Regular readers of the newsletter will have already seen some cooling tips in past issues such as these ‘Tips for Cooling Down in Hot Weather‘ and will hopefully have noted several ways to make sure your chickens are comfortable and healthy when the temperature rises. This time around, we want to discuss a bit futher how to ensure the well-being of the flock at the height of Summer.
Chickens like sunny warm weather. They can often be seen sunbathing. As it gets warmer they might stretch out their wings and pant mildly. It’s their way of regulating their temperature. This is natural behaviour and should not cause concern. What is more concerning is if they start to show signs of heat stress such as excessive panting, very floppy pale combs, listlessness, iridescent green poop, eating very little but drinking several times their normal amount of water (leading to Diarrhea, more dehydration and more loss of electrolytes).
As we know the domestic chicken evolved from the Jungle Fowl. So why, some people ask, should backyard chickens have a problem with heat? The answer is simple — though jungles are hot they are also extremely well shaded. And shade is one of the key areas where flock-keepers can help their birds during hot spells.
One of the most obvious and effective actions to take in Summer is to provide shade. You cannot provide your birds with mini chicken-friendly parasols, but you do need to keep them from direct sunlight (and if you do have a parasol handy, maybe it could be fixed up somewhere near them?). Natural shade generally comes from trees and bushes and so when planning ahead consider building runs or free range areas near trees or growing tall bushes and plants in and/or around the run. If natural shade is unavailable, one option may be to drape a sheet over the run (but be sure not to block out any chance of a nice breeze). You may keep the covering damp with an occasional spray of water. Also think what else you may have around and could improvise with – old tables and chairs for instance.
And remember, your chickens are not as daft as you might think. Free-spirited free-rangers will seek out shade on their own. Just be prepared to find them in some odd places — places like cold-frames, sheds, or under bushes and old wheelbarrows – but do keep a check on them to be sure that the shade they have found for themselves is keeping them cool enough.
Of course you should provide fluids, and there are a variety of ways to do this. Plain clean fresh water is the number one priority, and they will want to drink cool water more than warm so changing it regularly throughout the day can help with that. Additional ideas include adding ice cubes and chopped vegetables or fruit such as cucumbers or grapes to extra water bowls to provide an entertaining means of getting more fluid into them – treats of frozen fruits and vegetables on their own can also be cooling.
Place drinkers in shaded areas – remember that containers of all kinds (but especially metal) will get very hot if left in direct sunlight.
Frozen bottles of water can be placed somewhere shaded for your chickens to stand near to help reduce their body temperature and a wading pool can also be effective. Having a mister in the run and/or a fan in the coop are other ways some will help their chickens cool down in extreme heat.
Treating Heat Stroke
Despite taking all precautions you may occasionally have to deal with a bird made unwell by the heat. With heat stroke the body starts to shut down and serious damage may have been done to the internal organs. The earlier it is caught the better the chances of recovery are and the first step is to try to cool your chicken back down.
Common methods for cooling down are to gently lower her into a bucket of cool water – it should not be cold, just a little cooler than normal body temperature as cold water could cause her to go into shock. Another method along those lines would be to put a few inches of cool water into a paddling pool (or sink or bath etc) and gently wet her down. Or you could get a towel or t-shirt, dampen it with cool water and lay it on the floor in a shaded area and then lay the chicken on top and gently spray cool water over your chicken to gradually cool down.
Getting some liquids in will also help. When suffering from heat stress or dehydration adding electrolytes to their water can help them replenish what they have lost (plain water will be fine though if you don’t have any). A basic homemade electrolytes recipe is to mix together 500mls Warm Water, 2 tbsp. Brown Sugar (or Honey or Molasses), 1/2 tsp. Salt and 1/2 tsp. Baking Soda. Some can be encouraged to drink themselves by dipping their beak a little into a bowl of water. If that is not possible then you may be able to give them some by sticking your finger in the water and then touching it on to the beak, below the nostrils, so a few drops at a time will run in. Using a syringe, if you have one, would be another way – but only give a small amount at a time.
If your hen was in the early stages of heatstroke then she may be up and about and able to go back with the rest of the flock within a few hours of being cooled down. If the heatstroke was more serious she will need to be given her own hospital area somewhere cool where she can recover. She may not be able to stand or walk or eat or drink on her own to start with and it may be several days before improvements are noticed – and it can take several weeks to recover fully in bad cases (some may never be completely back to their old selves).
If there is a heat wave be sure to check on your chickens regularly to make sure the heat has not become too much for them, and to ensure their water is cool and any misters, fans, shaded areas etc. are all as working as expected.