How Chickens have Adapted to Winter
With winter approaching, Julie Moore considers how Mother Nature has cleverly adapted our noble chickens so that they survive and thrive in the most icy conditions
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 (chicken-like) 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?
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 waterproofing 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.
During cold weather, you may have noticed your chickens
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
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 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.
Flying away to sunnier climes isn’t an option for chickens
TOP: Native evergreen trees are important factors in winter survival ABOVE LEFT: Feathers help to waterproof the skin ABOVE: A plumule feather
ABOVE: Chickens can conserve their body heat when temperatures fall by restricting blood flow to their comb, wattles and feet BELOW LEFT: Preening to keep feathers in good condition is a necessity for survival. BELOW: 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 BOTTOM: Plumule feathers have been fluffed up to trap air — the more air trapped, the warmer the chicken