Every good chicken keeper knows the importance of protecting their birds from predators. Most of us will, or already have lost birds to a coyote, hawk, fox, bobcat, etc. It’s devastating to see the after mass, I know, it’s happened here, I lost seven birds after a coyote attack in 2016. That changed everything I loved most about keeping chickens. Since the attack, my birds have been completely safe after building them a 10×10 predator-proof enclosure. Unfortunately, that means their happy life of free-roaming our acreage came to a screeching halt. To me, it meant never enjoying my birds out and about, it was now just a chore for their well-being. Chickens live for the opportunity to scratch in the dirt and look for bugs, sunbathe in the morning sun, or find that perfect spot for a dust bath. Since confinement, I’ve noticed the overall health of my flock has not quite been what it was.
The heat plays havoc on confined chickens in the desert southwest, heat stroke is real, and it’s deadly. Free-roam flocks have a much higher rate of survival and are quite resourceful in finding shade and cooler ground to burrow in. So this brings me to a dilemma, coop for safety from a predator, or free roam for quality of life and comfort from the extreme heat?
Quality of Life
Today I opened the gate and allowed my flock to live a happy life. After considering the risk, I decided being cooped up in 110+ would have the same outcome as a predator attack… both could mean a death sentence. I will do my part to protect them in every way I can. They will be confined from dusk to late morning, but during the hottest part of the day, they will be free to find comfort. Here are some of the girls who found a comfy place in the feed room… where there’s a giant oscillating fan and mist system. 🙂
It can sometimes be hard to watch chickens battle the summer heat. You’ve probably seen them holding their wings away from their body, maybe even panting. This is a good time to make an extra trip to the coop during the day to refresh their water and offer a cool treat. Fruit is always appreciated, maybe you have some tomato pieces and lettuce to offer, or grapes!
Watermelon is an excellent source of needed fluids, it’ll keep them plenty busy, and they love it!
Loosen up some dirt giving them a fresh place to scratch around in. Put a hose on a slow drip, it’ll provide a cooler place for your chickens, and it might even might attract a few bugs or worms!
What to Do When a Chicken Suffers with Heat Exhaustion
Surviving the Heat
It has been a brutal month for my flock in the scorching heat, Phoenix this summer has well exceeded 110 degrees in the shade, and 115 or higher in the full sun. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize the danger signs of a bird in distress before it’s too late, but learning how avoid distress in the first place is the real trick. I’d like to share what I’ve found to be the best way. I may not be an expert, but keeping confined chickens in the desert in July with ZERO fatalities makes me dang close!
First off, get rid of those standard drinkers, the plastic ones and especially the metal ones are absolutely unacceptable in extreme temperatures. Buckets of water, dish pans, etc. and notice this recommendation is plural. Watch the sun, place many around the yard where at any given time of the day there is water available in the shade. I like buckets, they are easy to pick up and replace with cold water during the day. You can place a large rock next to the bucket for easier access, but quite honestly if they can’t reach the water without a rock, the water is already too hot and they aren’t drinking it anyway, keeping them full means you’re keeping the water cool. VITAL! I have four buckets in my chicken yard.
I hang a box fan on the fence; this without a doubt has made the difference between life and death. Again, I stress the point of buckets of water, because as water evaporates it cools the air, so keep one or more near the fan. Keep the area by the fan shaded, if there isn’t any, make some. Palm fronds, shade cloth, lattice, all work nicely. Avoid tarps, wood, or anything that will inhibit air movement.
Ground litter including hay and pine shavings hold in the heat, rake everything up, especially chicken droppings which also contributes to an elevated ground temperature. Bare ground is a little extra work for you to keep clean, but a once over with a rake everyday is a small price to pay if it means saving your birds. Don’t discourage hole digging, it’s a perfect place for dumping water buckets during the day, chickens will play in the water then lay in the mud holes to stay cool.
Mist systems are nice, but chickens are not especially fond of them, the air around them however is about 5 to 10 degrees cooler, so you’ll find them congregating near it. The free standing type run only about $10, I like those best because they aren’t overbearing. Chickens will avoid getting wet if they have a choice; they do however like the ground moisture a mister provides. I keep my mister attached to a hose outside the fence and poke the mister through the fence. Inside the fence line below the mister I have an area enclosed with concrete edger [or bricks will do fine] to hold the moisture in. This also provides the ideal conditions for worms – a treat indeed for chickens. Often the birds are too busy looking for worms to notice they are under the mist system. Success!
Fluids obviously are important and water is the best source, but another way to entice them to drink and stay hydrated is watermelon. I cut a seedless watermelon in half and place it in a shallow ground feeder at the hottest time of the day. They will pick it down to the green rind in a matter of 15 minutes. Fresh lettuce and cantaloupe are also beneficial.
Heat Exhaustion, What to Do!
A chicken that is suffering heat exhaustion will be lying down, panting, and is lethargic or unable to stand. They lack color and are unresponsive to their surroundings. If you don’t act quickly they will die. Heavy birds such as Orpingtons, Rocks, etc. are the first to show signs of intolerance to extreme heat.
Again I’ll stress the importance of those buckets of water in the yard, this time find one that is not freshly filled with cold water and place the bird in the bucket of water until it is soaked. Remove the bird from the yard [the others will pick on a distressed bird] and place it under tree or a shady spot, preferably on grass. If it’s not a breezy day, get a fan on the bird, a low setting is best. Stay with the bird and hold the wings away from the body helping it to cool quicker. I keep a plastic baby pool handy near the chicken yard; after the bird begins to show signs of relief usually about 10 minutes, I place it in the baby pool with about 3 inches of cold water. Within 15 minutes the bird should be standing on its own, and most likely looking for the way out! I then return the bird to the chicken yard, but under observation until the sun goes down.
Egg production has been remarkably good this summer. The only thing I changed this summer was a new nesting structure in the shade. It’s nothing more than four nesting boxes stacked two high on cinder blocks. I never imagined they would use it, I threw a golf ball in one nest box, hoped for the best, and they took the hint right away.
It is always good practice to pick eggs as quickly as you can, but it’s even more important to do so when it’s hot, especially if you keep setters. They will sit on those eggs in a billion degrees and literally bake themselves to death in the coop or nest box. I often have to reach under my Orphingtons and take their eggs away, or any other bird’s eggs they claim, then shag them out of the coop. They are not an easy bird to keep in the desert, they are very broody and not at all heat tolerant. I’ve had two this summer that I brought back from near death using the method mentioned above.