We’re all looking for the best ways to help our flock beat the heat. Here’s a home recipe to keep on hand when the temperatures threaten their well being. Knowing how and when to quickly make homemade electrolytes for heat exhaustion can be the difference between life and death for your backyard chickens…
Shade is hard to come by in Phoenix, but not impossible if you’re creative. If your chickens are in a small coop they are unlikely to survive triple digit temperatures, I know that sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true. June will most likely exceed 110, that means 120+ in the coop, and that’s a death sentence.
Your birds will fair well in temperatures up to 105 if they are not confined, have shade, and a place to dig a hole in the dirt. Make sure they have cool water available, if the water is too hot they won’t drink enough to stay hydrated. Make it easy on yourself, use buckets instead of those chicken drinkers that are impossible to clean and a big hassle to fill.
When temperatures reach over 105 in the shade it’s time to introduce a fan to the chicken yard. I don’t use anything fancy, a $15.00 box fan will do the trick. Hang it from a fence (wreath hangers work nicely) or anyplace where it won’t tip over. Your birds will stand in front that fan like they were watching a movie!
June and July are the worst months for excessive heat, 110 -115+ and this is when you really have to stay on top of your chicken keeping responsibilities. Mist systems help cool the air, especially with a fan to keep the air moving. I like the standing misters ($10.) that attach to a hose. Place it right in the chicken yard, dig up a small area near it so the moisture forms a little mud pool for the birds.
If you free feed your chickens, don’t in summer. Feed produces heat, so feed early morning and just before they return to the coop at night. Never offer scratch feed in summer, it’s a hot feed and completely unsuitable for your feathered desert dwellers. Offer your flock a watermelon, or a head of lettuce instead, this will help keep them hydrated.
Danger Signs of Heat Exhaustion
Dark red, then a pale comb and wattles is the first sign of trouble. As their condition worsens they will become unstable on their feet, lethargic, wobble, even fall over and lie lifeless. They will die quickly if you don’t act fast.
Note: Heavy or Meat Birds such as Orpingtons are the first to show signs of heat intolerance, watch them closely. Chickens will hold their wings out from their body, pant, and lay in holes on their side – all normal behavior when they’re very hot.
What to Do
Submerge the chicken in a 5 gal. bucket of warm water and place the bird under a shade tree. Don’t bring the bird indoors to air conditioning, this will only make matters worse when you return the chicken to the outdoors. A fan on low will help cool the bird quickly, they usually recover within 15-20 minutes.
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.