Keep Your Chickens Healthy This Winter in a Fresh-Air Coop
Recently, I was shocked to learn that tightly closed, Nineteenth-century-style chicken coops are back in fashion, in spite of being unhealthy for your birds and foul-smelling, besides! I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, since there's something about Nineteenth-century superstitions that makes them immortal, but this one is particularly bad for your chickens.
The fallacy goes like this: "Chickens are delicate, hothouse creatures who can't stand the cold. So we will coop them up in tightly shut houses, so they won't catch cold from drafts, and will stay warm. Maybe adding a lot of glass windows will help keep the house warmer."
It's hard to decide which piece of nonsense to attack first. Chickens aren't delicate! They tolerate cold very well, snuggled under a warm coat of feathers and kept toasty by a high metabolism. Lots of people have had their chickens decide that they'd rather roost in pine trees instead of chicken houses, and such chickens usually are perfectly healthy all winter, even in harsh climates -- often healthier than their brethren back at the chicken coop. They don't lay well if exposed to so much weather, and it's hard to protect them from predators, but the outdoor lifestyle is good for them.
Like all birds, though, chickens have a secret weakness: bad lungs. Miners used to use canaries to detect bad air quality, and chickens are just the same. They'll be hurt by poor air quality long before we are. That means that tightly shut houses are unhealthy for chickens, because they have terrible air quality (with high levels of ammonia, for one thing). Such houses are also too damp, and may be too dark as well. Like humans, chickens don't "catch cold from drafts" -- that's a superstition.
Also, you can't keep chickens warm by keeping them in an unheated shed. It's going to be just as cold in an unheated chicken house as it is outside. (Okay, that's not quite true: In an insulated, crowded house, the chickens' own body heat can keep it warm. But for this to work, it takes a much larger flock than most of us have.)
All this was debunked a hundred years ago. The commercial poultry industry moved permanently to highly ventilated poultry houses. First they used open-sided houses, and now they use forced-air ventilation with giant fans to provide even more air movement. The small-scale poultrykeepers adopted fresh-air poultry houses at first, but recently people seem to have lost their way, and are building dank, dark chicken dungeons again. Some of these houses are very expensive. I'd hate to see you make the same mistake, putting your best work into something that won't work out, and harming your chickens when you're trying to help them!
On my farm, I have always used open-front chicken houses in all weather. The hens like these well enough, though many prefer to roost on the roofs rather than inside. It rains 60-90 inches a year here, and snows sometimes, and bad weather never seems to bother the chickens. Other people tell me that their chickens get sick in the winter, but this has never happened to me. Like the folks whose chickens roost in trees, my chickens are in robust health year-round.
On the other hand, If you stuff your flock into an under-ventilated coop, the ammonia will stunt, sicken, or blind them. If it's dark, they won't be able to eat properly. The lack of air movement means that the water in your chickens' manure can't escape, but new water is being added all the time from their breath and manure. Of course, your house gets wetter and wetter, promoting disease and frostbite, since wet combs get frostbitten but dry ones don't. This is how housing mistakes can suck all the joy out of poultrykeeping and cause you to abandon it forever. Don't let it happen to you!
The bible of the fresh-air housing movement is Dr. Prince T. Woods' Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, which I have just brought back into print. It's an oldie but a goodie. There's nothing else like it. For caring chickens owners like you, it's something you have to have. Check out the sample chapter on my Web site and you'll see what I mean.You'll see that the book is a gold mine of information.