This week has been a cold one. Really, really cold: lows of -3 and -10 the past two nights (not counting the wind chill). And it seems that everyone asks me, "How are you keeping your chickens warm in this cold?"
I don't know that I'm keeping them warm--the only way to be sure of that would be to bring them into the house with me, and I know I won't be doing that. I also won't be putting a heat lamp in their coop. Most chicken folk I know agree that putting a heat lamp in a coop with straw and other combustible materials is not only unnecessary but dangerous; just last year, in fact, a coop in our neighboring town of Urbana burned down because of a heat lamp.
I try to remind myself that songbirds with a lot less body mass are out there in the cold all day and night, and we don't often think about how they stay warm. Last year, when I was ordering my chicks, I was careful to choose breeds that were especially suited for cold-weather life--"cold-hardy," as they say in the poultry business. And when we built our coop, we made sure it had an elevated, enclosed box with good ventilation. Hens can get frostbite when too much moisture builds up in their coops, not just from the cold alone.
But even in this extreme cold, the girls seem to be doing just fine. Every morning I go out to their coop and open the pop door to their box, and they trundle down their little ramp to hang out in the run and soak up the morning rays. They generally stay in the run until about 4:30, when they climb up the ramp to the box and hop up to the roost--all except Capitola, who for some reason always waits for me to come home from work and lift her up onto the roost. Even on the coldest days we're still getting about 3 eggs, although Wednesday's eggs actually froze solid and cracked their shells before we could bring them in.
But sure, I still worry about the hens. So I've been putting extra bedding in the box and extra straw in the run for a little added insulation. And I'm giving them extra rations and a couple handfuls of scratch every day to make sure they're getting plenty of calories to stay warm. And to make sure they always have access to water, I invested in a metal plate heater for their galvanized waterer. That will keep us from having to thaw their water during the day.
But ultimately, I'm trusting my girls. Chickens are tough enough to survive even bitter cold like this. As my friend Debbie points out, they go around wearing little down jackets, after all. And if they're really cold, I know they can always retreat to their roost and huddle together.