Winter worries

By Katherine Pioli

With winter closing in on us, snow falling and ice forming in the animals’ water bowl, I am gripped with a bird-owner’s seasonal anxiety: will they be okay out there in the cold? I worry about drafts in the coop, frozen feet and waddles, dampness and chilling temperatures. And with the new ducks and geese, I worry that they have the sense to make a warm bed and stay out of the rain.

The ducks and geese, however, laugh at my fretting. Even this morning, the temperature well below freezing, I poured fresh water over the layer of ice in the turtle pond and they hopped right in. They threw water over their feathers with the usual joy. I cringed. But I also noticed the rivulets of water tumbling off their naturally oiled feathers. They are going to be fine. They are made for water, I remind myself. And the Cayuga duck breed comes from up state New York. Genetically, they are designed for the cold. 

Still, some special considerations must be taken in the winter – for all birds. With our very first coop two winters ago in Jackson, Wyoming, Ben and I insulated the coop with a cardboard lining stuffed with straw. We don’t do that anymore in the more mild Utah winters, but we do still provide a lamp for heat. It is as easy as stringing an extension cord out to the coop, attaching a timer and a lamp (they sell them at IFA) with a normal light bulb. The heat from that alone keeps the birds warm and encourages chickens to lay through the winter. I have also nailed cardboard over the open windows, the door and the larger gaps in the walls of the coop – anything that might help keep the heat in.    

Keeping their water fresh and unfrozen is probably the most important thing do to. In the mornings it sometimes takes me a few hours to get outside and check on the birds. When I am late, I find them all waiting at the fence. As I pour water into their pond the normally shy ducks and geese, that now pretty much always maintain their distance from us humans, come right up to my legs to dab their bills at the pouring water. They are extremely thirsty. Making all those eggs takes a surprising amount of fluid. 

The rain and frequent thaws after snow brings some frustration to this bird owner. I am forced to wear boots with good tread and to walk deliberately through the bird pen as the moisture mixed with their excrement makes a mudslide that I absolutely do not want to fall in. We are trying to brainstorm solutions, like laying down straw that we can then clean out. But, with the chickens we know the straw will be scratched into piles in a matter of hours and will not remain the absorptive blanket that we intend. 

This weekend might be the big, sad end for two of the geese. My heart is constricting even as I write this. I don’t want to have to do it. All of this probably started three years ago when Ben and I got three hens that we named Groucho, Mama Cass and Little Red (Riding Hood). Little Red was our absolute favorite. A small red sexlink, she was the bravest chicken, the smartest, the most friendly towards us, and leader of the pack. Last week things took a turn for the worse for Little Red when we noticed her not eating, her eyes barely open, standing alone in a corner of the bird pen. We separated her into a coop by herself intending to nurse her to health, but she passed away before we could save her. (RIP, Little Red) We, especially Ben, took her death rather hard. Now, with that painful death still heavy in our hearts, we prepare ourselves to voluntarily take the lives of two geese that we have raised from goslings. It is not easy. Sometimes I wonder why we are doing this. I remember waking up the day after killing our ducks and while still laying in bed I thought of them and I felt bad for what I had done though we had tried to do everything right by them, keeping them calm and making the death as fast and painless as possible. Even so, I am still trying to work through this guilt, as I think Ben is. It might be why we have taken the geese yet, when for the ideal meat we probably should have killed them two or three months ago. Now Christmas is upon us and we must take up the knife now or not at all. 


This article was originally published on December 22, 2012.