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.