Thursday, January 5, 2017

How Do Chickens Stay Warm?

This young pullet is saying, "Baby it's cold outside!" Note the fluffed up feathers.  She isn't kidding as the temperature was -13 F. when I got out of bed this morning. I wait to do chores in weather like this until it warms a bit for there has been a breeze of late if not a gale wind that plunges the temperature further to a wind chill of 38 below zero. Hubby went to work in a white out this morning. It lasted for four miles. We live in the worst weather spot for 20 some miles either direction. I tell the grandkids that all the lights for our exit off of the interstate, our exit only, is because we are so special but they know better. It's for the cameras that allow people to see the not so lovely weather we have in the winter time. Our spot is often the reason for road closures. Of course that means we have the greenest spot in the summer too because the snow piles so high. Our little beauty spot is nicknamed, hurricane, flats. Not as bad as where we lived before moving here but it does get breezy at times.

 My lungs protest are protesting this polar weather. They are difficult to treat. Found that out two years ago when in January I spent some time in the hospital. The smart thing is to just not get my lungs mad, so I wait until the temperature is above zero, if possible, before going out. It works out best for the animals too as they don't like coming out of their sheds to drink if it is above zero either. The water freezes almost immediately while the animals try to convince me to bring it to them with insistent bellers. Hauling water twice in a row is not my idea of fun. They prefer to eat when it is a bit more toasty too. The chickens usually don't come out at all except on rare occasion to bask in the sun that beats against the side of the barn. They think it is only worth it if the wind is not blowing. Don't blame them really. The minute I opened the door they feel the frigid cold and hustle to the roost, fluff their feathers out, and tuck their legs up under to keep them warm. Those warm cushions of air between the fluffed up feathers are a nice insulator against the cold.

Even the rooster, Sir Gallop, has his hackle spread out wide. He tucks one foot in his feathers and then switches the supporting leg to tuck it up under where it is warm. That is why they like the roost so both legs stay warm.

 The first thing to freeze on a chicken is the comb. Note Sir Gallop's. The black is the part that froze and it is dead now. It will drop off in a few months. Frost bite is not unusual up north where we live. I've had mild cases of it a number of times myself. For roosters in the winter, it is not so big a deal. Don't know if it lowers their sperm count or not but that is not a concern for who wants to hatch chicks now anyway? It is a problem if a hen's comb freezes. They will stop laying eggs until the injury has healed. The remedy is to create a warm insulated coop. With 22 chickens and six rabbits inside, it stays pretty warm. Yes, we brought home three baby bunnies. I'll have to tell you the story. It is rather funny but that is another blog post. None of the other chicken's combs have frozen but then none of them are as large as the roosters.

We've raised chickens for about 28 years and though we've become pretty good chicken herders, sometimes there is just nothing you can do to get one or two back inside. Sometimes you will get one that just wants to be free-range day and night. Usually it is because they are being bullied but not always. Most chickens are smart enough to head for cover. A couple Wyandotte roosters ended up living with the goats or sheep. They rode  on their backs out from the shed to get a drink or eat with them at the hay feeder, then hitched a ride back. Their feet never touched the ground except to get a drink and up they'd go again to the shed once more. They shared warmth in the insulated shed and did fine through the winter. But we had three chickens that paid the price for not finding a good place to weather the storm and their combs froze along with their toes. One froze both feet so badly we had to kill it because it could not walk. Chickens are just not meant to live outside in the winter.

If you look carefully, you can see a tiny black dot on the comb of this Wyandotte hen. It has been an exceptionally cold winter so far. It has not stopped her from laying or I don't think it has. I've now studied two different scientific studies about how to tell if a hen is a good layer or not. I have my suspicions now about her but we'll talk about that later. I have raised Wyandotte chickens for many year but I may end that as I've found the fox and coyotes here seem to really like them.  This girl is the only one left. They are a gentle, sweet breed, even the roosters.

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