Chickens are hardy little buggers, and do surprisingly well in cold climates! Truth be told, excessive heat is usually more immediately life-threatening to chickens than cold weather is. Chickens are essentially walking, squawking miniature down jackets, after all! While they may not love the cold, chickens will easily survive even when outdoor temperatures are in the teens – especially when they are provided a properly winterized coop to stay safe and dry in! Read along to learn more about how to care for chickens in winter.
There are many measures you can take to keep your flock of chickens warm, healthy and happy in cold winter weather. These include winterizing the chicken coop with additional insulation, creating a protected outdoor space for them to enjoy, keeping an eye out for frostbite, and providing food and water in a slightly different manner. This article covers the top 10 recommended tips for taking care of chickens in winter, to prepare you and your flock for the cold! If you’re interested, check out 10 Ways to Keep Chickens Cool in Hot Summer Weather too.
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1) PREVENT COLD DRAFTS
Does your coop allow air to flow inside through slats, holes, or cracks? If so, plan to seal those up in preparation for winter! Freezing cold air drafts will quickly chill the chickens inside. Plywood can be used to easily patch holes. Or, use a tarp, durable plastic sheeting, or Tyvek material to wrap the coop. A proper chicken coop should already have a waterproof roof, but if not, seal that up too! However, do not block off all of their essential ventilation openings.
2) MAINTAIN GOOD COOP VENTILATION
Wait… Didn’t she just say to seal up holes and prevent cold drafts? Yes! I did. However, we also want to avoid creating stagnant moist air inside the coop, especially during the winter. A build-up of ammonia and moisture from their droppings and breath will increase the risk of moldy bedding, respiratory infections, and frostbite on their sensitive combs and wattles! Therefore, ensure the coop maintains good ventilation and low humidity.
Ideally, vents should be located near the top of the coop, well above where the chickens roost. This will allow hot steamy air to rise and escape, but prevent the potential cold drafts coming through the vents and blowing directly on them.
3) ADD ADDITIONAL INSULATION
Did you know that the internal temperature of an adult chicken is around 105-109°F? It sure is. Therefore, they generate a lot of body heat to keep themselves and their flock mates warm – naturally! In addition to sealing up the coop to prevent the cold from getting in, add extra insulation and thermal mass to better trap their body heat inside.
On the floor of the coop, add thick layers of bedding material such as straw or pine shavings. Depending on the size and layout of your coop, you can also add bales of hay inside, around the outside, or even under the coop to help insulate it!
You could also choose to follow the “deep litter method” during cold winter weather. Rather than regularly cleaning out the coop, continue to add more fresh bedding on top of soiled bedding. The “deep litter” provides insulation, and also produces some heat as microbial activity increases within it. However, do note that the deep litter method is only effective if properly and carefully managed. If not, it can also increase the level of humidity to undesirable levels.
4) MONITOR TEMPERATURE & HUMIDITY
If you’re curious about how well-insulated your coop is, how warm your girls are in there, or how likely it is for their water to freeze inside, put a thermometer in the coop. You will find that a properly winterized coop is significantly warmer than the outside!
We love using this indoor/outdoor thermometer. It has a remote sensor, so we can easily keep an eye on outdoor (or chicken coop) temperatures from the comfort of inside. It is also a hygrometer, meaning it monitors humidity levels too!
This may be a no-brainer, but ensure your coop is equipped with roosts for chickens to comfortably sleep on. The height will depend on the size of your coop, but at least 1 to 2 feet above the ground is a commonly recommended roost height. Being able to roost keeps chickens up off the cold floor. It also gives them a place to get comfy, fluff up their feathers, and snuggle in with their pals. There is warmth in numbers! If you have a chicken that tends to sleep alone or in another location (such as in the nest box), move her to the roost with the others at bedtime on dangerously cold nights.
For the most comfortable roost, I suggest using a 2×4” board on its wide side, as opposed to round or skinnier roosts. I have even seen some 2×4’s wrapped in cloth towels for extra cush ‘n comfort.
6) WATCH OUT FOR FROSTBITE
The most cold-sensitive part of a chicken is their comb and wattles. Even more, the larger the comb and wattles, the more prone to frostbite they are! Single-comb roosters are especially at risk. Chickens living in damp, cold conditions are increasingly susceptible over those with a drier environment, which is one reason why good coop ventilation is so important. A high wind chill combined with excessive moisture is a recipe for disaster when it comes to frostbite.
Watch out for black tips! The tips of a chicken’s comb and droopiest part of their wattles (the areas furthest from their body) will succumb to frostbite first, turning dark red, purple, to black in color. Blisters and yellowish-white colors may appear.
In addition to maintaining a dry coop environment, another easy way to prevent frostbite in chickens is to lube up their combs and wattles with vaseline, coconut oil, petroleum jelly. Some chickens keepers say they never do this, but some lather them up each freezing evening before bedtime. To learn more about treating frostbite in chickens, check out this article by the Chicken Chick.
7) PROVIDE A PROTECTED OUTDOOR SPACE
In addition to winterizing the chicken coop, winterize their run or other outdoor space to encourage them to come out and play. In a similar fashion to the coop, tarps or heavy-duty plastic sheeting can be used to cover the top or sides of a run area, providing protection from rain, snow, and wind. They will be very grateful to have an area to get some much-needed sunshine and fresh air. I have even seen some folks create poly tunnels, hoop houses, or makeshift “greenhouses” for their chickens – similar to what you’d grow food under!
Additionally, lay down layers of straw on top of frozen ground or snow, giving them a place to comfortably walk around. On the other hand, some chickens don’t seem to mind tromping through the snow! Keep an eye on those ones though, since their feet are also susceptible to frostbite.
8) PROVIDE ESSENTIALS INDOORS
You know the saying, “Feeling cooped up all winter”? Let’s all just reflect on that for a moment… When it is downright miserable outside, your poor cranky chickens may simply choose to stay inside their coop rather than brave the great outdoors. But is it enjoyable for them in there? Do they have what they need to stay healthy?
If it seems your chickens won’t be coming outside as much as they usually do, be sure to keep accessible food and water inside the coop. Maybe you already do this year-round.If you have space inside your coop, consider adding additional “entertainment” such as more roosts, hanging treat baskets, a cabbage tetherball, or other toys and treats to keep them busy on those cooped up days.
9) WARM FOOD, CARBS, & TREATS
Chickens oftentimes take a break from egg-laying during the winter, which we’ll discuss more below. During this time, their body shifts from demanding a protein-rich diet for egg production to one with more carbohydrates, used to provide basic energy and to stay warm. Continue to primarily offer and feed them their usual layer feed, which provides them the well-balanced nutrition that they need.
Surprisingly, chickens consume more feed in the winter than they do in spring or summer! Just like people, I suppose. Free-ranging chickens (or those with regular outdoor access) will be foraging less in the winter and getting less calories from supplemental food sources like insects or plants. Therefore, they’ll appreciate a little more feed to compensate. Also, the simple process of consuming and digesting food generates internal heat and helps chickens stay warm during winter!
My friend Amy lives in upstate New York, and treats her three hens to a special warm breakfast on freezing mornings. It helps heat them up and kick start their metabolism to begin the day. Perhaps your schedule doesn’t allow for daily warm meals, and that is okay! Do what you can, but keep in mind that they’ll appreciate some extra feed, carbs, and treats during this time.
Ideas for chicken treats during cold winter weather:
- Warm oatmeal, grits, cooked rice, cooked corn, or any combination of those
- Sprouted seeds and grains, for an additional boost of greens and nutrition – Read how we easily sprout seeds and grains for our flock here!
- Meal worms, to top warm meals or simply on their own
- Cracked corn, a popular winter treat to boost energy
- Scratch with black oil sunflower seeds and other goodies
- Dampen and heat up their usual layer feed on the stove top or in the oven
Finally, be sure to provide an additional source of grit if the ground is frozen or they cannot otherwise forage. Grit works within their crop to help properly break down food material. During other times of year, your chickens may be obtaining their grit naturally from the dirt in their run or yard. Without it, serious digestive issues can occur.
10) MAKE SURE THEIR WATER DOESN’T FREEZE
Like all of us, chickens need water to survive. Fresh clean water must be made available at all times, which can be tricky when it is freezing outside! While chickens do prefer to drink cool water over warm water, they will not break through a layer of ice to access the water below! You’ll need to keep their water defrosted for them.
Ways to prevent your chickens water from freezing during the winter:
- Keep the water container inside the coop or winterized run space you’ve created, which hopefully will be several degrees warmer than ambient outdoor temperatures. Perhaps this will be enough to keep the water defrosted!
- Manually change out the water as needed. This may mean bringing out fresh water each morning, or potentially a couple times per day – depending on your weather. Be sure to have two chicken waterers, bowls, or other containers available so you can simply swap out the frozen one for a fresh one.
- Insulate the chickens water container to prevent it from freezing, such as with old wool caps, towels, or other materials. *Try this nifty trick: Fill an old tire with insulating material such as bubble wrap, wool blankets, or even straw (though the latter two may get wet and soggy) and then place a large black bowl full of water in the center. The bowl should be about the same size as the tire’s center hole. Prop it up with bricks or wood if needed, so that the bowl rim is at the same height as the tire rim. Then keep this out in a sunny location. The black color and insulating material will draw in heat, preventing the chickens water from freezing.
- If electricity is available in your chicken coop or run, use a heated pet bowl, heated poultry waterer, or specialized heated base to set their water container on – all made for this very reason.
OTHER WINTER CONSIDERATIONS
Let’s start by saying this is a somewhat controversial subject. Some chicken keepers insist that heating a coop with an electric heater is not necessary. It may also encourage your birds to stay indoors rather than getting fresh air outside, or prevent them from getting accustomed to the cold. However, some chicken keepers routinely provide supplemental heat for their chickens in the winter – be it out of “necessity” and extreme cold, or simply because they feel sorry for the poor dears. Others only provide heat on occasional or unusually extra-chilly nights.
The risk of fire is the largest concern with providing supplemental electric heat, so do your homework, heed safety precautions, and exercise good common sense if you decide to go this route! Traditional heat lamps pose the most fire risk, as they can easily topple over into bedding or other ignitable material. There are some safer radiant-heat options available that pose less risk.
To heat or not to heat your chicken coop in winter is a personal decision.
Age & Breed of Chicken
The advice provided in this article is geared towards fully-grown, fully-feathered chickens in winter. Chicks or pullets (young chickens) that are not fully-feathered cannot keep themselves warm the same way adult birds can. Thus, they require special care, warmer temperatures, and should not be outside in cold weather without supplemental heat. To read more about how to take care of baby chicks, see this article: “Baby Chick Care 101: Brooders, Butts, & Beyond”
Thankfully, most breeds of chickens do rather well with cold weather. Some of the most cold-hardy chickens breeds include Ameraucana, Easter Eggers, Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Speckled Sussex, Brahmas, and Australorps. Even their bantam (small) counterparts can hold their own! However, chickens with “frizzle” feathers are not as cold-hardy, because their fancy flippant feathers don’t provide the same insulation as standard feathers. As we discussed above, chickens with large single combs are the most prone to frostbite – so keep a closer eye on them!
To learn more details about popular chicken breeds, including heat and cold hardiness, egg-laying habits, demeanor, and more – see our article “The Top 18 Backyard Chicken Breeds”
Egg Laying in Winter
It is very common for chickens to stop laying eggs in the winter, or to vastly decrease in frequency. This provides their bodies a natural break from the energy and nutrient-intensive process of producing eggs, switching into conservation mode instead. The decline in egg production is triggered by the decreased light and shorter days of winter.
Some chicken keepers provide supplemental light inside the coop to keep their chickens laying through winter. Personally, we don’t support this practice because it goes against their natural cycle. Furthermore, hens only carry a set amount of eggs in their bodies for their lifetime. Pushing them to lay through winter will result in the hen slowing down or stopping egg production earlier in its life.
If your hens happen to lay eggs in the winter, be sure to collect them quickly! Eggs left out in cold conditions can easily freeze. While you can still consume eggs that have been frozen and defrosted, they usually expand and crack open while freezing – which is not ideal.
Molting During Winter
Most chickens go through their annual molt in the fall, and have hopefully regained most of their feathers before winter hits. However, if you find your chickens happen to be a bit naked come cold weather, there are a few things you can do to help them stay warm.
- Provide extra protein-rich foods to encourage fast feather growth.
- Create a “chicken sandwich” by tucking them between their biggest, fluffiest buddies on the roost at night.
- If necessary, carefully set up a heat lamp in the coop – or even bring them indoors.
- Do NOT put chicken sweaters on them! The extra pressure against them is very uncomfortable and even painful while their new feathers are growing out.
For more tips, see this article “Help, My Chicken is Molting! How to Care for Molting Chickens”
And those are the secrets to keeping your chickens warm, happy, and healthy in winter.
I hope you found this information to be useful, and learned something new to help you take the best care of your chickens in winter! Please feel free to ask questions, and pin or share this post. If you are new to raising chickens, be sure to check out our chicken-keeping 101 article: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Backyard Chickens”. Finally, when winter goes away and things start to heat up again, come back to learn 10 Ways to Keep Chickens Cool in Hot Summer Weather!