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The Omlet Blog

Are My Chickens Too Cold?

A boy sat in an Eglu chicken enclosure in the snow

Chickens are hardy birds, and are fantastically good at adapting to the climate, whether it’s midsummer or deepest winter. Unless the winter in your area is very harsh, your chickens will be able to keep warm by snuggling up in the coop, and the cold weather will not prevent them from going about their usual business of scratching and pecking through the run or garden.

How do chickens keep warm in the winter?

The chicken’s secret is natural insulation. Their feathers help them retain body heat and warm the air trapped beneath their downy under-feathers. When she’s at rest, a hen’s body temperature is 40–43C, and her heart rate is around 400 beats per minute – evidence of a high metabolism that sets up the birds very well for winter weather.

Watching chickens scratch at the frozen ground or strut through the snow, you might wonder how they manage to keep their feet and legs warm. After all, this is one part of their body with no feathers to keep it cosy (unless you happen to have a feathery-legged breed such as the Cochin, Brahma or Silkie). The answer lies in the chicken’s leg scales, which retain heat to a certain extent. The average chicken will always be on the move, not keeping all its toes on the ground for too long.

How can you tell if chickens are too cold?

You can tell if a hen is feeling cold by simply looking at her. She will have her feathers ruffled up and will be perched off the ground, probably with one leg tucked up. Her wattles and comb may look paler than usual. These are not signs of distress, and as long as the chicken is only having a brief rest, rather than staying hunkered up for the whole day, you don’t have to worry.

Chickens are should not be allowed to remain soaking wet. This is more dangerous than the outdoor temperature or the falling snow, and in extreme cases will result in hypothermia. An affected hen will be stiff and cold to the touch, with her eyes wider and unblinking, or closed. If you find one of your chickens in this state, take her indoors and wrap her in a warm towel. When she recovers, put her in a bedding-lined box in a warm spot for a few hours.

Does perching keep chickens warm?

Like many other birds, chickens often adopt the ‘one leg’ pose in the winter, tucking one of their limbs up into the warmth of their bellies. This reduces overall heat loss and stops feet and toes from freezing on the icy ground. Like all birds, chickens are warm-blooded, and their own body heat soon works its magic.

Four chickens sat together on a perchPerching is the most effective way for a chicken to retain body heat. A hen hunkers down when roosting, with her feathers fluffed up and her legs tucked into her warm body. If space allows, install a flat perch in your coop or run. This will enable the hens to roost without having to curl their toes around the roosting bar, which in really cold weather will prevent their toes freezing. An upturned pot, a log, pallet or other slightly elevated space will give the birds a flat surface to perch on, to escape the ice and snow.

How cold is too cold for chickens?

Chickens will regulate their temperature and behaviour accordingly, so wherever humans can live, chickens can thrive too. It is the combination of cold and wet that can prove fatal, so ensuring a dry coop is vital, and any bird who becomes soaked should be towelled dry. Applying Vaseline to their combs will prevent frost bite.

Can chickens freeze to death?

Cold conditions will not usually kill chickens, as long as they have a warm coop to retire too when the weather become extreme. Cold hens may be more susceptible than usual to illness and parasites, though, and their egg production will fall. The chickens will simply hunker down on perches and in nesting boxes, with their feathers fluffed out.

What’s the best chicken coop for cold weather?

The type of coop you have makes a big difference. In really cold winters, a wooden coop with a draughty coop door can soon become damp and semi-frozen – not to mention very draughty – while a more robust state-of-the-art structure such as the Eglu will keep out the cold and damp and enable chickens to defrost after a busy day in the run. The temperature in the Eglu will remain relatively high when all the hens are tucked in at night.

You can help your backyard chickens keep warm in the frost and snow by making sure the coop is clean and dry. Clear out any snow dragged in on the birds’ feet, and keep an insulating layer of straw on the floor. You can give the birds extra protection by insulating the run – although there should still be some ventilation, to allow the gases released from the birds’ droppings to escape.

An automatic door will help keep the living quarters snug, too. If installing a heater, it must be one designed specifically for hen houses, and it’s best to use it only if the temperature dips below -5°C, otherwise hens may get used to being cosy all the time, and that could be disastrous if the heater fails and the birds are suddenly exposed. Heat-pampered poultry can die of cold shock.

What happens if a chick gets too cold?

Chicks and young hens are more susceptible to the cold than adult chickens. If a young chicken has its full coat of feathers, it will be as hardy as the older birds. Chicks, however, will need protection from the cold, and should be kept under an appropriate heat lamp. Any chick left to fend for itself in cold weather will die.

Cold Weather Tips

Two brown chickens looking outside their coopThe following precautions will help ensure happy chickens in winter:

  • Protect combs and wattles from frostbite with petroleum jelly or an equivalent product.
  • Prevent water from freezing. Check it at least twice a day to keep it clear of ice. If a freeze is forecast, bring the containers indoors at night, or, if possible, buy a water heater designed for the job of preventing freezing.
  • Chickens usually return to the coop at dusk, but in the winter you may find your birds trying to get more pecking time from the short days. If your hens tend to wander in the dark, a high visibility hen coat will help you locate them, and will ensure they’re visible to anyone else, should they stray from the garden. The coats also keep the birds cosy, so it’s a double blessing in the winter.
  • Heat lamps or oil filled radiators can provide extra warmth in sheds and outbuildings, but are generally only needed for frail birds or ones with lots of feathers missing (such as ex-battery hens). The space should be made slightly less chilly rather than actually warm.
  • If you do not have a cosy Eglu, a wooden coop can be insulated with bubble-wrap, cardboard or old carpets or blankets.
  • Extra bedding on the floor of the coop will help keep the chickens warm, too.
  • Providing weather-proof shelter in the chicken run will give the hens some respite.
  • Some extra corn offered as a treat before the hen’s bedtime will act as an internal heater as the chickens digest it overnight. In general, hens will eat more food in the cold months, as more of their energy is spent keeping warm.
  • Some owners like to supplement their chickens’ diets with extra protein or a little suet, to increase their fat levels for the winter. Fat retains heat, and the whole bird benefits – not just the legs.

So, the answer to the question ‘Are my chickens suffering from the cold?’ is usually ‘no’. Make sure the hens’ environment – specifically the coop and run – is fit for all weathers, and your hens will be too.

This entry was posted in Chickens


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