It seems to be widely accepted as fact these days that the planet is getting warmer; summer heat waves are intensifying, and northerly climates are noticeably slowly creeping up in temperature. We can all do our bit to reduce the effects of climate change, and as it happens, keeping chickens is probably one of them- it bypasses the industrial operations required to get eggs from farms to our dinner plates, effectively reducing the carbon footprint of each egg by great deal.
So knowing that temperatures are increasing all the time, it only seems pertinent to find out how well chickens need to be shaded from the sun in order to stay healthy, and by extension, what affects the increasingly extreme temperatures can have on birds that traditionally have been used to milder climates. Indeed maybe you live in a hotter part of the country anyway, and want to know whether keeping hens is a wise idea.
Like almost all animals, even those that are adapted to warmer climates, chickens do require shade and can die if left exposed to direct sunlight for any length of time. As a rule of thumb you can expect your chickens to choose to spend 90% of their time in the shade when the sun is shining.
Effects of Lack of Shade
Lack of shade equals exposure to heat, but if your hens can’t access shade in the first instance it is likely to make them very distressed. Distressed chickens are not happy chickens, and even if the heat doesn’t cause them harm they will still be put off lay and may suffer all manner of other physiological issues if they are not able to live comfortably.
Effects of Overheating
A lack of shade is the underlying reason for the serious issue of hens getting dangerously hot. Whilst a lack of shade and exposure to constant sunlight is dangerous anywhere in the world, in areas close to the equator the problem is exacerbated even further.
So for example, somewhere in the south and inland like Texas or New Mexico where temperatures can regularly exceed 100°F (37.7°C) exposure to heat becomes dangerous far more quickly.
Facilitating Shade in Your Coop
The challenge when trying to keep your hens out of the heat is being able to do so with maximum effect with minimum expenditure.
Draping a tarp over a corner of the coop is certainly better than nothing, although it will still get hot and transfer some of that heat towards the ground. Likewise forcing your hens to retreat into the confines of the enclosed part of the coop/hen house isn’t a great idea either, because there is likely to be a restricted flow of air, which in the heat of the midday sun will make things very stifling for the hens.
This is where the benefits of having an elevated hen house comes into play. As well as being great for keeping rats away and from moisture damaging the floor, the space under a hen house on legs provides a relatively cool environment for hens to retreat. The large space envelope of the house provides a good heat barrier between its underside and the ground, and because all 4 sides can be open, air can freely ventilate far better than inside the hen house.
Quite often in the summer I notice my hens huddling underneath their house, and while not ideal, it does at least demonstrate that they’re able to find a way to cool down to some degree.
Alternatively, if we dial things back to a time when chickens roamed the earth without the intervention of man then we can assume that chickens would have used what nature provided to give them shade.
To that end having trees and large shrubs in or around your coop is a tried and tested method of keeping your hens cool. The dense, thick canopy of a tree will in particular provide an effective barrier against both heat and light.
How to Provide Adequate Water
Besides doing what you can to keep your hens shaded and shielded from the heat of the sun, the other issue that needs to be addressed is how to keep them from getting dehydrated.
Common sense dictates that the best way to do this is to ensure your flock is encouraged to drink as much as possible. So what’s the best way to do this?
The first thing to do is make sure there is plenty of water available; where you might typically have a single water feeder in the coop, it is worth having one or two more available during hot weather, not only to encourage drinking, but also to ensure there is plenty to go round, and your hens don’t have to fight over the water and become put off drinking.
Other Ways to Keep Your Chickens Cool
Assuming your local jurisdiction doesn’t restrict your use of hose pipes during the hottest months of the year, you might find some benefit to rigging up a mister or sprinkler system in your chicken coop to both reduce the air temperature and the chickens themselves.
There’s no guarantee your hens will be particularly keen on being sprayed however, so approach this method with caution. Crucially, you should ensure that any spray only reaches a small portion of the coop so that the hens can retreat from it should they wish.
A more restrained way of introducing cool water to the coop is to fill up a small child’s paddling pool to a height of an inch or two (ideally of the non inflatable variety, unless you happen to have extremely diligent hens with an acute awareness of their talons!). Your chickens can then cool off, either just by paddling, or if they feel inclined, they can even submerge a little more of themselves.
It’s important for chickens to be able to give themselves a dust bath at any time to get rid of lice, mites or other parasites, or even excess oils naturally secreted by the chicken.
When it’s hot dust baths serve a secondary purpose; by digging down in the dirt to churn up dust the hen will reveal cooler soil that hasn’t been heated by the sun, unlike the top layer, thereby providing a cooling as well as a cleaning effect.
Cool Fruit and Vegetables
If you really like to indulge your hens you can feed them cooling, watery fruits and vegetables such as melon or cucumber. These are a great source of hydration, and as we know very refreshing.
I wouldn’t provide anything too flavorsome, such as strawberries or citrus fruits, as I would worry this could give my hens an upset stomach.
Frozen Water With Fruit
If providing fruit isn’t good enough, how about providing fruit encased in ice? This is simple enough to do by freezing a plastic ice cream tub full of water with some chopped up pieces of melon or cucumber in it. Your hens can then happily peck away at it, drinking down cool water and eating fruit in the process.
Clearly this is more of a novelty than anything as ice doesn’t stay icy for long on hot days, but as a pleasant relief in the midday sun, why not include it!?
Ensure the Coop Isn’t Over Crowded
The exact amount of space required per chicken isn’t an exact science, but most sources state that 10 square foot (3 square meters) is about right for each hen. I wouldn’t deviate too much from this, as overcrowding can make things even hotter in the coop during hot weather.
What to Do if You Suspect Your Chickens Are Too Hot
If your efforts to keep your chickens in the shade and out of the heat aren’t successful for whatever reason, then you might find yourself faced with a chicken or chickens with heat stroke.
Signs of heat stroke could be:
- Panting somewhat like a dog to try and lose heat
- Holding the wings away from the body (again to try and lose body heat)
- Loss of appetite
If you witness any of the above, or any other strange behaviour you think might be attributable to extreme heat, it is important to act quickly to cool the affected hen(s) down again. Move them straight to a cool, shaded area and provide cool water immediately. It’s possible that your hens won’t just have lost water if they have overheated, but also vital electrolytes (salts), so it’s worth having a suitable livestock electrolyte powder to hand should the need for it arise.