With summer approaching, you’ll need to help your chickens stay cool, at least in the warmer parts of the country.
Unlike humans, chickens don’t sweat, but like humans they depend on evaporation to stay cool – by panting. As they pant, moisture within the chickens’ lungs evaporates and is moved out of their bodies. This is also why it’s harder for them, like us, to stay cool when it’s humid.
The best way to know if your chickens are getting too hot is to watch their behavior.
Are they panting? Are they hanging their wings out a little distance a way from their bodies? These are early signs that they’re having to work harder to stay cool. If they’ve become listless or their breathing has become labored, then they’re experiencing heat stress – that’s harmful to them. Hens that aren’t able to stay cool enough will slow and stop their laying, and chickens that get too hot or stay hot for too long can die from heat stress.
So, how do we keep them cool?
The first thing is a decision you make before you get chickens: to start with adapted breeds, that is, breeds that are well-suited to your climate.
There are a lot of different chicken breeds, and each breed was originally developed for a specific purpose. Some breeds do better in warm weather, and some do better in cooler climates.
Mediterranean breeds, such as Leghorns and Minorcas are a good choice for hot areas. For more suggestions, see our chick breed selector. Click “show more characteristics” and then make a selection for “heat tolerance”. For more information, see our recent article on using the chick selector.
Next, let’s consider housing.
First, make sure your birds have plenty of space. Chickens have a natural body temperature of 107° (F). They put off a lot of heat and moisture. Put too many chickens in too small of an area, and it will be difficult for them to stay cool. For full size birds, we recommend a minimum of 4 square feet per bird.
Next, make sure the coop is well-ventilated. Good airflow will help to move out both the moisture and the heat put off by the birds. If you’re not able to get enough airflow with natural ventilation, consider creating a breeze with a fan.
Third, when possible, position the coop and the run under the shade of a tree or a building or other structure. Placing the coop and run beneath a shade tree can make a big difference in temperature. Also, position the coop where it will catch a breeze.
It’s always important to give your chickens plenty of access to fresh water. But in hot weather, this is even more critical.
Put waterers in the shade so that the water will stay cool. Chickens may be reluctant to go out into the hot sun to get a drink – so having water in the shade is critical. Keep the water fresh and clean, and fill waterers with cool water if possible. On excessively hot days, replace warm water with cooler water again during the hotter part of the day. Your chickens will drink more water when the water is cool, and the cooler water will be more effective at helping them stay cool. If needed, you can even add some ice.
Be Observant & Be Creative
Checking on your chickens every day and watching their behavior is one of the best ways you can discover things before they turn into problems. If you notice that your chickens have plenty of water and shade, but they still seem hot and are sitting, panting in the shade, or if you notice that they’re not drinking as much water as you would expect, you may have to do a little detective work.
I recently heard an account of someone who was raising chickens in a hot, dry area. They were using nipple waterers, and there was ample water at all times. But still, the birds did not seem to be drinking enough water. Under most circumstances, nipple waterers work well, but the person keeping the chickens discovered that when it’s hot and the chickens are panting, they aren’t able to operate the nipple waterers well, so they weren’t getting as much water as they needed. When they’re not panting, the nipple waterers work well. The solution was very simple – they added a water fount in the shade so that the chickens could quench their thirst there and make use of the nipple waterers.
Small Things Make a Big Difference
In the heat of the day, chickens aren’t as active as when it’s cooler. If they have to cross a hot, sunny area to reach a waterer, they may not drink as much water as they should. Simply adding another waterer in the shade near them or repositioning the waterer so that it’s more easily accessible can make a big difference in how much water they drink and how well-hydrated they stay.
At one point, as I was writing this article, I sat and watched our chickens for a few minutes. In a chicken tractor nearby two Black Stars were panting a little. The large thermometer in the shade of our porch read 97° (F). I went out to take a closer look at the hens.
As I got closer, I found that the shade provided by the coop was mostly falling outside the chicken tractor on an area that the hens couldn’t reach, so it wasn’t doing them much good. The chicken tractor was parked right next to a tree, but the shade from it wasn’t landing inside the coop. I moved the coop a few feet and turned it 90° so that the shade from the coop’s roof would fall on the grassy run where the hens were, and they immediately got up and began foraging again in the grass.
Sometimes, something as simple as repositioning a coop or placing a layer of straw or fabric on the top of the run can give your chickens all the shade they need. In our garden, we have difficulty with Bermuda grass. To manage the Bermuda requires pulling out as much as possible of the roots. Bermuda is very apt to root again, so I don’t like to put it directly into the compost heap or leave it on the soil in or near the garden even once pulled. Instead, often I will lay the uprooted Bermuda on top of one of the chicken runs. There it provides cool shade (better than a piece of tin would) and this keeps the Bermuda off the ground where it will dry out fully and not be able to take root again.
This covers some of the basics. What kinds of things do you to keep your chickens cool?