Lit­tle Fur­naces

How chick­ens have adapted for win­ter, by Julie Moore

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

For mil­len­nia mankind has watched birds gather to­gether and fly off in huge flocks as win­ter ap­proaches, en­vi­ous of their abil­ity to es­cape a cold win­ter. Mi­gra­tion helps birds to sur­vive — harsh weather starts to make food scarce, a sig­nal for birds to mi­grate south to more hos­pitable re­gions.

But for ter­res­trial Gal­li­na­ceous (chick­en­like) species, fly­ing away to sun­nier climes isn’t an op­tion. Chick­ens all over the world weather the win­ter months, even in very cold cli­mates, with­out our in­ter­fer­ence.

There is lit­tle doubt that chick­ens have an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with day­light. The rooster is a univer­sal so­lar sym­bol. Its crow­ing her­alds the break of day and nor­mally con­tin­ues while the sun is shin­ing. As the days shorten, I al­ways no­tice a respite in crow­ing ac­tiv­ity by my roost­ers, but as soon as the days start to lengthen they start crow­ing again. In many cul­tures, a rooster’s noc­tur­nal crow is be­lieved to drive away evil in­flu­ences of the dark night, so per­haps the 2am alarm call is ac­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial. The rooster’s comb, re­sem­bling a flame, com­pli­ments his morn­ing an­nounce­ments, greet­ing the ra­di­ant warmth of sun­shine that makes all life on Earth pos­si­ble.

As the days shorten, like they are now, our hens lay fewer eggs or stop lay­ing al­to­gether. Af­ter the win­ter sol­stice, the sea­sons come full cir­cle, with longer days and more sun­shine bring­ing more eggs, fer­til­ity and new life.

Chick­ens can sense light through the pineal gland, sit­u­ated on the dor­sal sur­face of the brain and com­monly known as the third eye. Be­ing sen­si­tive to light, re­searchers be­lieve that the pineal gland stim­u­lates the pro­duc­tion of the hor­mone mela­tonin, which sets egg pro­duc­tion in mo­tion. So even if a bird loses its vi­sion, it can still sense light and know the time of day or sea­son of the year through the third eye.

So, as we head into win­ter, how has Mother Na­ture helped our flocks and other wild non-mi­gra­tory birds to sur­vive the colder months?

Clever feath­ers

As the sea­sons change and the days shorten, you have prob­a­bly no­ticed that your hens’ feath­ers have lost their shine and have be­come rather dull, bro­ken and tatty look­ing. Feath­ers in this state won’t pro­vide the in­su­la­tion that your flock needs to keep warm in the win­ter. To solve this, Mother Na­ture has in­sti­gated the an­nual moult, whereby the old feath­ers are dis­carded and new feath­ers are grown.

Feath­ers are im­por­tant to chick­ens, not only help­ing them to reg­u­late their body tem­per­a­tures in hot and cold weather, but also wa­ter-proof­ing their skin and pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion to their body as a whole, as well as to sen­si­tive ar­eas, such as the eyes. Preen­ing to keep feath­ers in good con­di­tion is there­fore a ne­ces­sity for sur­vival.

Be­neath the outer con­tour feath­ers is a soft, downy un­der­coat made up of plumule feath­ers. When fluffed up, these feath­ers trap tiny pock­ets of air next to the body, al­low­ing the chicken to warm the air pock­ets with its own heat and hold it close to its body, thus pre­vent­ing cold air from touch­ing the skin. The more air trapped, the warmer the chicken.

Chick­ens also have the abil­ity to con­serve their body heat when tem­per­a­tures fall by re­strict­ing blood flow to their comb, wat­tles and feet — these are the very parts that give off ex­cess heat in the sum­mer. How­ever, it is this de­crease in warmth and oxy­gen that puts these ex­trem­i­ties at risk of frost­bite. Keep­ing the coop wa­ter-tight, prop­erly ven­ti­lated and lim­it­ing the amount of mois­ture in­side by clear­ing up drop­pings daily and re­mov­ing wa­ter­ers overnight will help to min­imise the risk of frost­bite.

Warm­ing tac­tics

Dur­ing cold weather, you may have no­ticed your chick­ens stand­ing on one foot with the other tucked into their ab­dom­i­nal feath­ers. They will then switch feet. They do this to re­duce heat loss through their feet.

In the coop, pro­vide flat, wide roosts so that your hens can cover their feet with their feath­ers and bod­ies at night. A perch that is too nar­row means that toes will hang over the edge and be ex­posed to the cold. Like­wise, you have prob­a­bly seen your hen

Re­mem­ber that a per­son’s per­cep­tion of how cold their hens might be in the coop overnight, or stand­ing around on a win­ter’s day, isn’t the same as a chicken’s com­fort level

tuck her head un­der her wing when she is sleep­ing. This is one way that she can keep her comb and wat­tles warm and pro­tect them from frost­bite.

At night, your hens will hud­dle to­gether for warmth. By roost­ing side by side, they each re­duce the sur­face area of their body that is ex­posed to the cold air — apart from the two on each end. The peck­ing or­der de­ter­mines who gets the best roost­ing spots. From my ex­pe­ri­ence, the hens lower in the peck­ing or­der take up the outer guard po­si­tions.

Just like hu­mans, chick­ens eat more in colder weather as they burn more calo­ries to stay warm. When they di­gest food they cre­ate in­ter­nal heat which ra­di­ates through the skin, warm­ing the air next to it which, in turn, is trapped against the body by the feath­ers. Of­fer­ing some whole grains and corn, which are harder to di­gest and re­quire a chicken’s body to pro­duce more heat overnight be­fore bed­time, will help them through the night.

The right sur­round­ings, such as an in­su­lated, wa­ter-proof coop or na­tive ev­er­green trees, are im­por­tant fac­tors in win­ter sur­vival and com­fort. In the wild, mi­cro­hab­i­tats are im­por­tant for sheltering birds from wind and rain. Cre­at­ing lay­ers of ev­er­green veg­e­ta­tion in the gar­den can help to buf­fer both ex­treme heat and cold tem­per­a­tures. Mother Na­ture has en­sured that chick­ens ac­cli­ma­tise nat­u­rally to the chang­ing sea­sons with­out any in­ter­fer­ence from the hu­man race. A chicken’s phys­i­ol­ogy is not the same as ours. Re­mem­ber that a per­son’s per­cep­tion of how cold their hens might be in the coop overnight, or stand­ing around on a chilly win­ter’s day, isn’t the same as a chicken’s ac­tual com­fort level. Think of your hens as lit­tle fur­naces, wrapped in downy coats.

Na­tive ev­er­green trees are im­por­tant fac­tors in win­ter sur­vival

A plumule feather

Preen­ing to keep feath­ers in good con­di­tion is a ne­ces­sity for sur­vival

By tuck­ing her head un­der her wing when she is sleep­ing, a hen can keep her comb and wat­tles warm and also pro­tect them from frost­bite

Plumule feath­ers have been fluffed up to trap air — the more air trapped, the warmer the chicken

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