March 4, 2016

Surviving the Winter with Chickens.

Having backyard chickens is fun. It’s a great learning experience. As in you learn that cleaning up poop is now something you do on the regular. Chickens are neat: they do cool, weird things like perch on your bare, unprotected knee when you’re just sittin’, chillin’ because they want to join in the fun.  They have a sixth sense about knowing when you’ve had enough to eat and will take that sandwich right out of your hand like a true interventionist. They also love to encourage you to get more exercise by cleverly creating real-life hide-and-seek situations. Chickens are adept hiders and will help increase your cardiovascular health by compelling you to run, squat, and spin as you try to find them before a raccoon does. Really, it’s for your own health. #participaction.

If you are considering introducing a small flock into your urban backyard, then you’ve probably already started reading posts about adequate shelter, feeding requirements, and care. Maybe you’ve even begun having those soft focus daydreams of sunny afternoons, of hens happily scratching a patch of dirt in your yard while gently clucking, of those long brilliant rays of waning summer sun setting tail feathers ablaze with golden hues. You haven’t lost your mind. You aren’t lost in some Little House on the Prairie fantasy. I’ll let you in on a little secret that only chicken owners know: those days actually happen. In fact, they happen more often than they don’t. Chickens are hilarious, and adorable, and scallywags (my mother-in-law’s word; isn’t it great?!). They are fun to watch and interact with. As with everything there are pros and cons, but if the downside is stepping on poop and the upside is amazingly delicious and rich eggs, I’ll step on poop any day (wait…maybe I should rephrase that…)

If you live in Ontario, chickens are awesome to own 75% of the year. The introduction of winter, however, brings on a totally different scenario. Gone are the sun-dappled days of chicken noises and warm, summer breezes ruffling fluffy bum feathers. As fall departs and winter arrives, the days grow shorter, colder, snowier, blowier, and downright cruel. Unless your chickens are the hardiest of breeds, they will probably refuse to step foot out of their coop, and will regard you with baleful expressions when you open the coop door and are blown in with an icy gust of snow and frigid air. If they could talk, I’m pretty sure my girls would spit out a “how DARE you?” every time I open their door to deliver fresh water. Are you prepared to host unhappy chickens for three months of the year? Are you personally willing to trudge to the coop, with snow in your boots, sometimes many times a day?

Winter with Chickens: the real deal.

surviving the winter with chickens.

This picture is one of the last times my girls ventured forth from the confines of their coop. Even a dusting of snow is enough to make them think twice!

To heat or not to heat

This is a big debate. Do you run heat to your coop in the winter or do you let your birds acclimatize naturally? It’s hard to imagine us people surviving a winter exposed to the elements, but, we aren’t built like chickens. Chickens are literally covered with lovely downy feathers that help them keep toasty warm in even the coldest of winters. Of course, this doesn’t mean that their coop can be drafty and unprotected, but, chickens are very good at fluffing themselves out and huddling against the bodies of their friends in order to generate and conserve body heat. While heating the coop with a heat lamp may seem like a great idea, it can be very dangerous. Tragically, each year there are many chickens unnecessarily lost to fire from faulty, or improperly installed, heat lamps. If you choose to heat your coop, do so with the utmost care; ensure that the heat lamp and the cord are securely fastened in many places, are away from any incendiary source (like straw) and is far enough above the chickens’ heads to prevent accidental burns. The heat lamp needs to be checked on a regular basis to ensure that both it, and the outlet are in good working order.  Also, if you do go with a heated coop, you must consider how much heating the coop 24 hours a day for 3-5 months will cost, and whether that cost is worth backyard fresh eggs. Many backyard chicken owners choose not to heat: it’s more convenient, cost-effective, and safe. If you live in a climate that experiences minus temperatures in the winter, insulating your coop and choosing a breed of chicken that is cold-weather hardy are probably wiser options than the alternative.


surviving the winter with chickens.

Chickens stop laying eggs

Although many factors play a role in the healthy egg-laying life of a hen (like adequate food and water), perhaps the most essential requirement is the effects of daylight. Most hens require 14-16 hours of daylight daily in order to lay eggs. As the days get shorter in fall and winter, their egg laying also slows down, and for many hens, stops entirely until spring. During this time, chickens will also begin their annual moult; about as bizarre as taking your parka off in a snowstorm, but true. And since regrowing feathers takes so much work, much of the energy needed to lay eggs is diverted to the moulting process. While it is not unheard of for a chicken to continue to lay all winter, especially if they’re young and/or a hardy breed, you can also induce the egg laying to continue by introducing supplemental light in the form of a lightbulb in their coop. By turning on a light in the morning and leaving it on until after dark, you are essentially extending the chickens’ day, which tricks their bodies into continuing to lay eggs, even if the temperatures are telling them to do otherwise. However, like adding heat to your coop, there is argument against adding light, and one worth considering if you have backyard chickens and not a bustling egg business, where daily eggs are your bread and butter. The winter slowdown for chickens is viewed by many as their natural laying cycle, and by giving your girls a couple of months off so their bodies can naturally reset for spring isn’t the worst thing in the world, even if it means you’ll have to actually suck it up and buy a carton or two of eggs (and totally think they taste so bland!).

Chickens may stop laying eggs, but they don’t stop pooping

If only the one reward for no eggs meant no poop. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Chickens do indeed continue to poop. And they don’t care if it’s -30C out and your fingers are burning and you can’t feel your toes; they fully expect you to chisel, scrape, scream and cry at their frozen towers of poop, that refuse to come off poopboards, roosts, and floors.

If your coop is unheated, be prepared for mountains of frozen poop. Also be prepared to actually be excited for the first 0 degreeC day: which becomes a panicked “clean out the coop day” before everything freezes solid again and you can’t get at the poop for another week. #thestruggleisreal

If you choose to do the deep litter method (learn more about that here. The Chicken Chick knows her stuff!), then your clean up will be exponentially less, and the poop will help keep your girls warm. Gross, weird, and true.

Frostbite panic

Unless you have chickens with tiny/no wattles and combs, you will face the frostbite panic. One day your girls’ wattles and combs will be all cute and red, and the next day, there will be creamy white speckles or patches, and then after that, grey to black patches. It happens. Especially when you have a period of extreme cold. Don’t lose sleep over it. As long as your coop is well-ventilated, you should be fine. If your coop isn’t well-ventilated, then make sure it is. Chickens generate a lot of water vapour through breathing and yup, you guessed it, pooping (there seems to be a common thread here…). When there isn’t enough ventillation in the coop, the vapour can’t escape, which creates condensation and sits on their poor little wattles and combs and then freezes. Creating good ventilation is key (not sure if you have good ventilation in your coop? Read this article at backyard Now, I’ve got the ventilation thing locked up, but still have a frostbite problem with my two girls with the largest combs. They are total slobs. I’m not even exaggerating. They literally submerge their heads in the water, then flick it off their faces, like a dog. It’s hilarious to watch, but also annoying because it’s not like they have tiny chicken napkins to dab the corners of their beaks on, so the water droplets they splash around hang out on their comb tips and wattles and freeze, which, on cold, cold, COLD days, becomes frostbite. You can, if you are really worried about it, slather the wattles and combs with petroleum jelly or similar. You have to do it on the regular and it still won’t guarantee that frostbite will be avoided. Every winter the two big combed girls get frostbite. Every. Single. Winter. And every spring, they emerge from their coop totally fine, and within a few weeks, the black spots are gone (and in a particularly bad case a couple of years ago, a part of the comb fell off). But, the good news is, less comb is a plus because it’s less exposed skin to freeze!  Again, if you haven’t started backyard chickening, careful breed selection is key. Try to get a breed that is hardy and has small or no combs and wattles.

surviving the winter with chickens

Penny whipping her head around after drinking water. I can’t even make this stuff up. #nophotoshop

Chickens still need water in the winter. Lots of it.

Just because there is snow everywhere, doesn’t mean you can stash your chicken’s water bowl for the winter. In fact, they still need as much water as they did before the winter began. Since I don’t heat my coop, I used to spend my days trudging back and forth to the coop, bringing with me fresh tepid water that would freeze within minutes of me leaving. I finally made myself a water warmer and have been really happy with the results. Now, it doesn’t stop the water from freezing altogether, but does slow down the process. On the coldest days, the water evaporates, then condenses and freezes so quickly that it creates a frozen surface 3 or 4 inches above the actual water, which is cool to see, but annoying to deal with because chickens are divas and won’t peck that sheer layer to reach the goods below, meaning I have to open the coop door, receive a round of dirty looks, then flick the ice ring with my freezing fingers. Then it’s all good for them, as they merrily go about their gossip at the water cooler and I shoot them my own dirty look, which goes totally unnoticed (typical).

Be prepared to have fresh water available for your hens daily.

surviving the winter with chickens

Even on a day with a windchill of -15C, where the water freezes in about 10 minutes, my girls still demand a good ol’ coffee break and chit chat.

Chickens have to be checked on—-even when they’re just in the coop

You know those days when you want to wear your PJs all day and curl up in a ball and watch TV? (and an FYI to Mr. Mudonherboots: no, that’s not what I do everyday!) When you have backyard chickens you don’t have that luxury. You’re on chicken time now. Even if you have a water warmer, you still have to check, every morning, that one of those scallywags didn’t knock the water over. You still need to feed them, and make sure that a hen didn’t decide to start laying eggs again. You’ll have to go and shovel a path, scrape icy bits out of door grooves, and hope to all that is right with the world that the coop lock will open the first time. You will repeat these actions more than once a day, even if you don’t want to. You will become a slave to keeping your hens from freezing to death or dying of dehydration. You will develop chicken fashion sense: bedhead and jammies with parkas; and robes with muddy, chicken boots will become de rigueur. You will wonder more than once if you have frostbite. The locks on the coop doors will freeze and you won’t realize this until your fingers are stuck to the lock and you can see, 30 feet away, your glove, half-buried in the snow. You will lose the key to the frozen lock in the snow and you will curse your choice of barefeet in boots. You will stand at the coop, look back at your warm, cozy house and feel like crying and wonder if anyone has noticed you’re missing. You will do this, over and over again, for months.  And you will do this because you know those eggs are delicious and worth the wait, and you’ve made the mistake of naming your chickens, so now, it’s on you.

surviving the winter with chickens.

Happy Winter Chickening!

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