Extension Viewpoints: Tips for winter chicken care

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    By Robin Young
    PREVIEW Columnist

    Chickens are a fun addition to your life year-round. While chicken housing and care can seem simple during the spring and summer, when the birds can roam free in the grass, winter housing and maintenance can require more thought and planning. Colorado winters regularly go from mild and pleasant to cold and harsh overnight. It is important to ensure your chickens are set up for comfort before the next big snowstorm hits.

    Proper housing is the first way to combat issues caused by the cold. Properly constructed housing will provide your birds with an ample, wide, roost space. Wide roosts (around 4 inches) allow birds to sleep with their feet entirely covered by their bodies. The downy feathers and heat from their bodies will cover the feet and keep them warm through low nighttime temperatures. Placing roosts close to the coop ceiling or having a coop with a low ceiling will help retain the warmth from the chickens’ bodies. Never place roosts higher than 4 feet off the ground, to prevent injuries from jumping on and off the perch. Coops should be well ventilated and have some air movement. Regularly remove wet bedding and replace it with dry bedding to keep the humidity in the coop lower. Chickens will do better in the winter if they have somewhere dry and unfrozen to stand; this also helps to prevent frostbite.

    Chickens are hearty animals and generally will not require an additional heat source, provided they have a dry, well-ventilated place to sleep. Allowing chickens to acclimate, the changing seasons can help birds thrive during the winter months. 

    In Colorado, the concern for chickens are the sudden temperature drops and change in weather. These sudden, very low temperatures can result in frostbite on combs and toes, even in coops that are generally well insulated. Heat lamps and heaters can help tide birds over through nights where the temperature is below freezing for more than several hours. Heat lamps and heaters should be secured in a location away from direct contact with the birds and bedding. There should be enough room in the coop that birds can move away from the heat source if they become too warm. Heaters pose a fire risk and the electricity source should be located away from the birds.

    Frostbite on chickens can range from some spots on the comb to loss of toes or feet. Commonly, frost bite presents as black scabs on the comb. The black area is a patch of dead skin that has frozen and died. The black area will scab over and flake off, healing underneath. When temperatures stay well below freezing over weeks, the tips of single combs may also freeze and fall off. Combs are more likely to get frostbite if the chicken is housed in damp, drafty conditions. Mild areas of frost bite on the comb pose no serious health risk to the bird, but are cosmetically detrimental.

    Do not use a heat lamp or heating pad, as this will heat the bird too quickly and cause pain. Isolate the bird from the flock to allow it time to heal. It is more likely you’ll find a bird after the frostbite has thawed and become red and swollen, looking like a blister. Again, isolate the bird from the flock so it has time to heal. Coat the affected area in an antimicrobial spray (available at most pet stores or farm supply stores) and wait for the swelling to go down. The area will scab over and eventually the dead tissue will fall off. Do not pop the blisters or remove the black scabs; this will open the bird up to greater infection. Toes generally do not need to be amputated, as the impacted area will fall off on its own, but this will leave the bird missing a toe. Chickens can adapt to the missing toe and go on to live a happy life.

    Good planning for housing can help save your chickens from any winter blues. Finally, make sure the birds have access to food and water, regardless of the weather.

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