When it’s 115 in the shade, it means the thermometer in full sun will register 120 or more. It also means that your chickens are in distress and could face death if you don’t have a plan in place.
First of all, if they are caged or in a small coop they will not survive. I know that’s pretty harsh, but it’s true. So if you don’t want fried chicken for dinner tonight I suggest you find a way to free them where there is some shade, dirt, and water. Shade is a no brainer, but that’s not enough when the heat is this brutal. They need soft dirt where they can dig a hole to stay cool. Get a shovel and the hose and start prepping an area for them, their instincts to dig will continue from there.
Leave the hose on a slow drip in the area where the chickens are, and if possible, securely hang a box fan on the fence any way you can. Put full buckets of cold water somewhat near the fan, this will help cool the immediate area.
Make sure you keep their water sources cool, if their water gets too hot they want drink it. They may drink water from the mud holes you are providing them with, that’s ok, assuming you’ve kept up on your housekeeping chores. If not, get busy because there’s no time to waste.
Managing the Feed
If you free feed your backyard flock, don’t. In extreme triple digit temps it’s better to feed early morning by 6AM for about two hours, and again an hour before sundown. Food produces heat causing even more heat stress. It’s also very important to not offer any scratch feeds. However, you can give them beneficial food like lettuce, fruit, and especially watermelon. Cut a watermelon in half and set it in the yard during the hottest part of the day, it’s a great source of fluid and they love it. When is the hottest part of the day? If you’re in the desert southwest, it’s between 3 and 6pm.
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.
It’s tough trying to keep chickens cool in this heat, but I have a few tips I’d like to share. Chickens body temperatures are about 106 Fahrenheit and keep their temperature steady by converting energy that comes from feed into heat. In other words the less heat they need the less food they need to eat. However, the effect of reduced food consumption combined with excessive heat often causes a radical drop in egg production. In some cases they may quit laying altogether. Heat stress is a serious matter, once birds are observed as lethargic, no clucking or preening, and just lay around is when death often follows.
Chickens do acclimate after awhile, in layers, there is scientific evidence that their temperature will stabilize a few degrees higher three to five days after the initial exposure to heat. Meaning, if a chicken goes through repeated heat exposure they will adapt and be able to survive at five degrees higher than before acclimation.
Chickens don’t have sweat glands so they can’t perspire, instead they pant like a dog. Dehydration or heat stress is the number one cause of death, so cool clean water is vital to their survival. They do not like hot water so drag yourself out into ovenland armed with a garden hose and change the drinkers at least twice a day, or more! Use buckets, or large bowls, keep it simple so it’s not such a big ordeal.
As water evaporates it actually cools the air, so many buckets of water scattered around the yard is extremely beneficial. Hose down the roof and any walls that might surround the enclosed area the birds are in, this will help cool their environment as the water evaporates.
Layers upon layers of chicken droppings hold heat in. Clean the yard up and keep the ground footing to a minimum of one inch.
Mist systems are used by some poultry keepers but my success rate is rather low with them. The birds don’t like them, plus the pooling of water beneath them creates humidity. Humidity in high temperatures is a deadly combination. Fans on the other hand are an excellent source of relief, either in the coop or yard – better yet, both. More Information….