Cold Weather & Chickens

With our temps finally dipping into the minus temps, I thought I’d chat a bit about the cold weather here in southcentral Alaska. There has been much talk about when to heat coops, should I let my girls out, how much ventilation does my coop need, etc. The following are my thoughts, so please take them as such. It’s just how I do things, what works best for my situation. Other chicken keepers will have opinions about what works best for them. And, it’s all good info. Take what works for you.2butts

We don’t get it as cold as Fairbanks, but we usually get colder temps than on the Kenai peninsula or in southeast Alaska. Minus temps are not unusual. What has been unusual is that we didn’t get any minus temps in 2014. The times—they are a changin’.

In talking about chickens in cold weather, one thing many folks don’t realize is that most breeds of chickens are better suited for the cold than the heat. I had read somewhere that if a chicken’s internal body temperature reaches 114 she will simply drop dead. Cold, on the other hand, doesn’t affect them that way. Keep in mind, some breeds are better suited for the cold and some for the heat. I only have cold hardy breeds.

Before I talk about my situation, there are a few basics that need to be understood:

  • Frostbite is a result of cold + moisture. Think about standing in 20 degree weather when it’s dry. Now picture what it feels like wet. HUGE difference. The areas subject to frostbite are the comb, wattles, ear lobes, feet… basically, any exposed flesh. (Coops without ventilation will have moisture build up inside.)
  • Feathers are one of the natural defenses chickens have when it comes to the cold. Ever worn a down jacket? Chickens have beautiful down feathers which they use to fluff up and trap a layer of heated air right next to their skin. A draft will steal this layer of warmth, making draft free areas critical for their well being.
  • Hens usually sleep with their heads tucked under a wing, thereby keeping their comb, wattles and ears nice and toasty warm.
  • Chickens will roost together for warmth. Each chicken gives off approximately 40 BTUs of warmth (depending on her size).
  • Toes are protected when chickens roost on a relatively flat and wide perch, so their toes are covered by their breast feathers. A 2×4 (with the fat 4″ side up) works very well. If you have the 2″ side up, their toes can stick out below their feathers (and possibly get frostbite).

GeorgianaSnow_smAcclimate. Allow your chickens time to acclimate to the cold. If they are used to a warm coop when the outside temp. is much colder, they are more likely to come down with respiratory or other illnesses. Nature usually provides a nice adjustment period called autumn. Let your chickens feel the gradual drop in temp. I noticed a lot of downy feathers being grown during autumn.

To heat or not. I don’t heat my coop. That is, I installed a wall-mounted flat panel heater behind the roosts, but have not had to use it, yet. I wanted it in there for the 20 below temps, just in case. My coop is well insulated—walls, ceiling and floor are all insulated between the 2×4 construction with R-13 batting. I don’t use a heat lamp, too much of a fire hazard. I know of a number of coops that have burned down, with the chickens inside. Yeah—not going there. The wall-mounted unit I have is warm to the touch, not hot. Very little fire risk, and I would only use it temporarily, if at all.

Ventilation. This is a biggie! And sometimes a bit hard to understand, at first. Ventilation will help remove the moisture that builds up from chicken breath and their poop. The last thing you want is a coop that is so tightly insulated there is no ventilation. That is a sure recipe for frostbite (and possible respiratory infections). It seems counter-intuitive, but, you have to have open windows no matter how cold it is outside. How much? Enough so the moisture (and dust from feathers, litter, food, etc.) can be moved outside. Yes, you will lose some heat, that’s unavoidable. It’s best to have the open windows higher up, since heat rises. This helps keep your coop air cleaner in the winter, as well reduce frostbite risk. Remember, chickens have an extensive respiratory system and are subject to illness if breathing in dusty air.

Draft free areas. As discussed above, chickens in drafty (or breezy, windy) areas have a much more difficult time keeping themselves warm. It is critical that they have areas where they can get out of the wind. Draft free coops are very important. Having your vents or windows up high reduces the possibility of creating drafts in your coop. Be sure the roosting area, especially, is free of drafts.

howHotIsYourLitterDeep Litter Method. I choose to do the deep litter (composting) method in my coop. I have found it takes quite a bit of time and determination to get just the right balance, so you don’t have ammonia build up, yet actually have it produce heat. I won’t go into all the details here—just too much. Perhaps I’ll blog more about that later. Basically, if you are doing it right, you will actually be generating heat from your litter AND produce yummy compost for your garden. A win-win, if ever there was one! Currently, my coop is 15 degrees warmer inside, even in minus temps. I suspect (hope) that as it continues to cook (compost), it will warm up even more. I know a couple folks who have had incredible results, but it took time to figure out exactly what worked best for their individual situation.

Keeping waterers unfrozen. I built two “cookie tin” heaters for my waterers (see DIY Cookie Tin Waterer on how to make them). I have one larger waterer outside in the run, and a smaller (chick-sized) waterer inside the coop. The inside one is only turned on when necessary and sits by an open window, so as not to create too much extra moisture inside.

Coop size. Your coop size and the number of chickens you house will play a role in moisture build up and how warm it will get inside without heat. Generally, 4 sq. feet of floor space per bird seems to be enough room without worrying about pecking issues (assuming they have access to an outside run). I have that ratio and it works well for my situation. Imagine only having three birds inside an 8’x12′ coop vs. eight birds inside an 8’x4′ coop. Which is going to be warmer just from the heat the chickens give off?

CoraInSnow_smBreed choice. I prefer cold hardy breeds since I live in a cold climate. I know folks in Alaska who choose to have breeds which require a bit more care in the winter. To each their own. Since I am relatively new to chickens, it made sense to choose a breed which would do well in the cold. I have Plymouth Rocks and Wyandottes, both of which are cold hardy, and doing extremely well in our minus temps today. All of my girls venture out in the snow and ice. None stay in the coop. I’ve always opened the door for the day, giving them the choice to go out or not. They all move around chattering, scratching, pecking… loving life.

So, I know that was a bit of a ramble, but if you gleaned any info from it then I am just pleased as punch. As chicken keeping is an ever-changing journey of learning, this is also a great reference for me to come back to in years to come, and see if my thoughts are still the same.

Here’s to a beautiful winter, filled with happiness and lots of farm fresh eggs!

Chicken Races

If you’re looking for a little entertainment, for both you and your girls, take them some leftover linguini and watch the fun begin! I must admit, I haven’t laughed this hard in some time.

While making linguini for lunch, I ended up with a piece in the sink strainer. Instead of throwing it out, I thought why not give it to the chickens? After all, cleaning up food scraps falls under their other duties as assigned. Right? So, out I went, linguini piece in hand. I was immediately met by all the girls. Their eyesight is keener than most realize—I swear they can see me all the way in the kitchen, and no doubt know what I’m doing at any given moment (kind of creepy, eh?)

I held the piece of noodle firmly about waist high over the girls. A couple of them didn’t hesitate to jump up, and I was surprised how high they can jump! I held it firm and Georgiana was the most persistent, with constant jumping and excitable noises (she’s my “loud” one). So, she grabs it, but hard! And off they go… Georgiana is running around the yard like a crazy girl… darting here and there, rather like a football game. She’s got the ball and keeps trying to avoid contact with the other girls. The only difference is, there is no goal area. She’s just running, and running, and running, all the while with noodle in mouth.

chickenRacesAt this point, I’ve almost peed my pants, I’m laughing so hard. This goes on for quite a few minutes. Finally, she is cornered by about three of them. Elsa, quite forcibly, grabs the noodle and pulls it out of Georgiana’s mouth. Georgie girl gets rather upset and grabs it back, rather hard and quickly. So hard, in fact, that she does a half gainer over Elsa’s head! I kid you not! I wish I had it on video… to see a chicken nearly attached at the beak to another chicken and do essentially a cartwheel with no hands! I’m still laughing. They both stood there afterwards, a bit stunned, no doubt wondering what just happened!

And the really funny part? During these acrobatic maneuvers the noodle was likely flung under the nearby porch, out of reach. It just plain disappeared. The girls looked for it all over. I’m still laughing! Oh, girls, you are quite the amusing bunch!

Needless to say, I made linguini again that day. Couldn’t help myself. :-)

Egg Storage

In posting a photo of my new egg skelter on my Facebook page, I was surprised at how many folks asked me, “You don’t keep your eggs in the refrigerator?” No, I don’t. My eggs are not washed and therefore do not need to be kept in the fridge.


Now you might get differing opinions from others, and to each his own. But these are my thoughts…

Mother Nature has thought of everything in creating the farm fresh egg. Not only is the egg a beauty to behold, but also very practical. The last stage in creating an egg—just before it is laid—involves adding the “bloom”, which is a protective coating over the outer shell. This wet coating quickly dries as soon as the hen lays the egg. It protects the contents from harmful bacteria getting inside. Think about if the egg was fertile and mama was sitting on a clutch of them for 21 days. Mother Nature has provided a safe place for the developing baby inside that cute egg.

In Europe, you won’t find eggs in the refrigerated section of the market. They have not been washed. When you get an unwashed egg, you know what kind of condition the nesting boxes are in. Occasionally, even the cleanest of boxes will get a muddy foot in there which can dirty the egg a bit. But, for the most part, farm fresh eggs are clean because the hens live in clean conditions. Do you think all the eggs in U.S. supermarkets come from clean conditions? If they did, they wouldn’t need to administer so many antibiotics. But, we’ll save that for another blog entry…

So, enjoy those unwashed, healthy eggs! And if you’re looking for a nice way to display them, I can recommend an egg skelter. Just love mine!

Some more little egg-bits:

eggsInBasketDid you know the egg travels pointy end first, and at the last minute (just before being laid) turns 180 degrees so the fat end comes out first? Also, hens will sit in the box as the egg gets ready to be laid. Just before she’s ready to lay the hen will stand up a bit, and viola, out comes an egg—fat end down—in the nesting box!

Do you know how to tell how old an egg is? Do the water test: Put an egg in a glass of cold water. Does it float? Or sink? If it sinks all the way down and lays flat, it’s very fresh. The more it floats the older it is. Here’s why: Eggshells are porous, and over time air will seep in at the fat part of the egg. That air is what the baby chick—if the egg was fertile and had a developing baby in it—would first breathe. Ever notice when you hard boil an egg and the fat end has a dent in it? Yup, it’s an air pocket. The bigger the pocket, the older the egg.

Pretty neat-o, eh? I think so. But then I could talk “chicken” all day long!

The Valuable Chicken Herder

I honestly couldn’t imagine having chickens free ranging in my yard if I didn’t have the Chicken Herder. The girls are always testing boundaries, much like a young dog. They go where they know they aren’t supposed to, and even after being chased away, they simply wait and do it again.

The Chicken Herder and I have trained and trialed in herding over the past couple of years. But, in the past few months our training has taken a nose dive and my little Chicken Herder has lost some of her confidence. So, I thought herding the chickens might be a good way to get her confidence back, and possibly help with chicken chores. I honestly had no idea how much I would come to depend on her!


I like to let the girls free range whenever I’m home, being either outside with them or on the other side of a warm window watching them. Their actions are fairly predictable, but every now and then a few of them will try and break out from the temporary fencing I have up. My whole yard is fenced (which they really can’t get past), but I like to keep them contained in a smaller area, so I can see them all. They have plenty of room, but for a few of them the challenge of going beyond what I have given them is just too tempting.

Enter the Chicken Herder. She now knows her job, and the chickens know that. It’s to the point where all I have to do is call for the Chicken Herder and the chickens flee the crime scene, pronto! My once unsure Chicken Herder then struts her stuff around like she knows just how valuable she is when it comes to keeping chickens in line.

There are still some maneuvers the Chicken Herder and I have yet to master, but we’ll get there. All in due time. I learned early on that herding is a journey—a very long and sometimes trying journey—but one I would do over and over again with my little Chicken Herder. She is truly a treasure beyond measure.

DIY Heated Chicken Waterer

With temps dipping below freezing, I’ve had a couple mornings with frozen waterers. That meant the procrastination of deciding what kind of waterer heater to get was at an end. It was time to decide how to prevent the waterers from freezing. Do I buy a ready made heated waterer? Do I use a heated dog bowl? Or do I try my hand at the homemade variety?

After a trip to a couple of stores to see what was available locally, I decided to go the homemade route. Since I have a number of tins which could work, why not?


I bought a Candelabra Base Switch Cord for around $4. SInce I have a few candelabra lights in the house, I already had the bulbs. I had one tin which was about the same diameter as my waterer. It wasn’t very tall, but perfect for using a candelabra light inside. I placed the tin under the waterer and it fit perfectly.

So, I gathered a few supplies (see photo) and started by drilling a 1″ hole in the side of the tin, which was easier than I thought it would be. I then pushed the candelabra base through the hole. It has a metal clip which snaps in the hole to help keep the bulb base in place. I added a thin piece of metal under the base of the light as an additional support, just to make sure the light would sit between the base and lid (and not touch either). True to Alaska fashion, I used duct tape on the outside of the hole to keep cold air and water out. I placed it under my waterer and plugged it in. Viola!

Since making this heater and installing it, the temps have stayed above freezing. (Figures, eh?) But the tin is warm when turned on, and I think it will work nicely. It was easy (and inexpensive) to make. The girls don’t seem to be pecking the cord (I have the waterer close to a 4×4 post, to which the cord is attached). The cord comes with a nice on/off switch, though I am planning on plugging it into a thermocube, which will turn it on and off depending upon the temps.

So, we’re ready for the freezing temps now. Happy day!

Morning chores

So… it is just me, or has it become more difficult to get up during these darker and colder Alaska mornings? I have a fuzzy alarm clock sleeping next to me which helps, to a degree. But on some mornings, I don’t think dynamite could dislodge me from my warm and cozy flannel sheets.

Once up, the routine is: let the dogs out, feed the chickens, open the coop up, and then feed the dogs. Lately, bringing unfrozen water to the chickens has been an additional chore. (Note to self: Get the chicken waterer situation figured out today!) So, as I was bringing the clean, unfrozen waterer back in to the coop, the chickens decided to rush the door. (No doubt they began hatching this scheme once they saw me leave with the frozen waterer.) First one out was, of course, Elsa, with three more close behind. I put my arms out, then tried to grab them–but let’s face it, grabbing a chicken is like trying to grab a greased pig, especially three all at once! I started to get frustrated and then remembered I have a super power waiting just inside…


A quick walk to the house and I opened the door, called for The Chicken Herder… and off she went. I told her to round ’em up and put ’em back in. And that she did. Maybe it’s because she hadn’t had breakfast, yet, but she was a bit more, well, full of herself. I had to tell her to slow down a couple of times. But, given that we have been working on getting her herding confidence back up, I was just thrilled to see her work so enthusiastically. It may sound odd to someone who doesn’t do herding or have stock, but I’m so happy to have my enthusiastic, super fast herding dog back!
Please note–The Chicken Herder does not hurt the chickens in any way. She merely applies pressure from behind to get them to move in the desired direction. A good stockdog is worth her weight in gold!

Hiking with the Alaska Chicken Herder

Yesterday was just too gorgeous here in southcentral Alaska to not get out and play. After a brief discussion with Ms. Chicken Herder, we decided a hike up Bird Ridge with its southerly slope was just what we needed. It was sunny and warm (for Alaska), mild wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Bird Ridge is one of those hikes that is like climbing stairs, but you are well rewarded for every step with breathtaking beauty all around you. With each new step, there is a new view–a new snow capped mountain comes into view, a bore tide surges below, an eagle soars high above. It truly is paradise.


I wasn’t really planning on going all the way up. You can get some pretty spectacular views at the lower altitudes. But it was such an awe-inspiring day that time simply stood still, and we frolicked here and there, up further and further, among the jagged rocks and crisp snow. The colors were surreal: verdant green, snow white, and electric blue.


The snow was refreshing, the air intoxicating, and my chicken herder’s excitement contagious. What a grand day, not soon to be forgotten! Alaska is a very special place. (wag, wag)


Sunday Morning Comforts

Watching my girls free range is a magical moment. Time stands still, and I breathe in and breathe out. I think of nothing but what is right in front of me. And all is right with the world.


The girls scratch and peck for goodies. Each has her own style. Some scratch, scratch, peck, peck. Some scratch, peck, peck, scratch. Their simple–yet effective–acts are mesmerizing and seem to lull me into a hypnotic trance of serenity. Peace is all around me, except for the occasional disagreement over whose worm that really is. And then a game of “catch me if you can” commences, complete with chicken running which is a sight to behold. There are many styles to chicken running, and all are very humorous.

These relaxing Sunday mornings are always a precursor to such a fabulous day. Whether you have chickens to watch or other Sunday morning delights, may your day be filled with peace and happiness.

The Crisp Days of Autumn

As summer turns to fall, the leaves slowly swirl to the ground… and chickens run, thinking the sky is falling. Oh girls, you are quite safe. As the bread dough is rising, I’m giving my girls some free range time in the yard. Their antics are both relaxing and amusing.

I gather some rose petals from my still blooming and quite fragrant Rugosa rose bushes. Add to that some fresh herbs–rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme–and in to the nesting boxes it goes. Nellie soon discovers the rose petals and snatches them up–one by one–almost as fast I put them in. Yes, the girls know what’s good for them.


Time stands still as I engage in the chicken world. The girls often circle me, perhaps it’s a safety blanket of some sort, or maybe they are as curious about me as I am of them. My rooster coffee mug is a big hit today. He’s quite the stud, even if he’s only a painting.

The bread buzzer goes off and it’s back in to their run, with assistance from my little Aussie, aka “the Chicken Herder”. It doesn’t take much, the girls know the routine. Though, there is always one who tries to defy the dog. Silly girl, the Chicken Herder always wins.

With the girls safely in their run, I return inside. Chickens are such a lovely diversion.