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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.