Can Chickens Stay Outside In The Winter?

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“I’m worried about my chickens as winter approaches. Can they stay outside in the cold, or do I need to build them a heated coop? I’ve never kept chickens through winter before and want to make sure I’m doing it right,” thanks, Emily, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Can Chickens Stay Outside in the Winter? A Comprehensive Guide

Hey Emily! I’m glad you reached out about your chickens’ winter care. It’s a common concern for many first-time chicken keepers, and you’re smart to plan ahead. The short answer is yes, chickens can generally stay outside in winter, but there are important factors to consider to ensure their health and comfort. Let’s explore this topic in detail to help you prepare for the cold months ahead in Denver.

Chickens’ Natural Cold Tolerance

Chickens are surprisingly hardy birds. They’ve descended from jungle fowl and have adapted to various climates over thousands of years of domestication. Most breeds can withstand temperatures well below freezing, thanks to their unique physiology:

  • Feathers: Chickens have excellent insulation. They fluff out their feathers to trap warm air close to their bodies.
  • Metabolism: Chickens have a high body temperature (around 105-107°F or 40.6-41.7°C) and a fast metabolism, which helps them generate heat.
  • Feet adaptation: Their feet have a special circulatory system that helps prevent frostbite.

However, Emily, it’s important to note that while chickens can tolerate cold, they do have limits. Extremely low temperatures, especially when combined with wind and moisture, can be dangerous.

Preparing Your Coop for Winter

To keep your chickens comfortable during Denver winters, focus on creating a draft-free, dry environment. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Insulation: Add insulation to the coop walls and roof. This helps retain heat without making the coop too warm or humid.
  2. Ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to frostbite. Vents near the roof allow warm, moist air to escape without creating drafts.
  3. Draft prevention: Seal any cracks or holes that might let in cold drafts, especially at chicken height.
  4. Roosts: Provide wide, flat roosts. This allows chickens to cover their feet with their bodies while sleeping, preventing frostbite.
  5. Deep litter method: Use the deep litter method in the coop. A thick layer of bedding (6-12 inches) can provide insulation and generate some heat as it decomposes.

To Heat or Not to Heat?

Emily, you mentioned considering a heated coop. While it might seem like a good idea, heating a coop isn’t usually necessary and can sometimes be counterproductive:

  • Chickens adapt to gradual temperature changes. Heating can interfere with this natural process.
  • If the power goes out, the sudden temperature drop can be dangerous for heat-acclimated birds.
  • Heaters pose fire risks and can increase humidity in the coop.

Instead of heating the entire coop, consider these alternatives:

  • Provide a heat lamp in extreme cold, but only in a small, separated area of the coop.
  • Use flat panel radiant heaters, which are safer than heat lamps.
  • Offer extra bedding and shelter during the coldest nights.

Winter-Hardy Chicken Breeds

Some chicken breeds are better suited for cold climates. If you’re in Denver, Emily, you might want to consider these cold-hardy breeds for future additions to your flock:

  • Wyandottes
  • Orpingtons
  • Plymouth Rocks
  • Brahmas
  • Australorps
  • Rhode Island Reds

These breeds have smaller combs and wattles, reducing the risk of frostbite, and dense feathering for better insulation.

Protecting Combs and Wattles

Speaking of combs and wattles, these exposed areas are prone to frostbite. To protect them:

  • Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to combs and wattles on extremely cold nights.
  • Consider chicken “sweaters” or comb protectors for breeds with large combs.
  • Ensure the coop is draft-free to prevent cold air from directly hitting these sensitive areas.

Winter Feeding and Watering

Proper nutrition and hydration are crucial for helping chickens stay warm in winter:

  • Increase feed slightly, as chickens burn more calories staying warm.
  • Offer cracked corn or scratch grains before bedtime. Digesting these foods generates body heat.
  • Ensure constant access to fresh, unfrozen water. Consider using heated waterers or bringing warm water out several times a day.
  • Provide extra calcium, as egg production can deplete calcium reserves needed for warmth.

Winter Egg Production

Emily, you might notice a decrease in egg production during winter. This is normal and due to reduced daylight hours. To maintain some production:

  • Provide 14-16 hours of light per day using coop lighting.
  • Gradually increase light in fall and decrease in spring to avoid shocking their systems.
  • Use timers to maintain consistent lighting schedules.

Outdoor Winter Care

While chickens can tolerate cold, they don’t enjoy wet or windy conditions. To keep them comfortable outside:

  • Create windbreaks around the run using tarps or plywood.
  • Provide a covered area in the run to protect from snow and rain.
  • Spread straw or wood chips on the ground to give them a dry place to walk.
  • Offer entertainment like hanging cabbage or scratch blocks to prevent boredom.

Frostbite Prevention and Treatment

Despite our best efforts, frostbite can sometimes occur. Here’s what to watch for and how to treat it:

  • Signs: Pale, waxy combs or wattles that later turn black.
  • Prevention: Ensure a dry, draft-free environment and apply petroleum jelly to combs and wattles.
  • Treatment: If frostbite occurs, warm the affected area slowly with lukewarm (not hot) water. Don’t rub the area, as this can cause more damage.

Winter Health Concerns

Cold weather can exacerbate certain health issues in chickens:

  • Respiratory problems: Watch for sneezing, wheezing, or nasal discharge.
  • Bumblefoot: Check feet regularly for signs of infection, which can worsen in damp conditions.
  • Parasites: Mites and lice can be more problematic in winter when chickens are confined more closely.

Regular health checks are crucial during winter months.

Snow Management

In Denver, you’re likely to deal with snow. Here are some tips:

  • Clear paths in the run so chickens can move around.
  • Remove snow from the coop roof to prevent cave-ins.
  • Some chickens enjoy pecking at snow, but don’t rely on it for hydration.

Final Thoughts…

Emily, keeping chickens through winter in Denver is absolutely doable with the right preparation. Remember, the key is to provide a dry, draft-free shelter, ensure access to food and unfrozen water, and pay attention to your flock’s behavior. They’ll let you know if they’re uncomfortable. Start implementing these strategies now, and you’ll be well-prepared when the cold weather hits. Thank you for being such a conscientious chicken keeper! Your birds are lucky to have you looking out for them. If you have any more questions as you prepare for winter, don’t hesitate to reach out. Good luck, and enjoy your winter with your feathered friends!

Whether you're a complete beginner and don't know where to start, or you're a seasoned chicken keeping professional and just want practical "how to" advice on tap our guide to keeping chickens has got you covered...

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