If, like me, you like to let your backyard chickens free-range because you enjoy the “chickenness of the chicken,” then you must be aware of the hazards backyard flocks face in the winter and what you can do to protect them.
A Google image search for frostbite in poultry will show you what this looks like. Initially, the affected area looks pale compared to surrounding tissue. After it thaws, it may become red, hot, swollen, and painful. Seriously affected tissue may shrivel, turn black, and fall off.
Breeds with large combs and wattles are most susceptible to frostbite, though in my first year of backyard chicken keeping I even had a Cuckoo Maran lose an entire foot to frostbite. Combs start freezing around 28 degrees F.
For birds that like to venture outside regardless of weather conditions, you can coat their combs and wattles with a thin layer of petroleum jelly to protect them against the elements. To protect their feet, make sure there are areas of the yard where they can get out of the snow (e.g., shovel a path, provide a mulched area, etc.).
Other management steps to protect backyard chickens from frostbite include minimizing humidity and drafts in the coop (wet feet are more prone to frostbite and footpad dermatitis so also keep an eye on the condition of litter and manure build-up on the floor), using wide non-metal perches so the birds can cover their toes with their feathers at night, and feeding scratch grains in the morning and again at night to kindle body warmth.
2. Deicing Products
My birds like to come up on the back porch during the day to get out of the wind (why they don’t return to their home with its cozy nest boxes and feeder I’ll never know). That means I need to be careful about the products I use on those icy concrete steps.
The most commonly used de-icer is rock salt (sodium chloride), which is toxic to chickens at high concentrations. Other, less toxic but more expensive, de-icer formulations contain potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium carbonate or calcium magnesium acetate.
Ingestion of small amounts of de-icer can be tolerated by backyard chickens as long as they have access to plenty of fresh water and feed. Ingestion of large amounts of de-icer may result in poisoning and death. Even just walking across de-icer coated surfaces can cause burns, cracks and skin irritations on birds’ feet. Consider using sand or crushed cinder rock to provide traction instead.
3. Foreign Objects
Chickens are curious and may peck at and ingest small objects they find in the yard like cigarette butts and small bits of metal, glass, or string. This can be especially problematic in the winter when there are fewer plants and bugs to keep them occupied. These small objects may pass through their system without doing harm or cause only minor irritation, or they can interfere with digestion or cause an internal tear that can become infected.
You should regularly walk around to collect objects coming from the street or neighboring properties and encourage visitors not to toss waste in the yard. If you see a chicken eat an object that it shouldn’t, keep an eye on it to make sure its crop doesn’t become impacted. (For a graphic representation of what this looks like, visit http://adsoftheworld.com/media/print/nobuttsorg_anticigarette_butt_pollution_campaign_chicken).
Predators like owls and foxes are always a concern for free-range chickens, but winter is a time of heightened concern as other food sources become scarce. It is important to avoid leaving food available outside that could lure in potential predators (e.g. rats, crows, raccoons) who then may decide to try chicken for dinner. Outside dogs (that don’t bother the chickens) will deter most predators in the yard during the day and if you live outside city limits, a rooster may help protect the flock from predators.
It is important to lock the flock in their coop at dark as many predators are nocturnal and start hunting when the sun goes down. You’ll also want to predator-proof the coop so predators can’t open the door, squeeze through open gaps, or dig underground to get in.
Both times we have lost chickens to predators it has started with a single chicken one day, and mass loss the next, so it’s important to be aware of flock numbers and to have a plan to protect your flock from a repeat predator. This may require temporarily confining the birds, so make sure your enclosure is of adequate size for the number of birds you have, even if you don’t plan to confine them on a regular basis. A general rule of thumb is to provide ten square feet per bird, so a four by ten enclosure would be adequate for four birds.
For more information on keeping backyard chickens in the winter:
- How to Keep Your Chickens in Winter (YouTube video)
- Keeping Backyard Chickens Healthy During New Hampshire Winters
- Preparing for Winter
- Tips for Managing Backyard Chickens in the Winter
Other Web Resources
- Chickens in Winter: How to Keep Them Healthy
- Cold Weather Chickens – 8 Things NOT to do in Winter
- Frostbite in Chickens
- Predators and Winter: Tips and Facts to Keep Your Flock Safe
- Treating Frostbite In Chickens
- Winter Nutritional Requirements for Backyard Flocks