No matter how long autumn tries to hold on, inevitably it slips away and ushers in those long winter months that often seem to last forever, not only for us, but for the ducks, geese, and chickens that live on our homesteads too. By the time we realize it’s happening, it’s often too little too late regarding proper wintertime preparations for our birds and the place they call home at night. In fact, it’s usually this time of the year when the harshest of lessons are learned on the homestead.
The very basics in wintertime preparations sometimes don’t make the cut for what our flock needs, and the more you dive into the subject of keeping your birds happy and healthy during the winter, the more opinions vary. I still sometimes get a bit confused by the do’s and do-not’s, but I’m optimistic that through the lessons I’ve learned, this article will provide you with a bit of clarity, so let’s jump in.
There might be no subject when it comes to keeping your flock comfy during the winter than whether or not to use a heat lamp inside the coop. Contrary to most arguments, I tend to have an area of my coop that does have supplemental heat from a lamp, but I have the lamp safeguarded with extra support to prevent it from falling down and landing in the bedding.
If you choose to do this, take precautions—you don’t want to just put in a ceiling hook, hang the lamp on the hook, and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Reinforcing the lights’ position to prevent it from falling will help ease the mind at night, and this can be accomplished in several ways.
For one, most heat lamps come with a cage around the bulb. From the edge of the cage, I run heavy gauge wire to several points of contact (however many it takes until you’re confident that the lamp isn’t going anywhere) on the top of the walls and ceiling.
Even with the heat lamp installed, we don’t usually have it on all the time but choose to use it on only the coldest nights of the winter to keep our birds nice and cozy while the wind is howling outside. Remember, you don’t necessarily need supplemental heat, but it is an option if done right.
I’m all about using the deep bedding method during the winter months, but another aspect of keeping birds warm and happy during winter is downsizing the interior of your coop. It’s like this; when we built our coop, we built it three times bigger than needed because we knew our flock would be expanding in size, fluctuating in the spring, and downscaling in the fall when we culled birds. Because of this, we also downsize the amount of available room the birds have inside the coop in winter by adding straw bales against the wall for several different purposes.
For one, the decreased space forces the birds to be closer together, which in turn keeps them a little warmer during the night. Straw is used as a bedding material for all manners of livestock because of its ability to hold heat, so it’s a natural choice for us. What we like to do is stack the bales along the wall, usually on their sides leaving a bird-sized space between each bale. We then add another bale on top to create a roof, which the birds will happily tuck underneath and, come spring, almost always nest in.
Now, with your birds snug in the confines of their coop, you continuously add just enough bedding to cover up the mess they make overnight, allowing the heat of their bodies to start a composting process at the very bottom. A mix of both straw and pine shavings are best when using this means for inside the coop. In the spring, it’s up to you how you use that glorious, nitrogen-rich compost. Things like pumpkins and sweet corn absolutely thrive when grown in the stuff.
Ever watch chickens and ducks walk through deep snow? If you haven’t, I’ll fill you in on a secret—they absolutely hate it. I used to go out after a snowfall and shovel out an area for the birds to use, tossing old bedding from in the coop onto the ground. Now, if it’s going to snow, I have a tarp that goes on the ground for the exact area I want left bare for the birds. After the snow is done, I pull the tarp off to the side of the run and remove the snow. The snow piles up, creating a windbreak for the flock during gusty days.
Of course, putting extra straw down is a great practice. It provides that bit of insulation on the ground that can make a big difference. Even though the birds have full access to the coop all day long, they seldom use it, preferring to stay outside no matter what the conditions are like. For this reason, we made sure that we built the coop high enough that the entire flock can fit under it. Our dominant wind is a southwest wind, so on that end of the coop, we stack straw bales around the opening under the structure. That way the birds can go underneath for shelter from the wind.
Now, I want to touch on one aspect of duck behavior that might have you worried. When your ducks come out of the coop first thing in the morning, you’ll often see them plop down in the snow not long after they’re let out. This is their way of using their body heat to warm their feet up. Wild ducks do this regularly during the winter, and if you see your birds doing it, don’t let it be the cause of lost sleep; they’ll be just fine.
There are several means to increase the comfortability of your flock by changing what their stomach content looks like. For one, I like to start bulking my birds up slightly during the autumn, and cracked corn, or even sunflower seeds, are both great means to accomplish this. During the winter though, it’s time to increase your chickens’ protein intake. Accomplishing this is as simple as buying feed that has a higher protein content than they usually get. I like to mix regular layer feed with something like turkey grower, which has an average protein percentage of roughly 24%.
For both ducks and chickens during the cold winter months, I try my best to keep them entertained and stimulated, so in the case of ducks, I’ll fill a kiddie pool up with about 10” of water and give them a couple dozen lively minnows to chase around. The minnows are an added boost of protein, and the ducks go absolutely nuts for them. Chickens aren’t partial to kiddie pools and minnow-chasing, so I’ll pick up a couple hundred lively mealworms for them to scratch around for in the straw. Something else I like to do in winter, because I live right on the water, is keep the fish carcasses from successful outings while ice fishing. In the winter, both the ducks and the chickens will pick a fish carcass clean until nothing but the head is left.
Of course, birds need to drink too. Ducks will happily eat snow all day long, but we make sure they have ample sources of fresh water kicking around too. This is best accomplished by a heated water dish and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I’ve heard of folks who, in other regions, use a rain barrel on the south-facing side of their house, with a slow drip to supplement water throughout the day for their birds. Here though, it drops down to temperatures that would make a muskox shiver, so that’s not really an option for us.
Lastly, but certainly not least, when you’re buying birds, please do your diligence regarding what breed you’re purchasing and what their cold tolerance is. There’s no need to watch your flock struggle all winter long because they’re not genetically built to fend off the winds and weather that blow in off the Bering Sea in February.
Research and then do more research. Ask local homesteaders and join forums and social media groups related to your area for information. Knowing the needs of your birds and being adaptable to them is your best defense against miserable chickens and ducks during the winter, so take the initiative and don’t settle on a breed that doesn’t fit your needs when it comes to climate—it’s not fair to either of you.