A funny thing happened on the way to building the new chicken coop…
It snowed. 5 inches. Then another inch. And just to be sure we noticed: 14 inches more.
Needless to say, construction has been put on hold. Initially because I needed to spend the better part of a week digging out my property. But now because I’m not about to raise the new coop in the knee-deep snow and coldest weather so far this winter.
In fact (contrary to what I said before) I don’t even know if the new coop is necessary.
The snow – and all the shoveling that goes with it – has provided ample time to reflect on how effectively I am wintering the chickens:
* The chickens are all big and healthy. I’ve been “overfeeding” them to make sure they stay this way. They’ve got energy to burn and insulation to hold heat. I’ve also been filling their water jug with tap-hot water every morning. This doesn’t necessarily keep the coop warm (as per the original plan) but it lets the birds warm themselves from the inside. They love it.
* The coop design and orientation has effectively kept the birds out of weather and wind. In fact, a thick layer of snow has built up on the most weather-hammered side of the coop, providing natural protection and insulation.
* The composting floor has been great for sanitation but hasn’t produced the heat I originally thought it would. However, dig down into it and it’s warm at the core. The chickens have figured this out and nestled down into the floor a few times.
* The ventilation at the coop peaks have kept condensation from building up. In fact, I’ve been keeping an additional panel open at the base to increase air circulation even more.
* The idea of using solar warmth was clever but has been irrelevant: the sun hasn’t shone much. Same with the stone foundation: there’s no heat for it to absorb and radiate.
What I’m starting to realize – based on this experience and additional reading – is that successfully wintering chickens has nothing to do with heating the coop.
It has everything to do with allowing the birds to heat themselves.
I’ve read that chickens are fine in temperatures as low as -20 degrees F. The key is to make sure they stay dry and out of the wind. The wet-and-windy combo produces the double whammy of lowering body temp and frostbite. Deadly.
Keep your birds fed and hydrated, dry and breeze-free, and you’re good to go.
I just picked up a book called “Fresh-Air Poultry Houses” from Norton Creek Press. It’s a reprint of a 1924 book in which the author advocates for open-air coops year round – even in harsh New England winters. We’ll see exactly what the book has to say on the matter.
Bottom line: my birds are doing great. They are active. They do not have frostbite (although the Red might have been tagged just a bit). And they continue to produce outstanding eggs.
In fact, after the coldest night so far (3.5 degrees F), there were three full-sized eggs waiting for me the next morning.
This is the best sign for sure. Also a big confidence boost for the novice chicken wrangler. And evidence that a new coop is unnecessary?
BackYard Chickens (2008, December). Uh oh.. does this mean my chickens are getting frostbitten? [forum] Retrieved from http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/115050/uh-oh-does-this-mean-my-chickens-are-getting-frostbitten
Plamondon, R. (2012, December). Winter Chicken Care. Retrieved from http://www.plamondon.com/ncp_newsletter121124.html
Ultimate Fowl (2008, Sept. 26). Basic Preparations for the Winter Months. Retrieved from http://ultimatefowl.wordpress.com/2008/09/26/basic-preparations-for-the-winter-months/