Chickens in winter

chicken house in snow

One of the biggest concerns of future chicken keepers, as well as novice chicken keepers, who live up north is how their birds will survive the winter. The short answer is that they’ll survive just fine! You don’t have to worry about heating the coop or feeding them hot cooked grains, both of which were done in the late 1800s in a failed attempt to get hens to lay eggs through the winter.

Your only concern is probably keeping fresh water in front of your girls. There is an electric heater base that is available commercially, but if you don’t have electricity in your coop, you can simply have two water bowls and swap them out twice a day. Put out a fresh bowl of warm water in the morning and take the frozen bowl in the house to thaw. In the late afternoon, dump the melted ice out of that bowl and take it outside with fresh, warm water to replace the one that is probably frozen by now. You can use dog bowls that have wide bases so that they won’t tip over if the hens decide to sit on the edge.

You don’t need to spend extra money on so-called “passive solar” water bowls. That just means that if the bowl sits in the sun, it won’t freeze. There is no “technology” involved in these bowls, regardless of what the manufacturer says. And battery operated heaters are an environmentalist’s nightmare. It makes no sense whatsoever to use eight — yes, eight — D batteries to keep a bowl of water from freezing overnight. The batteries are dead in less than eight hours, eating up one battery per hour for no reason. If you give your hens fresh warm water in the late afternoon, they’ll be fine until morning. And if they have access to snow, they’ll eat that, which contributes to their water intake. Chickens actually drink very little in the winter anyway.

As for insulating or heating your coop, don’t do it. Chickens survived just fine for centuries living in makeshift coops made from barrels or whatever scrap wood was laying around the farm. It wasn’t until the 1870s that commercial chicken keeping took root, and people began putting chickens in insulated, heated houses, thinking it would make them lay eggs through the winter. By the time they realized their mistake, confinement chicken production was considered the standard.

People also saw a huge increase in poultry diseases during this time, and by the early 20th century, some people were advocating a return to letting chickens go outside. Research showed that the above chicken house, which had no wall on the south side, made for healthier chickens, but most poultry producers would not be swayed. The debate raged on for about 30 years, and we all know who won. Today confinement chicken operations are the norm.

chickens in winter
Our chicken house — notice the open windows for fresh air?
Don’t open windows on opposite sides, however,
because you don’t want wind blowing through the coop.

I’m not saying you need to have a wide-open coop because that creates the whole question of what to do about predators. My point is simply that your chickens need fresh air more than a heated coop. If you have an insulated coop, you will create problems.

Condensation causes frozen combs, and ammonia buildup causes respiratory problems. Unfortunately, human noses are not sensitive enough to smell ammonia before it can start to damage chickens’ lungs. It’s not going to hurt you because you’re only in there for a few minutes. The chickens are spending most of their time in there, plus their noses are less than a foot from the ground most of the time.

Some people think you have to have certain breeds to do well in harsh winter weather, but back when our daughters were home, they’d get four different breeds every year for showing, including some Mediterranean breeds and bantams. We’ve never had Naked Necks, but we do have turkeys, which don’t have feathers on their necks, and they’ve done fine.

If I had a chicken that was going through an untimely molt and had no feathers on her back, I’d probably put her somewhere a little warmer when temperatures dipped too far below freezing. Thankfully most chickens have lots of feathers to keep them warm through the winter.

Since starting to keep chickens in 2002, we’ve had zero respiratory problems and only a frozen comb every couple years on a rooster or two. And we are in Illinois where below zero temperatures are common. Our chickens even survived when the temperature dipped to -25 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, 20 degrees below zero). So, to show some love to your chickens, rather than giving them a heater in their coop, just open a window so the ammonia and humidity can escape.

You may also be interested in reading 6 Things Chickens Don’t Need in Winter.

Post updated January 3, 2018

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16 thoughts on “Chickens in winter”

  1. The issue with an open-walled coop is predators. My girls are shut up "tight," but it's in chicken-stalls in a barn with great airflow.

    We use regular flat-backed plastic buckets for water in the winter. Remember, the chooks aren't getting up for a drink at night. I can bring in the bucket when I do night chores, after dark, and my husband takes out fresh water when he does morning chores, before light. Only on the coldest days do I have to bring warm water at midday.

    My hens refuse to go out in the snow. They like to peck snow off my boots, but when I open the pop door to snow on the ground, they stage a roost strike. They also appear to blame me for these unacceptable working conditions.

  2. That is an excellent point about bringing in the water after the hens are roosting! I never thought of that because we have a heater base for our waterer, but that is great info for anyone without electricity in their coop or who wants to avoid using it.

  3. I've often worried about the girls during winter, so I'm glad to know they will be alright. We're in southeastern Virginia, so I'm sure our coldest days are nothing compared to what you experience on a regular basis. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Like your article, we live in Fairbanks and some people don't use supplemental heat, beyond a light bulb, I have a 400 watt heater I turn on when it gets below around -10; when it gets down to -40 or so, I've had some frostbite on their peacombs, but otherwise they seem to do fine.

  5. I am in the planning stages of acquiring a very small (4-6) flock of chickens, and am doing my research. First off, I live in Northern Ontario, CDA, so was concerned about cold, not know whether chickens would exist here in nature. I figure that if grouse do, so could chickens. Would I be right?

  6. Thanks for the advise I was just about to purchase one you saved me time and money. I was going to heat the coop and I was surprised it really isn't needed. They are doing great your solution sounds logical.

  7. Thanks for all the information from everyone. I am new to raising chickens and I am worried about the cold winters here in Pa. I was looking for a small solar panel for them. I a doing this as a hobby. I have eight wonderful happy chickens. This is going to be their first winter.

    • Your chickens will be fine in Pennsylvania without supplemental heat. No need to buy a solar panel. In fact, you’ll be killing them with kindness if you do.

    • Since you said Sweden I assume you are talking metric, so -15 Celsius is equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a typical Illinois winter. Our chickens have done fine down to -20 Fahrenheit.

  8. The chicken coop above is like what my husband and I would like to build for our chickens but I can’t seem to find any plans that would give us an idea of the supplies that are needed so we can budget this. I am wondering where you found your plan to make this awesome coop.

    • This is a traditional chicken house originally developed by the University of Illinois Extension in the early part of the 20th century. We could not find any plans for it, so we just decided what dimensions we wanted, and my husband drew up the plans himself.

  9. I don’t advocate a lack of walls, at least in most areas, and for me in Vermont. Aside from inviting predators, we sometimes have south-angled winds that would be blowing directly on the birds. We use a greenhouse with deep litter, the sun heats it up wonderfully in the winter and they’re fully secure and ventilated.

    As for water, I deliver the birds warm water early in the morning and have it refilled with more warm water in early afternoon. I use alternating cheap buckets, one set thaws in my garage while the others are in use. I don’t bother giving them water later in day as they won’t drink much and it’ll be froze by morning.

  10. Doing research before building our own coop. This article along with shared comments provided great information. Very excited to be planning for my own flock.

  11. Passive. I built a +/- 8″ square wooden box with a handle. 2 bricks and a metal waterer (+/- 1 gallon metal coffee can) fit in the box. I heat the bricks up during the morning fire on the wood stove and then place the warm bricks and metal can with water in the box. That gets placed in in the coop by a south facing window where the bricks keep things thawed until the sun can take over. After supper I return the frozen contraption to the house where I start over the next morning. Works for me here in Canada.


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