Free Range Winter Chickens

Reader Contribution by Ed Essex
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I don’t really know if our chickens are like all chickens or if they are evolving into something so fantastic that we will be featured in agricultural textbooks for all time. Our chickens are becoming winterized.

We got these chickens fully grown a couple of years ago. Not being experienced we weren’t really sure what to expect. Our chickens are free range chickens. That means no one owns the property they graze on and whatever they find they get to keep for free. Horse pooh, dog pooh, crickets, and many other disgusting things.

Our chickens also have feathers so I figured we were good as far as winter goes. One of our friends told us they would be able to survive clear down to zero degrees. I was a little concerned because when I was a kid we had a Bantam Rooster called Popeye and one morning we woke up and ‘Ol Popeye was frozen solid in time never to thaw out again in our presence. We were told he was old and that’s why he froze. My sister and I never bought that one. Our parents were old and they never froze.

We live in the mountains at 4200′ and it does get pretty cold here but we also live off grid. That means no forced air furnace and hot water heater for the chicken coop. These guys were just going to have to tough it out. That’s the way I was raised and it worked for me and my sister, well it worked for me. Our parents would always say things like “just tough it out” and “quit whining” and we seemed to get through the winters okay with good parenting skills like that.

I did put insulation in the chicken coop and cover all the holes. We even had a freeze proof faucet nearby so we could get fresh water every day. Laurie made me get some sawdust for the coop floor. I guess I had to “cave” on something. 

Fall came and I thought we were as ready as we were going to be for winter and right then all of the stupid chickens lost their stupid feathers when the stupid temperature got down to freezing at night. Well, how smart was that? All my life I had been told how “Mother Nature always gets it right”. Well apparently Mother Nature never had to live off grid. I just knew we were going to have to buy new chickens in the spring – every year.

Well it got down to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that winter for a couple of days. Our chickens really sucked it up. We were proud of them. The rooster had frostbite on his comb but he never really complained. I guess it’s easier to take care of now, kind of like being bald, and the hens seem to be attracted to him okay. Other than that they didn’t seem to be affected much.

The one thing I noticed that first year is that they never came out of the coop. I guess they didn’t have to. Laurie took them hot meals and warm water every day. Cooked rice, cooked oatmeal, and other things like that. I guess they would have to wait for summer for the disgusting things they like to eat.

We have a new generation of chickens who have grown up here and seem to be a little more used to the winters than the original gang. They still stupidly lose their feathers in the late fall but on a nice day they will venture out of the coop. I go out and shovel trails in the snow that lead to other areas I shovel and they do go out and scratch.

It’s hard getting used to snow. One hen shakes each foot after lifting her foot to take a step. She’s got it down though and does manage to go forward. It’s like a cadence – lift, shake, and step. Lift, shake, and step. We’ve also found that they can get bogged down in powder snow. We’ve had to rescue more than one stranded in a snow drift. They act like a beached whale. Scientists are puzzled by the strange behavior.

Our original batch of chickens never left the coop. Our newer “evolved” chickens do. It wouldn’t surprise me to see their feet eventually develop webs like tiny snow shoes and their feathers turn white in the winter. I wonder if the government will give us a grant?

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and

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