s too bad she’ll never have progeny, although I guess there’s not a big market for smart feisty chickens that wander into neighbors’ garages.

  2. Reminds me of an online conversation I was in once in which someone asked what we admired most about animals. One of my friends said it was their built-in clothing – fur or feathers – that allowed them to thrive in most types of weather. He was jealous that he couldn’t do the same. Made a lot of sense!

    • Idle chicken question, prompted by Mom’s comment– why’s it a given that Blondie won’t have progeny? Does an egg farmer never allow any of the eggs to hatch, in order to replenish their brood? Why NOT hatch another Blondie?

      Oh wait… I think roosters figure into the hatching equation, somehow. Duh.

      Never mind.

  3. Another idle chicken question, prompted by your earlier blog post about oysters.

    I remember when I was a kid growing up on the farm (well, OK, the 20-chicken hobby farm), there was a time when our chickens suddenly developed very thin eggshells. They’d practically break from their own weight. (The eggs, not the chickens.) So when we went to the feed mill to ask if there was some sort of calcium supplement for chickens, it turned out to be a surprisingly heavy sack of crushed oyster shells. We gave them some of that to peck at, they loved it, and their eggs had thicker shells in just a few days.

    (Another childhood oyster shell memory involves visiting relatives in south Texas and being very impressed by the crushed oyster shells covering their driveway. Back in Wisconsin, we had only gravel.)

    So, do you ever give your chickens bits of oyster shell from your own oysters? If so, that must somehow be worth extra locavore points that could be traded for imported chocolate or bananas…

  4. Our chickens are averse to snowshoeing too, at least some of them are. The brown layers and the big orpingtons seem happy enough to walk in the snow. The bantams and fancy chickens can’t seem to get their heads around what that stuff is.

    Some of thebantams fly out of their coops and aim to land anywhere the snow isn’t. But it’s been an especially snowy winter and the “chicken” chickens just refuse to come out. I feel sorry for them so I bring them food and water rather than make them face their fears.

    It’s kind of embarassing to admit that you’ve had your behaviour modified by chickens.

  5. I somehow missed this post when catching up….I’ve read several of Robert Plamondon’s posts ( search on chickens) about chicken housing and raising- he’s republished some earlier books on those subjects, one of which promotes open front housing for chickens. Evidently, they (chickens) do do very well in colder temps, and the cold, fresh air is far healthier for them than being cooped up and subject to the ammonia their own manure can sometimes create. Chickens have very delicate respiratory systems, it seems. I also learned from his blog why the deep litter method works, and how it can actually improve the health of chickens and be a very important source of nutrition for them, as well as lower the incidence of coccidiosis.

    So you guys are find. Besides, snow insulates. If anything, with the amount of snow you guys have been getting, you might have to go out and punch air holes into the snow around the coop!

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