Chickens in winter
We get a lot of questions about our small flock of chickens. Currently we have 5 beautiful hens. The group we have now we acquired from a farmer friend. They are mixed breeds and a variety of colors. We have Oreo, she’s black and white, Sofia, our golden girl, Kim, who is the widest in her back end, and 2 others that, honestly we have struggled with naming them but they are both very pretty and funny. The flock has a pecking order. Sofia is the most bold and sometimes a bit bossy. Kim is the perhaps the most shy and certainly the last one out in the morning and the slowest one to join the group. For the most part they are a cohesive band that flocks together.
Winter is an interesting time for our chickens. Since they are free-range, in good weather they wander the grounds and gardens from sun-up to sun-down. So, in summer, those are some long days. Chickens’ habits are ruled buy day length. Beginning in fall they start to go to bed earlier which makes life easier for us. Imagine that in summer the sun goes down at 8:00 or later, but we want to go home at 6:00 or 7:00 (you know, after answering emails, doing invoicing, follow-up phone calls, etc.). That means we have to round-up chickens and convince them to get in the coop. That’s another story.
So, in winter they are safely making their way to the coop by 4:30 or so. We just need to do a head count, add a little food and lock-up.
What most people may not know is that chickens are fairly winter hardy. They survive very well without additional heat as long as they are kept dry and out of the wind. We make sure to seal up air and water leaks in our coop. Also, the roost, where they sleep at night is a pretty tight space. Even if they are not getting along during the day, they snuggle together on cold nights and take advantage of body heat. We monitor their combs, that flap of red flesh on their heads, for signs of frostbite. The comb will begin to turn black if they get too cold. All our combs look good this winter even after those below zero nights.
Their feed has a lot of extra fat in the form of sunflower seeds to give them lots of energy to create that body heat. We also give them an occasional treat of suet. Fresh greens in winter are important since it is hard for them to forage for anything green in winter. They really like things like kale, lettuce, chard, etc.
We shovel a path from the coop to our small greenhouse, which has a dirt floor. In the snowiest weather our chickens will spend their days out there getting exercise. They often share that space with a flock of sparrows that like our little greenhouse in winter. We have to be sure to duck when we go out there as the sparrows spook easily. On nice days and when there isn’t a lot of snow our chickens will venture further out into the gardens and even into our retail greenhouse if can leave the door open on a sunny day. They get just as anxious as we do for nice weather. They do feel a bit cooped-up (get it?)
Egg production is also effected by weather, timing and the molting season. Each year the birds will lose their old feathers and grow a new set. Some molt more than others, and some get through it faster than others. The first to molt started in September. The last ended in January. Poor thing, she was molting in that freezing January weather and she looked just pitiful! Chickens will stop laying eggs during the molt. It takes too much energy to do both things at once. We also have to watch that they don’t get too stressed out during molting. We make sure they have plenty of food and water, etc. This year, between the days getting shorter and having a late molt, our egg production ended in November. Not one egg again until the middle of February. But, for us, it is a sign that winter is starting to let go and spring is on its way. We are getting 2 eggs a day now. That’s plenty for us at this point. That could go as high as 4-5 eggs per day when spring really arrives. By that time we’ll have takers for the eggs that we can’t eat.