Domesticated chickens are descendants of the Red Junglefowl of India, where, as the name suggests, the climate is tropical and predictable. Over time, chickens have spread around the globe alongside their human caretakers. They can survive in temperate climates, thriving in the warmer months, but limping along in the colder. Indeed, without human care, they would soon succumb to the elements. But, since we value the chicken, we carefully nurture them and tend to their needs throughout the winter months. For chicken-keepers, the cost of time and money to tend the flock through winter is offset by the future promise of eggs!
The best way to help chickens through the winter is to consider how they behave during the warmer months and do our best to mimic the conditions for their natural behaviours. So, given the perfect conditions, how does a chicken behave? Well, chickens are at their happiest when they can forage for scrumptious insects or delectable greens wherever their hearts’ desire. Picture with me a happy hen strolling through green vegetation, plucking a caterpillar here, scratching at some seeds there, and clucking contentedly as the sun shines down upon her. Later, finding a sandy spot, she settles in and ruffles her feathers for a dust bath. At twilight she makes her way to the roost with her flock mates, munching some supplemental feed and quenching her thirst before retiring for the night from the dependable feeder and waterer. Safely ensconced from nocturnal predators, she sleeps in peace and awaits the dawn to bring a new day of chicken bliss.
As euphoric as this may sound, there are some basic behaviours that are essential to a healthy chicken: scratching and pecking, foraging and wandering, dust bathing and eating, drinking, and roosting. If we can enable chickens to continue performing their natural behaviours, they will do fine despite the confinement imposed upon them to protect them from inclement winter weather. What follows is a list of behaviours and some suggestions to keep chickens happy through the winter.
Back in the jungles, the chickens roosted off the ground in vegetation. They were screened from their predators and protected from the rain by the leaves over their heads. Chickens want a safe place to roost and are quick to learn where to roost and faithfully return each night so long as it is a covered, dry spot. If they wander widely during the day, they still come home to roost at night. In winter, however, chickens rarely venture outside if the ground is covered with snow or the wind is howling. If they have a sheltered place to hide that is protected from the snow and the wind, and with their roost easily accessible, then they have their basic need for shelter from the elements fulfilled.
One more behaviour to consider for the chickens spending their winter in the sheltered hide-away is egg laying. All hens want an out-of-the-way, dry spot where they can nestle into to lay in privacy. While confined, most hens will continue to lay, if sporadically, and can be enticed to do so if a darker, dry place is available for them to retreat to. Designating such a place also makes egg collecting easier.
Scratching and Pecking
Chickens find their food by scratching upon the ground and pecking at any edible morsel they can find. And being omnivores, that could be an insect, toad, grain, fruit, green plant or decomposing tidbits. To help digest all those food possibilities without teeth, chickens ingest small stones into their crops, where they are used to grind the food before it moves on into the stomach. Within that sheltered place to hide from the snow and wind, the chickens will set to scratching wherever they can in hopes of finding something to eat or small stones to ingest. Covering the ground with something to scratch about in (straw works great!) will give the chickens something to occupy their time as they spend their days away from the snow. As an extra bonus, the straw does double duty by absorbing their droppings and keeping their area cleaner. Other options are dry leaves, hay, or wood shavings.
A wet chicken is a pathetic sight and contrary to our views on cleanliness, chickens don’t use water to bathe. Instead, they use dust. Chickens like to fluff themselves up and fling dust over themselves so it can work its way through their feathers and dislodge pesky mites and fleas. Providing them with a spot to dust bathe is much appreciated by the birds, I am sure. A plastic tub, spacious enough for a hen to move around in comfortably, filled with a few inches of fine sand and placed in their protected area can provide the chickens with a spot to dust bathe without mixing in the straw bedding. Adding some diatomaceous earth to the tub helps to combat those no-see-ums, too.
Staving Off Boredom
Chickens get bored… same place… same flockmates… same food and water… Aagh! Bored chickens, just like bored humans, can get into mischief. Give the flock a change and they will be happier chickens. This can be done by simply opening the door on warmer, sunnier days and letting them roam around as they wish. Some will stay inside, but others (likely suffering a chicken form of cabin fever) will venture out into the snow.
Another option is giving them buckets of compost or kitchen scraps to add variety to their diet. Since they can’t forage about outside, they will relish the chance to root around in the scraps. Something as simple as introducing perches or changing the location of existing ones is enough to interject some needed change into their monotony. Hanging an edible treat, such as a whole cabbage or suet cake keeps them busy for a while. Variety is the spice of life, even for chickens.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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