How the Hen House Turns – The Chicken In Winter

How the Hen House Turns
The Chicken in Winter
By Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Maybe this story should be called the Goose in Winter or Ducks in Winter. I remember being called by the Duck Buddies to come and help gather them from Ashley Pond’s Pond because there was no open water left for them. The pond had frozen over, and the Chief of Police didn’t want to lose his job if they started roaming all over town, looking for shelter.

My little ducks would shiver if the temperature got down to 15. That was scary. I thought ducks could take such cold. Didn’t they? In the wild? Now I know they did okay if there was open water somewhere. I remember my little ones heading straight for their water tub on cold mornings. Thirty-two degree water is a lot warmer than 15 degree air.

I knew chickens could lose their combs in cold weather, so I panicked one winter when the temperature dropped below 15. I carried all the birds into the garage. They were fine for a day or two, but the mess was horrendous. Geese and ducks have to eat water with their lay pellets or alfalfa, and they are expert at taking sponge baths. They have very flexible necks and handy bills for wash rags. Water flies everywhere. Chickens are less messy.

When husband Don had chickens in Monte Vista, Colo, he took them into the house every night when the temperature dropped below 15. Years ago, in Los Alamos, I can’t remember what we did. We had lots of snow, and one winter the elm tree froze one-third of itself when the temperature dropped below zero for a week. Maybe the Hen House was insulated better in those days, or maybe it’s colder now.

A few years ago, to solve the problem and ease my panic, Don went on the Internet and found a thin oil heater about 18 inches by 24, the right size to put behind chicken wire and set on a box where the birds couldn’t disturb it or the wires. It kept the Hen House to a pleasant 40 degrees, so it also served as a refuge on very cold days, when the birds’ water tubs froze over during the day and had to be refreshed with hot water.

So! Here’s to the chickens of Los Alamos! I hear the county has a new ordinance and people can enjoy the wonderful companionship of domestic birds, as well as their eggs. If you listen carefully you will notice that birds communicate as we do, with very subtle “bk bks” as you pass them in the yard and happy yodels when they lay their eggs. Lock them in at night. Raccoons are very clever at tearing open chicken houses. And please don’t assume that they can winter out low temperatures without some protection from the cold.