Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Winter Chickens – Mother Nature Versus the Coop

There were chickens long before there were chicken coops. It is believed the species developed as a jungle bird in what is now India and southern Asia. While thi might lead some of us to assume that these birds need to be kept warm in colder climates, remember that over thousands of years, chickens have acclimated and are now kept in almost all parts of the world.

Different breeds were developed in different parts of the world. Archeological evidence shows that chickens were used for trade throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean as early as 1400 BC.

 (Edward Neale - Gallus gallus)

As trade routes spread, so did the chicken. By the Roman era – about 2000 years ago - chickens were already living in the cold, northern parts of Europe.

Two-thousand years is a lot of time for a species to get used to the cold! Chances are the Vikings didn’t keep their chickens in heated coops, and yet these tenacious jungle birds thrived up there in those cold regions.

Interestingly, one can see the differences in breeds that developed in colder regions over thousands of years. Many of these breeds have feathered feet and small or walnut combs, which are less prone to frostbite. This is not to say that a breed with a large, single comb can not thrive in cold areas. They can. 

OK – so do you need to heat and/or insulate your coop?

The short answer is no. Nature gave chickens a nice, thick down jacket to wear – and if you’ve ever worn a down jacket, you know how warm they can be! Most chickens do just fine in a well-ventilated coop where they are protected from the wind and precipitation.

That said, protection from the wind is a very different thing from a lack of ventilation. Proper ventilation and airflow are extremely important in any coop!

Frostbite is most likely to occur if there is moisture mixed in with cold air. The moisture condenses - or settles - on warmer extremities of living critters, and then the cold air freezes that moisture. This causes frostbite.

Chickens create a lot of moisture when they breathe. All critters do – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t need a “defrost” setting in our cars. Our car windows fog up on cold or wet days because we have all the windows shut tight, and we are sitting in this closed box… breathing. The moisture from our lungs (and from the air inside the car) condenses on the window. The defrost setting works by creating air flow – ventilation – on the windshield to provide fresh air and move that moisture around instead of letting it all collect in that one place.

So, think of a chicken coop as if it were a car. On cold, wet and windy days, our first instinct might be to shut that coop up tight to protect our birds from the harsh elements. If we do that, though, we might actually be creating even harsher elements right there inside the coop. We are shutting up all that moisture inside the coop, and preventing the airflow that would otherwise clear it out and keep the air fresh.

Chickens don’t do well in an airtight, moist setting. Unfortunately mold, mildew, bad bacteria and germs do very well in such a setting. And those germs and bacteria will find the warmest place in your coop, which will likely be your chickens… and to the moistest place on your chickens which will be their eyes, nose, lungs and vents. And then they’ll start to grow and reproduce. Eeeww! Right?

By shutting up our coop, we have created the perfect set up for both frostbite and disease. Add to that a heater or heat lamp, and we have created a veritable Petri dish for bad things to thrive in… and a possible fire hazard.

So – how do we get ventilation without exposing our birds to the elements? Cutting vent holes up under the eaves of the coop is one of the best ways. (*Be sure to cover your vents with hardware cloth to keep predators out.) Heat rises and moisture will ride up on that heat. Having vents at the top of the coop will allow that moisture to escape. 

Yes – some of the heat will escape too, but the cold temperature is much less dangerous to your birds than the moisture.

Don’t underestimate the amount of ventilation you need. A 6” x 6” square vent isn’t enough for a 6’ x 6’ coop, unless you have other windows you can leave cracked open, or unless the walls of your coop are slatted and not airtight.

More is better. Just plan your ventilation areas to be above or below (or both above and below) where your birds roost. You don’t want a direct breeze on your birds in freezing temperatures, but you dowant the air to move somewhat through the coop.

The “Old Timers” will tell us that one does best to choose chicken breeds based upon your climate. If you live in a very cold climate, your heavier, feather-footed breeds with smaller combs will do better than leaner, large-combed breeds.

If you already have less cold-hardy breeds and you are faced with temperatures dropping into the extremes (like below 0 Fahrenheit), and if you decide you simply must heat your coop, then use heat lamps or heaters with extreme caution. An electric source of heat in a coop is a fire hazard.

Heat lamps should be hung from a ceiling and secured so they can’t be toppled or pushed up against something flammable. Cords need to be given special attention so that they are not near water and can not be chewed by other animals (like mice) in your coop. 

Don’t try to heat your entire coop to a certain level – don’t “bring the heat to the birds,” but let the birds come to the heat if they desire it. The birds that want it will roost under the lamp, but they can escape the heat if they don’t care for it.

Also remember that if you chose to heat your coop, your birds may acclimate to having that heat source. This can be a problem if you lose power. Take that into consideration before deciding whether or not to heat your coop.

So there’s your food for thought for today. Wishing everybody a well-ventilated winter!

Leigh -

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