Exceptional Winter Chicken Care

Rapunzel in winter. Photo/Nicole Caldwell
Winter chicken care can be a particular challenge for those of us living in chillier parts of the world. At Better Farm, we've struggled with cases like frostbite in the flock more this year than the last four winters. Special precautions have had to take place, information for which we acquired through laborious research and interviews. To circumvent that legwork for you, here's a quick rundown of tricks you can utilize to ensure optimal comfort for your birds during the next cold snap.

For starters, let's go over frostbite. Frostbite is damage that occurs to bodily tissues from exposure to extreme cold when fluid in cells freezes. As a result of freezing, blood clots form depriving the cells of oxygen, causing tissue damage to varying degrees. In extremely cold conditions exposed tissues can suffer frostbite in minutes.

In cold weather, chickens are able to conserve body heat by restricting blood-flow to their combs, wattles and feet, the very parts of the body that give off excess heat in warm weather. The result is a decrease in warmth and oxygen to those extremities, which puts them at risk for frostbite.  

For the Damage That's Already Been Done
If you find that one of your chickens is having trouble walking due to frozen or frost-bitten feet, take the bird inside immediately but DO NOT put the bird near extreme heat like that of a wood stove, fireplace, or hair dryer. The drastic temperature shift can put a bird into shock or even kill it. Instead, warm the bird up gradually by putting it in a room of the house that is on the cooler side. After an hour, assess the damage.
  • Lethargic Chicken If the chicken seems dopey, is stumbling, or seems tired, provide sugar or electrolytes. Options include warm water with honey, apple juice or orange juice slightly diluted, or a berry smashed into warm water. Organic apple cider vinegar is an excellent additive to a chicken's beverage on a daily basis. If the chicken doesn't drink on its own you can take a small syringe and dribble the water mixture onto the bird's beak. Be very careful if you put water into the chicken's mouth--chickens don't swallow with muscles, they instead tip their heads back to let liquid run down their throats, so squirting water into a chicken's mouth can cause it to aspirate and choke. (From Yahoo)
  • Blackened Skin or Other Obvious Frostbite If your chicken has a blackened frostbitten area on the comb or wattles, coat the areas with bag balm or petroleum jelly. If the chicken is alert and behaving normally, it will probably be fine to go back outside in the coop. 
  • Peck Marks Chickens can be brutal to each other, and if they sense a weakness they will attack it. They may peck at one another's frostbite; and if they draw blood, they'll keep going. Coat the pecked area in Neosporin. (Note: Never use anything with pain killers. If anything on the ingredient list ends in -cain then it's lethal to chickens!) Keep the chicken isolated until the pecked area heals to prevent further pecking from other birds. If you can't keep the chicken separate for that long then coat the pecked area with pine tar or Blue Kote (in the horse section at the feed store.) When a chicken pecks and gets a mouth full of pine tar, it won't want to peck there again.
  • Damaged/Frostbitten Feet It can take up to six weeks to heal frostbitten feet, so you'll want to be able to keep the bird inside in a heated garage or (our favorite) spare bathroom. Depending on the severity of the frostbite, chickens may lose some toes or even an entire foot. Keep the chicken on a soft bedding, like a towel, that won't cling to his or her feet. If the feet turn completely black then there isn't much you can do except wait for the blackened areas to fall off. Often the chicken is able to survive this and continue on with life, though they will be crippled. If the feet only have partial frostbite, they may grow blisters. Do not pop the blisters no matter what! They will rupture on their own when the skin below is healed enough to be exposed. You can treat frostbite on feet by soaking them twice daily in warm water mixed with Epsom salt, grapefruit seed extract (a natural antibiotic), and hydrogen peroxide (will help to remove dead skin cells and keep bacteria out of healing feet). Don't let the chicken drink that water! Epsom salt in high doses can be very damaging. After a 20-minute soak, dry the feet and coat them with Neosporin or a similar product, then coat with Bag Balm to make a protective layer. Bag balm has menthol in it, which increases circulation and speeds healing. Finally, put loose bandages or an old pair of socks over the chicken's feet to protect them.
NOTE: If your chicken's feet become infected to the point that the chicken is no longer eating and drinking normally then you can administer Penicillin G. This can be purchased at most feed stores, along with syringes and needles. Full sized large breed chickens should get 0.5 mg injected once a day in the drumstick area of the leg, into the muscle. Injecting a chicken can seem a bit intimidating at first, but if you hang the chicken upside down with the help of a partner, the bird will quickly go limp and you can inject the Penicillin without too much trauma. While your chicken is healing be sure to feed it plenty of high protein treats along with normal amounts of food and water to help its body recover. Chickens love scrambled eggs, oatmeal, fruit, and most table scraps aside from raw potatoes and salty foods.

Preventative Care
Here's a great idea for a highly insulated wind break chickens can enjoy. All this design takes are four pallets and some hay.
In the winter, whether you've got extreme subzero temperatures or not, chickens should have a place they can go to get away from drafts, snowfall, and cold wind. We recommend putting a tarp over a run and layering fresh hay on the cold ground regularly. This will help prevent frostbitten feet. Some people like to use heat lamps and bulbs for their birds in winter; but in general, we'd caution against that. Heaters can cause additional shock to the system when a chicken goes in or out. Generally speaking, most chickens can acclimate to very cold conditions when given the chance to do so naturally throughout a season. That being said, we have put a small bulb out with the birds under a covered run on extreme days (-20 or colder) in order to melt ice and give the birds a little bit of an edge. here are some other tips:
  • Ventilate the Coop Your goal is to get as much air exchange throughout the coop as possible without drafts, particularly in the roost area. Ideally there will be windows and/or vents on all four sides of the coop. Ventilation holes towards the top of the coop, far above roost height and chicken height are best for achieving effective cold weather air exchange. If your coop does not have adequate ventilation, create more. Think: windows, not little holes. Install as much ventilation as high up on the walls as possible while ensuring that the air over the roost remains still. You want the warmest, heaviest air moving up and out of the coop. 
  • Limit Moisture in the Coop Most breeds tolerate cold extremely well, but freezing temperatures inside the coop in addition to moisture is the recipe for frostbite inside the coop.  Frostbite is most likely to occur overnight in a cold, poorly ventilated coop where damp bedding and moisture from droppings and respiration cannot escape. Chickens generate a great deal of moisture from respiration (breathing) as well as from pooping as droppings consist of 85% water. If the windows of the coop have condensation on them in the morning, there is not enough ventilation in the coop.
  • Keep Litter Dry and Fresh We use shredded paper and dry hay as bedding in our coop; other people recommend sand because of its ability to evaporate moisture so rapidly and retain warmth. 
Tips gleaned from a variety of sources, most notably Yahoo and The Chicken Chick.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.