This week I helped my Dad get the winter quarters ready for the chickens to move in. During the summer, the chickens live in mobile chicken houses, surrounded by electric net fencing to keep them safe from all of the critters that might eat them. We move them to a fresh area of grass each week. The chickens love eating the grass and bugs! Unfortunately, during the winter the grass goes dormant. To protect the grass, we move the chickens into certain areas, which limits the harm they can do. Since it will soon be time to move them (we have to do it before the ground freezes or we can't move the electric net fencing poles), Dad and I inspected the winter houses to find out what needed to be done to get them ready for winter.
To help the chickens stay warmer, we use hoop-houses, simple wooden frames with a cattle panel bent across the top and covered with plastic, that work like mini-greenhouses to keep the chickens warm. This year we realized that the plastic needed replacing. We took off the tattered old plastic, cut new pieces to fit, and fastened them in place. The biggest problem with these houses is the lack of ventilation, so we cut a small hole in the plastic in the back. Ventilation is very important to prevent frostbite because lack of ventilation can cause moisture buildup in the house. If this settles on the chickens' combs and wattles, it may freeze, causing frostbite — more on that later.
Next we cleaned out the old bedding and replaced it with new pine shavings. You can use straw, but sometimes the chickens will try to eat it and that can cause digestive problems. We use the same feeders in winter, but we have to switch the waterers. The plastic ones that we use in the summer would crack and break if water froze in them, so we use rubber pails instead. It is easy to turn them over and stomp on the bottoms to push out the ice.
The chickens are ready to move in! They are pretty funny looking now because they are molting. Chickens molt (lose) their feathers once a year. Not only do they look awful, but since they need to use their energy for growing new feathers, they stop laying eggs. (I had to tell my egg customers that I probably won't have any eggs to sell until next year.) This is a hard time of the year for my business because I still have to pay for chicken feed even though I am not getting money from selling eggs. Luckily, it should only last about six weeks or so.
Chicken breeds with large combs and wattles like the Leghorn need extra care during cold winters. Putting lard or coconut oil on their combs and wattles can help prevent frostbite. Other breeds with smaller combs and wattles, like the Chanticler, are very cold-hardy and need little help avoiding frostbite. In my experience, chickens like the choice to go outside, whatever the weather, so I let them out during the day. They may not stay out long but, even for a short while, the fresh air and sunshine is good for them.
Remember last time when I asked you, "What species of animal is a Giant Runt?" The answer is ... a pigeon! Yes the Giant Runt is a breed of pigeon. The Giant Runt was named during Colonial times, when the word “runt” was often used to describe something that was “common." Since there were so many of them at the time, it was named the giant, common pigeon, or Giant Runt.
Did you know that the character of Big Bird from Sesame Street was modeled on a particular poultry breed? Yup - this post's question is, which poultry breed was the inspiration for Big Bird?