Chickens are very adaptable birds (thus the reason they are common livestock in so many countries). However, chickens can get to cold. So… when should you be concerned for your chickens in cold temperatures?
To begin with, cold tolerance largely depends on the breed and health of the particular flock. Chickens can live in Alaska and Canada but can only survive (and thrive) when provided with what they need to cope. A breed’s temperature tolerance also varies depending on what temperatures the particular chicken is used to. If a chicken is raised in a naturally cold environment, it will be more tolerant of the temperatures in which it is accustomed to.
How cold is to Cold for Chickens?
For the average healthy flock of chickens, they will display discomfort when the temp dips below 20˚F. However, you only really need to be concerned when the temperature remains ~20˚F for extended periods of time, the ground is covered in snow and/or the chickens do not have adaquate shelter. If you have cold sensitive breeds, I would advise keeping an eye on them when it gets below freezing. However, this largely depend on the type of coop you have and the duration of the low temperatures.
If you have roosters and/or breeds with large combs/wattles, watch them when it gets below freezing. Chickens commonly get frostbitten combs and wattles in low temperatures. If you’re expecting a cold snap, I advise rubbing some grease/oil (like petroleum jelly, coconut oil or vaseline) on the comb/wattles of your chickens. This can prevent frostbite.
Breeding plays a very important role in the chicken’s cold tolerance. Generally, small, slightly built chickens are less cold tolerant but a few of the heftier breeds also bear the cold poorly.
Breeds that generally do not tolerate cold very well:
- Feather-footed breeds
- Cock-fighting Breeds
- Breeds with large thin/pointed combs/wattles
- Bantam breeds
Breeds that do well in the cold:
- Red/Black Stars (also known as Comets, Sex-links and Red Buffs)
- Barred Plymouth Rocks
- Rhode Island Reds
- Naked Necks
Things to take heed to in cold temperatures (for the safety of the flock):
- Make sure the chickens have a safe, dry place to be.
- Be sure the chicken’s coop is not to drafty and has good protection from the wind.
- Clear any snow out of the run (or area in which the chickens usually spend their time)
- Provide fresh, preferably warm water regularly so the chickens don’t eat snow if their water freezes (Eating snow will drop their body temperatures rapidly)
- Make sure the chickens have plenty of nutritious food to eat. Since feathers are made primarily out of protein, minerals and vitamins, it is vital to provide adequate amounts of those all year round so the chickens have plenty of thick, healthy layers for the cold seasons.
- Something you may also want to keep in mind is that chickens have a gland (called the Uropygial gland). If chickens are unhealthy or deficient in nutrients (such as vitamin A), the uropygial gland may not work very efficiently. If the uropygial gland is not secreting enough oil to water-proof the feathers, the chicken will be more susceptible to suffrage caused by low temperatures.
Should Chickens be Outside in the Snow?
Although I think it is good to let the chickens decide when it is to cold for them to be out, chickens can get stuck in deep snow, lose their way in the unfamiliar snowy landscape and get stressed. So, if there is more than a few inches of snow, it may be wise to keep chickens in a covered run/coop.