Lets get one common question answered first… whether or not to add heat. Chickens have over 8,000 feathers offering them a nice cozy coat. They fluff up those feathers trapping air under their down and stay toasty warm even in temperatures below freezing. So, the answer is no, chickens don’t need added heat in the coop. However, it’s important they have a dry, draft free shelter.
Windy conditions will ruffle their feathers and compromise their ability to stay warm. Even a spot heater in the coop defeats it’s purpose in the long run, not to mention it’s a major fire risk. Chickens would indeed huddle under a heat lamp, but when they move away from it their feathers are not fluffed up and they’ll be cold. They do better in a consistent climate, not fluctuating temps. So you have a choice, either confine them to a totally heated shelter all winter, or don’t provide them any heat at all.
Your chickens will roost together at night to keep each other warm, make sure they have enough space to do this. Check on them at night, you shouldn’t see any birds on the ground, or roosting alone. This is an indication they couldn’t find a spot with the others. If you only have one or two chickens, rather than providing a heat source, do them a favor and get another chicken.
Keep the coop clean, change litter weekly. Damp conditions from droppings not only compromise chickens ability to stay warm, but contribute to the risk of respiratory illness. If your chickens are free roam during the day, it’s a wise decision to keep their water outside the coop. It isn’t necessary to provide water at night, it only increases unwanted moisture in the coop. Ventilation is good, drafts are bad. If there’s gaps in the coop walls, patch them. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, be creative! Save those empty feed bags, they’re a great way to insulate a coop!
My personal choice is deep pine shavings. Many people use straw, but it has a tendency to mold, be brittle, and pokey, which can cause irritated vents on your birds.
Grass hay is nice, it stays soft, but it’s a bit pricey. All hay or straw is bulky and takes up a lot of space in the trash can. This is something to consider if you are an urban chicken keeper.
Diet for Winter Health and Warmth
Greens are just as important in winter as in summer. A good way to introduce greens and break the boredom in the coop is to hang a cabbage. This will keep them busy and healthy at the same time. Offering your birds a little scratch feed before bed will help them stay warm, but remember, scratch feed should be considered a treat, not a complete food for chickens.
More Resources for Cold Weather Chicken Keeping: