Colorful, joyful, plucky little hens. The human-chicken relationship is an ancient coexistence, thought to have begun nearly 10,000 years ago. Across cultures and through the eons, chickens have been symbols of virility, mothering and fertility (as well as the national symbol of France). Roman armies used them as tellers of fortune: A hungry chicken assured victory.
And now the popular rise of urban backyard bird keeping has brought about a renaissance in the human/poultry relationship, with many hens enjoying organic feed and artsy coops. As winter approaches, fledgling henkeepers wonder how to keep their birds happy and healthy through the cold months ahead.
Extended egg production
A hen’s egg laying naturally slows in the winter. It can be caused by the bird beginning her molt—requiring her body to put all her energy into growing new feathers (which are made of almost purely protein); or by the decrease in daylight hours—hens need 14 hours or more of daylight to stimulate laying.
Basically, turning off the egg machine is a hen’s biological response to a time of year not conducive to raising young. Selective breeding has developed some layer hens who will continue to lay at a slower rate during the winter, but usually only during their first productive year.
Many backyard birders consider this season a bird’s God-given time off. However, you can easily stimulate production by artificially increasing their daylight hours. It’s as simple as putting 25- or 40-watt bulb in the coop—even a string of LED Christmas lights will work. Put the light on a timer to assure they are getting the same amount of light at the same time every day. I have my timer so that they get a few hours in the morning and a few in the evening.
A few considerations if you do artificial lighting:
1. A hen has only so many eggs she will lay in a lifetime. Keeping her laying through the winter will shorten the number of years she remains productive.
2. Make sure the eggs don’t freeze in the coop during the winter—harvest them regularly and never leave them out overnight.
Chickens are happier when they are entertained. If you don’t let them out in the yard to scratch and peck, consider throwing them your weeds, any plants you remove from your garden at the end of the growing season, or your lawn clippings when you mow. And, in autumn when the leaves fall, throw those in with the chickens, too. They’ll love scratching and they might score some bugs.
Winterizing the coop
Hens are a hardy bird and most breeds, besides those like the Naked Neck Turken, have enough feathers to stay warm in temperatures below freezing. Chickens also generate a lot of their own heat, and a flock can stay pretty warm roosting together at night. Still, there are some things that will make them more comfortable.
Some coops are already built with insulation. Mine is not. When the temperatures really start dipping, I winterize my coop by covering all the little cracks—windows and doors mostly—with a layer of cardboard held in place with plywood screwed into the coop walls. With that said, coops always need ventilation. You don’t want them getting damp and growing mold. My chickens still go out in the yard during the winter, and the coop should be opened up and aired out during the day.
Freezing water, freezing feet
There are a few cold-sensitive parts on chickens: their combs and their feet. I’ve never had any serious problems with chicken parts getting frostbite, but I have noticed my birds walking tender-footed over ice and snow. I always try to throw out extra straw in their coop and in the yard in the winter for them to stand on.
Birds can easily dehydrate and winter, when temperatures can quickly freeze over a water bucket, is an important time to make sure they have access to water. Electric watering buckets come in various models. I use one that sits on a tray with a built-in heat coil.
If you opt for a simple bucket that freezes over, be prepared to visit your hens each morning with a steaming kettle of just-boiled water to thaw the ice. Alternative: Have two buckets, keeping one indoors. Switch them out each morning, refilling as needed.
Scratch is an important component to bird’s diet especially in winter. Normally consisting of oats or barley, it gives birds extra energy and, spread across the ground, keeps them moving, active and warm.
Greens are still important, even after they’re gone from your garden. One thing I’m going to try this winter: a cabbage piñata—both a nutritious treat and a game (minus the blindfold).
Some people sprout wheat for their gals. If you have the space to keep it dry throughout the winter, a bale of alfalfa from the feed store is appreciated. Even easier are alfalfa pellets, usually intended for rabbits, found in pet stores.
Another thing: hot,cooked oatmeal. Apparently they love it. If you have a small city flock, what’s an extra cup or two of oatmeal in the morning?
We love our happy hens!
Starting this month, waterers are available at 5823 So. State St., Murray. Tel. 801.792.1419.
Chicken book resources
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Jerome D. Belanger