7 easy steps to help backyard chickens survive a heatwave
Updated: 6 January 2022
Summer is a critical time for your feathered friends, especially in Australia, where the weather can quickly soar above 40°C for days on end. A heatwave is the last thing we need for our chickens.
Here are some practical tips to help your chickens through the summer months.
How to detect signs of heat stress in chickens
Are chickens ok in hot weather? They can be if you take the proper precautions when the temps spike. Chickens under heat stress will show signs of:
- Beak parted
- Wings away from the body
Are your chickens overweight?
Chickens that are older or overweight struggle the most in a heatwave.
Heat stress is also quite common in some heavy breeds such as Orpingtons, Light Sussex, Faverolles, and Australorps. These birds need extra care in the summer.
Keep them within a healthy weight range to reduce their risk of heat stress.
How to keep chickens cool in a heatwave
1. Provide cool, clean water
Did you know that birds refuse to drink hot water? They would rather go without water at all. Hence, it's critical to keep their water cool on hot days.
I'm not a fan of nipple drinkers or tiny-cup style drinkers during times of extreme heat. They're just too challenging to keep cool, and many journal articles suggest the flock will drink less overall.
Place the drinker under shade or trees. Multiple drinkers in multiple spots is ideal in case one tips over or runs dry. You can also freeze ice cream tubs if you're struggling to keep the water cool. But after asking some fellow chook people their thoughts on iced water, the consensus was that cool or cold water is better than iced.
If your chickens' water system is automated, don't forget the connecting pipes and hoses, which can be scalding hot during the hottest times of the day!
What drinker to use?
I use 9-litre buckets situated in the hen house and the garden's coolest spots for drinking. I replace them daily or every second day, reusing the water in the veggie garden. They won't tip over when a hen jumps on the brim (the bantam Leghorns can't resist!), especially if I dig them into the soil slightly.
They're easy to clean, and their mass means they're slower to heat up. The birds can also splash their wattles in it, which must be of some comfort!
Won't bantams drown in a bucket that big?
I've never had a hen fall in - ever! For young pullets, or true bantams (Belgian Bantams, Sebrights etc) though, use an appropriately sized water drinker. A massive ceramic dog bowl on a paver would work. Or, add a brick to the bucket.
2. Check the coop airflow
For chickens in a heatwave, proper airflow through the chicken coop is critical. Not only for heat management but managing ammonia and respiratory health.
Box style coops can be death traps during a heatwave.
If your chicken house is covered in on three or all sides and doesn't have a gap at the top for heat to escape - cut one! For example, a 15 cm gap covered by an overhanging eave effectively removes trapped heat in a coop. Also, remove any perspex windows and replace them with wire mesh.
If you're unsure if the chicken house has sufficient ventilation, check it on a hot night. Do your birds look hot and stressed?
Night temperatures are just as important as day temperatures, as warm nights are very stressful for chickens. You'll be surprised how much heat even a couple of hens generate. Make sure they have adequate roosting space so they’re not squished together.
3. Check the coop flooring
I see many designs of poultry housing with metal mesh flooring - ouch for feet on hot days! These designs are excellent for predator protection, but you need to have them under shade on hot days.
4. Prime with heat stress supplements
This product can seriously save large birds on hot days. Have a sachet of Chicken Coach 35°C Heat+Stress on hand for those unpredictably hot stretches of weather. Prime your ladies up in the three days leading up to a heatwave.
This is a vitamin supplement, not an electrolyte mix.
5. Let your chickens free range
On days around 35-40 degrees, allow your hens to free-range if you can. They will naturally find the coolest part of the garden. If you have a mobile coop or chicken tractor, move it into the shade.
6. Easy access to water
Make it as easy as possible for them to access their water. For example, if your backyard chickens are free-ranging, move their water to them.
7. Ensure low nesting boxes and perches
As we know, hot air rises. So lowering perch heights (relative to the height of their coop) will help. Nesting boxes should also be located at ground level to stay cool.
A hen can take up to 40 minutes to lay an egg; that's a long time on a hot day! Also, chickens don't naturally lay in nests in trees. They feel safer closer to the ground.
What if you don’t have shady trees in your yard?
Add a touch of paint
White-washing or painting surfaces white to reflect the sun is not a new concept. But it can reduce the core temperature of your hen house.
Insulate the coop
Even better, stacking a wall of straw bales (any) against the west side of your chicken coop will reduce the temperature dramatically. You can also break the bales into biscuits and "tile" the roof. Secure with hay-band or rope.
I've also seen people use refrigeration panels and other recycled materials with great success.
Provide more shade
Shade cloth or shade sails (old doona covers are great!) can help. I've even used thick tree branches with success over coops and runs - anything to reduce contact with direct sunlight.
Reduce the ground temperature
Chickens cool themselves by panting – so cooling the air with a fine mist or wetting down the ground and their dust bathing area (with a hose) is very useful. You're not trying to wet the birds, just the surrounding air.
While older birds will appreciate a cool place to stand, if you have chicks or pullets younger than 16 weeks, be cautious that wetting the ground can lead to issues with Coccidiosis.
If it's going to be a scorcher and I'm out for the day, I'll thoroughly wet a section of the dust bathing area or litter outside, plus under their favourite shrubs to give the flock a space to stand and cool themselves. They will dig into this dirt, where the soil is moist and cool.
We hope our Backyard Chickens Heat Wave Survival Guide has given you some great tips in learning how to reduce heat stress in chickens this summer.
Get your Veterinarian formulated Chicken Coach 35oC Heat + Stress to help your flock deal with the heat. This great-tasting formula is packed with natural vitamins and minerals to help reduce heat and other stress.
Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshops, online programs, phone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.
Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now!
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.