(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 3, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Chickens are much tougher than they may appear and only need a little extra care for winter months. The heat can actually be more damaging to their health than the cold. The same is true for ducks and geese. After all, these birds survived centuries without interference from humans. Of course, our backyard birds are more of a concern to us than those that came before them.

What can go wrong with chickens in the winter? Frostbite is the number one concern. The combs, wattles and feet are susceptible to frostbite in extreme weather. A rooster whose comb freezes is not only in a lot of pain but may also be less fertile. Poultry owners may choose dubbing as a preventive measure for their chickens. I have personally never done this with any of my chickens and before it is attempted, the owner should be certain they know what they are doing so as not to harm the birds.. The Cajun Yankee has a good tutorial for those that may want to try it. For the rest of us here are a few simple steps to prevent frostbite in chickens.

Herrick CC 2.5 by-sa

Public domain/USDA

Courtesy of Xandert of MorgueFile

The Coop and Chicken Yard
The chicken coop, or house, should be tight enough to keep the icy wind from blowing through the walls. It should have wire-covered windows (holes cut in the walls covered by strong wire) which can be opened on milder days for air circulation. One way to determine whether or not your coop is tight enough is to go inside, shut the door and squat down. While in this position you can feel any drafts, which may be affecting your chickens. If you feel it, they are definitely feeling it.

In the coldest climates, you may need to install insulation in the chicken coop. To keep birds warm through the coldest months of winter, an electric heater with a thermostat set to come on when temperatures fall below 35° F may be mounted high on the wall. Make certain there are no wires within reach of chickens. As any chicken owner knows, they will peck at anything new and electric wires; including extension cords, should be kept out of their reach.

Wood should be used for roosts and should never be made of metal poles or plastic. Wood roosts will help to keep their feet warm whereas metal or plastic will stay cold all the time and cause their feet to become too cold. Imagine stepping on a sheet of tin with your bare feet in the winter and then having to remain there for hours.

Some sort of litter should be used in the coop such as straw. This will also help by keeping their feet off the frozen ground while they scratch around during the day. Keeping the straw clean is extremely important. Check it daily, rake out and replace when it becomes soiled or wet. This is very important because the lack of ventilation within the coop and the smell of ammonia given off by their droppings collecting in the straw will make them sick. Also, wet straw will freeze and they will be walking on ice.

If snow collects in the chicken yard, shovel it out so birds will be able to walk around without sinking in the snow. They will go into the yard during the day if a door is opened in the coop from which they can come and go. They prefer to be outside during the day, even in very cold weather. Check to make sure the door is closed at night to prevent cold winds from blowing through the coop while they are roosting. This should also be done the rest of the year to keep critters out at night.

Water, Food and Eggs
Chickens need fresh clean water in the winter just as they do in the summer. To prevent water from freezing in the coldest climates you may want to invest in a heated bowl that can be purchased from feed and hardware stores. A rubber dish can be used which will expand when ice forms and will not break like plastic. Water will freeze more quickly in metal containers. It is very important to check water containers several times a day when temperatures are at their lowest because ice will form on top and chickens may not be able to break it.

Feed a well-balanced pellet feed and scratch grain in the winter for healthy birds. A little grit is given to help break up the pellets in their gizzards. Adding vegetable peelings, greens and cooked vegetables will also help. Chickens need more feed in the winter to keep their body heat up. By varying their diet, they will receive the protein and calcium needed to raise their body heat and also keep the hens laying.

Rooster in snow by Kevin Connors
of Morgue File
Homemade chicken feed by Xandert
of Morgue File
Eggs in nest by xpSquid of Morgue File

If the production of eggs is a concern during winter, make sure hens get plenty of sunshine or a vitamin D supplement. *This supplement can be found in commercial feeds. Hanging a light bulb in the nesting area to extend the ‘daylight' hours to fourteen will entice the hens to lay more eggs. A sixty-watt light bulb is sufficient for this purpose. Remember to keep hay/straw clean and dry in laying nests.

Golden Pheasant by Jimfbleak; {GNU FDL}

Other Backyard Poultry
Other birds such as turkeys, pheasants and quail need the same care in winter as chickens. Keep their shelters dry and warm. Add plenty of hay or straw to their bedding areas. Quail and pheasant housing may be much smaller than chicken and turkey housing. Adding extra hay gives the little birds plenty of insulation from the cold.

Care of Waterfowl
Ducks and geese prefer to be outside all the time. In fact, they do not like being closed up at all and will more than likely not go into a shelter without being coaxed into it, no matter what the weather is like. Ducks can be seen swimming in ponds around the ice which floats on top in the winter.

A windbreak with a roof can be built against the back of a barn or even the chicken coop. Straw should be placed on the floor of shelter and--like chicken coops--it should be changed regularly to keep it clean. The shelter does not need to be very large because ducks like to huddle together to stay warm. They will all be in one very small space no matter how large the shelter is. Smaller is better as they will not stay inside except on the most severe days of winter. If using a large space to shelter waterfowl, try building a smaller box for them to go into within the space.

The exception may be for ducklings as they cannot regulate their body temperature and may need to be brought into a garage, cellar or heated barn during freezing weather.

Feed and Water
Your ducks and geese will eat more in the winter to help keep their body temperatures up, so be prepared to supply them with a good quality grain through the winter.

Geese in snow by Raywal of Morgue File Ducks in winter pond by A-woj
of Morgue File
Ducks in winter pond by A-woj

Like chickens, waterfowl should have an ample supply of fresh clean water at all times. They should also have access to a pond for swimming. They will swim in the coldest of climates throughout the season. In northern climates where ponds freeze several inches or more deep and it cannot be broken for waterfowl to swim, try setting up a kid's pool with a recirculating pump to keep water from freezing. Your waterfowl will love you for it.

Take the time to keep your backyard poultry happy and healthy and they will reward you with eggs, meat and companionship for years to come.

Top right photo by Kevin Connors of MorgueFile