Saturday, January 8, 2011

Birds of a Different Feather & Winter Weather

While we have pretty moderate winters here in Portland, there are some days when I can't use the hose for tending to my flock's needs.  Today wasn't one of them, but upon awakening this morning, there was a furry, icy patina on everything; the beautiful type of frost that glitters in the light.  The ground was hard and the watering vessels had a skin of ice.

I get a lot of inquiries about poultry and winter hardiness.  In all my research, various studies report most chickens breeds are adapted to go down to 18 degrees fahrenheit.  This includes most breeds from SE Asia.  Some breeds from Northern Europe have the capacity to handle 12 degrees with aplomb-- notably the Hedemora from Sweden.  Cold is easier for chickens to take than extreme heat.  Feathers provide great insulation.  (Think down jackets, duvets, etc.)  Different species of birds as well as different breeds do have different weight/density of plumage.  Clues to winter hardiness amongst chickens is often evidenced in the size of their combs.  Most breeds with small, flat combs, i.e. pea combs, walnut combs, etc., tend to be hardier in cold.  (Though Norway's official chicken, the Jaerhon, has a rather sizeable comb and yet hails from a cold clime.) Feathered feet, and 'hard' feathering can also help with lower temperatures.

Frizzled plumage can cause a lower resistance to winter weather.  Frizzling is genetic and is when feathers grow in upside down causing a curly appearance. Due to this, there is not a great abundance of down.  About half a dozen breeds of chickens have this gene-- Ameraucanas, Cochins, Japanese, Plymouth Rocks, Polish, Sumatras, and Seramas.  People thought it looked nifty, so they bred for this quality.  I will elaborate about this trait in future postings.  Some members of my flock are frizzles....
Sultan - Sumatra rooster
Buntie - Polish Tolbunt

While we have the ability to withstand some chilly temperatures-- it doesn't mean that most humans enjoy being cold.  With wanting to keep my birds happy & healthy, I do put heat in my coop when we hit the below freezing days.  I use ceramic heat emitters, which function just like a heat bulb, but they do not create light.  (I will not rant right now about people who introduce light to induce egg laying during winter months. I think it's a unkind practice.)  I also use a really STRONG clamp and a good quality cord as I have been told too many tales of coops burning down with their inhabitants.  Sleeping restfully can only happen when I am not stressed about my birds incinerating.

The antique book, "Poultry Architecture" by George B. Fiske and published in 1902, did have the results of a West Virginia experiment station with two poultry houses built exactly alike, but with one well insulated. They used the same breeds that were the same age and both groups of fowl were fed exactly alike.  The birds in the warmer house laid nearly 25% more eggs.  However, I also think the warmth is most important for my roosters with large combs.  The girls sleep with their heads tucked under their wing, the guys don't and can get frostbitten on those exposed crowns.

Adding extras to food & water is also helpful when it's chilly.  A sprinkle of cayenne pepper in the food is a great tonic and gently warming.  I fill all my waterers with hot water in the morning and add a teaspoon of blackstrap molasses per gallon.  The water cools off pretty fast but doesn't seem to freeze up before it is all consumed (and refilled if necessary).  Molasses is full of minerals; a good source of iron and aids with calcium absorption.  It is a great energizer. Lance, my Serama rooster runs right over and inspects that water thoroughly as if he's checking to make sure it's in there.  He always shows a lot more interest in the molasses water than the plain.  Serving food warm seems enjoyable for the flock.  Sunflower seeds are a beneficial treat, as they are fattening yet healthful.
Is that molasses in there?

The ducks & geese seem to show no effect with the lower temperatures.  They adore the wet weather and their antics always cheer me when I'm blue from all the grey skies.  The guineas also seem to be pretty indifferent to the cold and less effected than the chickens by the damp.  They all share the same food & water as the chooks (an Aussie/New Zealand word for chicken) since they all inhabit the same enormous run.  The waterfowl get extra basins for bathing.
adorable knit hen legs
Certain individuals in my flock approach me daily to be held and petted.  I am always amazed that no matter how cold it may be, their legs usually feel warm.


  1. Hi Michelle, thanks for the nice comments (and bookstore promotion!) on my blog. And for the link to your blog too; what a great resource for chicken advice. My flock (Marans, Americauna, Buff Orpington) are really feeling the cold this week. I'll add a little molasses to their water to cheer them up!

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