What 3 degrees (F) or -16(C) looks like

Occasionally people new to keeping poultry will ask me at what low temperature they should add supplemental heat.  My answer, invariably, is “Never”.  Three reasons:

  1. Birds are built for the cold.  They grow a layer of down close to the skin that warms them, and the outer layer of feathers keeps the heat in.  They are actually far more cold-hardy than heat-hardy, so a bigger concern is keeping them cool in a hot climate.
  2. Risk of coop fire.  Every year coops burn to the ground because some well-meaning person left a heat lamp on for birds who didn’t need it, and either the lamp was knocked by the birds into the bedding, or an electrical fire started.
  3. Birds that are accustomed to a heated coop, may not fare well in the event of a power outage.

I’m not saying it is impossible for birds to freeze — consider the horrific examples here, here, and (most tragically) here — but so much do I believe in my birds’ ability to adapt to and survive the cold that I never completely close the coop windows on each side of my coop.  In summer I remove the glass altogether, to allow as much air flow as possible.  As the bottom of the window is in line with the roosts, in the winter I insert the bottom pane of glass so that there is no draft directly on the birds, but leave the top pane out to allow for ventilation.  The birds in the coop then, experience no wind chill, but otherwise, the inside of the coop is the same temperature as the outside.

Yesterday morning when I woke up, it was just 3 degrees F here (-16 C).  Cold.  Darn cold, in fact.  Cold enough that when I went outside and inhaled, my nostrils froze together.  Cold enough the heated dog bowl (outside the coop) I use for the “winter waterer” couldn’t keep up and the top was iced over.

So cold that even I worried about the youngest member of my flock, hatched only two weeks ago under a hen who thought November was the perfect time to go broody.  It has a few wing feathers but other than that, only baby fluff.  I was a little concerned about Mama and chick, alone in their nursery pen, in such extreme temperatures with NO heat, but I needn’t have been.  Here is a two-week-old chick when it is 3 degrees out:


I have never seen this chick under its mama.  The high on the day it hatched was 24.  In the two weeks since, the temp has rarely been above freezing.  For the past few days we haven’t seen anything better than teens.  Since there is no heat in this pen, the water freezes quickly so 4 times each day I carry a fresh waterer down to make sure Mama and chick have water to drink. The chick now knows me as “The Bearer of the Water” so gets excited when it sees me coming and runs over to get a drink.  It has never looked cold, or shivered or acted as though it is anything but a balmy summer day.

People keep birds in Alaska without heat.  Poultry in the lower 48 will be just fine if they can get out of the wind and have access to good food and liquid (!) water.  If it’s really bitter outside, they’ll stay in the coop, so — if you simply must do something to help them, consider easing their cabin fever by furnishing playing cards, board games, or cable TV.


One thought on “What 3 degrees (F) or -16(C) looks like

  1. I live in the Rose Hill area. I hadn’t really taken the time to learn how to navigate the social part of the BYC website. Since I’ve been stuck inside a lot more, lately, I have been perusing it a lot more and I discovered your post. It is nice to get a perspective from someone who lives in my area and see how they do things.

    This is our first winter with our flock of six hens (four RIR and two LH). We were not sure about heating and insulation, but decided to prepare ahead of time instead of trying to improvise in an emergency situation. There are still a few things we ended up “hurrying” to get done at the last minute, but 99% of our coop planning turned out to be very helpful with this Arctic Freeze.

    We have a lot of reasons for using insulation and pre-wiring for heatlamps/light. Most importantly, it was because we are second-shifters and don’t usually get up when the hens do. lol! We often disturb them at night, checking on their welfare before we turn in. That often wakes them up and they start stirring around, especially if we turn the overhead floodlight on.

    In this latest temperature plunge, the water in the coop has barely stayed above freezing. A couple of times it was slushy. If I get a heating water-er next year, I probably won’t leave the heat lamps on unless it gets below twenty degrees. The girls had plenty of time to acclimate and don’t like it too warm in the coop, anyway.

    The week before this latest cold spell, my husband made some upgrades to our pen, putting a plastic cover over it and making removable cedar panels for the north and west walls. Now that they have a wind break, the RIRs are spending more of their roosting time out there in the pen. The Leghorns don’t have the nice fluffy coverings so I guess that is why they go right in the coop at night. When it gets cold enough, the RIRs head in, too. I am sure it is also because they know that is where the water is.

    They are up long before we are, in the morning. We change the frozen water bowls frequently during the day, but I like knowing they have access to water even in the early morning. Someone could accuse me of pampering my hens too much, but I don’t think they could claim I was abusing them. We get the added benefit of still getting five or six eggs each day. That was the main reason we got chickens. We may expand our flock someday. We’ll have to build a bigger coop, if we do.

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