How Much Cold Can My Chickens Take?

If there’s one thing most folks tend to pity our animals for, it is the fact that they have to live outside pretty much all the time. Even our chickens that have nice, warm coops to live in spend most of their time outside exposed to the elements.

chicken flock using shoveled path to get through snow
chicken flock using shoveled path to get through snow

That’s just the way things are, and chickens seem pretty happy no matter what the weather is like. But as any experienced keeper will tell you, chickens can sometimes be surprisingly stoic. Maybe they aren’t as comfortable as we think when the temperature drops! So, how much cold can our chickens take?

Outside, all chickens do fine down to around 20° F (-6° C) as long as they are dry. If they have a well-built, sturdy coop, they will be warm and fine even if the outside temperature is well below zero.

Chickens really are hardy birds, and even if the weather outside is nasty enough to set our teeth to chattering in short order most chickens won’t mind it too long as they are dry.

Their feathers in high metabolisms keep them almost entirely safe from cold weather, and you don’t have to worry about letting them out to roam around and get some fresh air.

But, as you might have guessed already, there’s a lot more you’ll want to know before you let them do that. We’ll get into it in the rest of this article.

How Long Can Chickens Tolerate Serious Cold?

How long chickens can stay out in the cold is dependent on just how cold it is and other conditions. And dry cold weather down to about 20° F / -6° C chickens can stay outside for hours as long as they don’t get wet and they have a shelter to retreat to when they do get chilled.

In milder cold weather temps, say down to around 40° F / 5° C, your birds should be able to stay out pretty much all day if they want to…

When temps start to dip below 20° F or when you’re dealing with rain, wet ground, or deep snow you’ve got to be more cautious because they’ll be getting into the danger zone.

What Temperature Are They Most Comfortable In?

As a rule of thumb, most adult chickens, regardless of breed, are going to be the most comfortable between 70° F (21° C) and 75° F (23° C). That’s basically ideal for them, as they won’t be too chilly and they are unlikely to overheat unless they are exerting themselves hard in direct sunlight.

Despite this, if you watch them when they are out in colder weather, you’ll notice that they aren’t really perturbed by it unless they get wet or it is truly, blisteringly frigid.

Caution: Wet Weather Can Chill Chickens Quickly

As mentioned above, wet weather can be a problem for your chickens, and if you’ve got damp ground, puddles, slushy snow, or cold rain and sleet coming down, you don’t want to let your chickens stay out as long.

Also, don’t count on the fact that they will necessarily retreat from precipitation before things get too bad.

Chickens have extraordinarily good insulation on account of their feathers, which traps a layer of toasty warm, dry air against their body.

For most breeds, their feathers also serve as something of a raincoat, allowing rain and moisture to just bead right off of them without compromising the insulation value of the feathers themselves.

Nonetheless, chickens aren’t ducks and they aren’t invincible: Their feathers will absorb moisture over time, and most breeds don’t have any feathering on their legs, feet, toes, combs, and wattles.

When chickens get wet and soaked to the skin, or when their bodies are directly in contact with wet ground, they will lose heat very rapidly, and this can lead to hypothermia a lot quicker than it would if they were in a dry cold.

Are Some Chicken Breeds More Tolerant of Cold?

Yes, definitely. All domestic chicken breeds, as a rule, do quite well in cold temperatures as long as they stay dry but some chickens are downright exceptional when it comes to beating the chill. For some, it’s a matter of superior feathering, larger size, or just sheer toughness.

Probably the best cold-weather breed of them all is the Chantecler. This Canadian breed was developed in, and bred for, incredibly cold conditions.

They have thick, incredibly insulating feathers (even by the standards of these already stalwart birds), and their tiny combs are very resistant to being chilled or frostbit.

If you live far north of the equator, Chanteclers are a great choice as are Sussexes, Jersey Giants, and Dominiques.

Can Chickens Go Out in the Snow?

Yes, they can. Snow won’t bother most chickens and in my experience, they seem to be happy or even excited to go out and explore it.

But, obviously, standing in snow is going to chill their feet and legs quite quickly, stripping them of body heat over time and potentially endangering their extremities with frostbite.

Be smart: limit the time that chickens can be directly in the snow, and try to make sure that they always have perches, roosts and clear areas to stand on when they are ready to get off of it or out of it.

Can Chickens Get Frostbite?

Yes, they can, and this is a very common ailment for some breeds that live in frighteningly cold areas! Every part of a chicken’s body can get frostbite, but as expected, the most common regions are the extremities, particularly the comb, earlobes, and wattles along with the legs, feet, and toes.

Even relatively minor cases of frostbite can turn life-threatening for your lock due to the requirement for amputation and subsequent infection risk.

Prevent the risk of frostbite by keeping chickens dry, limiting their time in the snow or on wet ground, and giving them plenty of dry perches to sit and rest on.

Should You Keep Them in the Coop When It’s Very Cold?

Most of the time, yes. When temperatures fall near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit your chickens can be in danger if they are exposed to any length of time, and especially if they get wet.

This is especially troubling because chickens tend to do fine until they aren’t doing fine. They make the most of their excellent insulation and high metabolisms, but once they get chilled, especially if they get wet, it can be difficult for them to warm back up again in time owing to their low mass.

This is a challenge that every chicken keeper must deal with… As a rule, chickens like having time out of the coop, and keeping them, literally, cooped up too long, or too close to each other without any room to move around, will increase stress which will lead to a vicious cycle of other problems.

If you must let your chickens out to stretch their legs, put them back before they get too cold.

Do You Need to Add Heat Sources to the Coop?

Generally no, as long as the coop is well built. In truly harsh winters, a chicken-safe heating solution might be a good idea, but as long as you can stop leaks and drafts, a flock will crank out a ton of heat themselves and keep the coop comfortably warm while they wait out the worst of the weather.

Remember, any heating solution that you install in a coop must be tip-over-proof and chicken-proof to prevent a devastating fire!

How Can You Tell Your Chickens Are Getting Too Cold?

The good news is that it’s easy to tell when your birds are getting too cold. If they are acting normally, they are feeling normal.

When they start to get too cold, you’ll notice them begin to huddle up, puff up and crinkle their feathers, and draw one leg up under their body in a sort of flamingo pose.

Also, very cold chickens tend to make less noise than usual, so if you see one or more of these indicators, you need to act to get your chickens warm. Usually putting them back in the coop and drying them off is enough, but if not, you’ll need to take action.If any of of your chickens aren’t warming up and acting normally, see the next section for what to do.

What Should You Do if a Chicken is Hypothermic?

If you have a cold chicken that seems unresponsive, sluggish, or unable to stand, or else it is not responding to the rest of the flock, you need to act fast to try and save it.

Whatever you do, don’t put the chicken in a blazingly warm environment or dunk it in a warm bath. That kind of temperature shock will likely kill it.

Instead, bring the chicken into a comfortably warm environment and dry it off immediately if it is wet. Then, stand it or swaddle it in dry, fresh towels and grab a hair dryer that is set on low heat. Blow a gentle stream of slightly warm air over the chicken’s feathers and between its body and the towels.

The idea is to warm up the bird gently and progressively to prevent shock. Check for signs of frostbite elsewhere on the body. Assuming your chicken comes back to life and starts to act normal, all is well. Return them to the flock.

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