Should I heat my chicken coop in winter?

If you live in a colder climate you're probably worried about your chickens in the coming winter. Here in western Pennsylvania it gets pretty cold and snowy for most of winter, but I don't heat my coops. I actually did put a heat source in my coop the first year I had chickens, but I've since learned that it's completely unnecessary and potentially dangerous. In fact, it's one of the most dangerous mistakes a chicken keeper can make!

heat in chicken coop | winter

We all worry about our chickens getting cold but if you think about it, lots of wild animals spend the winter outside and do perfectly fine. One thing you might not know is that wild birds do not sleep in their nests. Nests are only for raising baby birds, the rest of the year they sleep in the trees. 

They don't even have walls or a roof to protect them from the snow or cold and they do just fine.

The main reason I do not heat my coops is that heat lamps are notoriously unsafe! Every winter I hear of coops and barns that catch fire because of heat lamps. They are ridiculously hard to secure, even with the multiple zip ties and metal hooks I used to anchor it to pretty much anything nearby. 

Also, the chickens must be able to get close to a heat lamp for it to be effective, but being close to it means they could knock it down or fluff feathers or bedding up into it which can catch fire. 

Plus heat bulbs burn out eventually and you might not be around or awake to change the bulb. The sudden drop in temperature can affect your chickens more than the natural cooling of the weather does.

If you heat your coop in winter and the power goes out, the chickens are more susceptible to the cold then if they had been without heat the whole time. 

As the seasons change the weather gets colder gradually and their little chicken bodies have time to acclimate to the change. A sudden change from heat to below freezing can send them into shock and they can suffer hypothermia.

chicken coop in the snow

Chickens are more like fluffy dogs than people. Much like a dogs coat traps air in winter to keep them warm, chickens feathers do the same. Chickens fluff up their feathers and air gets trapped between the feathers and the body which warms up, keeping them warmer than the air around them. 

Plus their little warm bodies heat up the air around them and they huddle together at night for warmth.

Keep your chickens warm in winter

Choose wide roosts. 
Make sure the roosts are wide enough so the chickens feet lay flat when they sleep. This allows them to cover their toes with their feathers and keep their feet warm at night.

Insulating the chicken coop roof. 

Make sure that any cracks or holes in the coop that allow air to blow on the chickens are blocked up. Check around windows and doors which tend to be drafty. You don't want any cold air blowing in on your chickens, but you don't want to block the ventilation holes at roof level. 

The air still needs to circulate. We had to insulate the roof in one of our coops to keep the warmth in, but the ventilation holes are still open right under the roof. Here is how we block off big holes that are allowing drafts in.

Keep the chicken coop dry. 

If you have a heated waterer in the coop make sure there's something like a pan under it to catch drips and splashes and keep the floor dry. Scrape the water pan out whenever it gets wet to help control the moisture level in the coop. 

This helps to prevent frostbite and protects your coop floor from rot. 

pan under water bowl in chicken coop

Frostbite is caused by the combination of cold and moisture. Moisture is added to the coop air through the chickens breathing, pooping and having a waterer inside. If it's not too cold, open the doors or crack the windows during the days to allow some airflow. 

By cleaning up spilled water and allowing adequate ventilation at ceiling level, you'll prevent frostbite

Winterize the chicken run. 

I used to wrap the covered run in plastic sheeting every year to keep the snow out. It worked really well, except the first year I did it wrong and  wrapped it all the way to the top. Even though the snow did not get in, moisture built up in there and it was like a sauna on sunny days! 

Obviously some of that moisture would enter into the coop through the run door and that is exactly what we don't want. 

I learned to leave the top 1-2 inches open when wrapping the run to allow for ventilation. The roof overhang keeps the snow and rain out, but this allows any moisture inside to escape.

Free range chickens in winter

Depending on the weather, your free range chickens may be stuck inside a good part of the winter. If it's rainy, icy, heavy snow or windy you'll probably want to keep your chickens in. On the good days though they should go outside. 

Many of the benefits of free ranging like bugs and grasses won't be available in winter, but getting out of the coop will still give the chickens some exercise and fresh air. Even though it's cold out they can use the time out to alleviate the boredom of winter in the coop. 

Choose cold hardy chickens. 

Some breeds are better able to handle the cold then others. The average dual purpose breed will do just fine in winter. I've had Aracaunas, Marans, buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, golden comets, d'Uccles, Jersey giants, silkies, Cochins, several breeds of ducks and geese and even guineas without heating my coops. (which is weird because they're originally from Africa, but guineas are cold hardy

There are many cold hardy chicken breeds. Check with your breeder or hatchery to find out if the breeds you want are appropriate for your climate. 

Remember, just because you're cold does not mean your chickens are cold. Chickens are built to handle the natural weather changers much better than we are. 

If you're not sure you believe that (I didn't!) check out the video where I use a heat gun to measure the temperature under a chicken feathers. They keep themselves warmer than we think!


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  1. very informative, thank you. I have a question though, about why people build their coops up off the ground, some allowing a couple of feet or more space under the floor. We live in zone 6 where it gets pretty darned cold. In fact we are getting a hard freeze tonight, 10/27/17, and it's usually way after Thanksgiving before a true hard freeze. Wouldn't that type of coop be detrimental to the chickens during the winter?

  2. I live in Pennsylvania as well and like you heated my chicken coop the first year. I have since learned that my chickens actually do better without the heat. We do the deep litter method here so when things begin to look a bit damp, I will simply toss down a bit more wood chips and that always seems to do the trick.
    I really love your idea of wrapping the run. I have to shovel ours out every morning and I am getting just a bit too old for that! Going to try your idea and at least tarp up the side facing west.
    Thanks so much, stopping by from the Simple Homestead Bloghop
    Tracy Lynn

  3. Great information! I'll pass this along to my chicken-owning friends. Thanks for sharing this in the To Grandma's House We Go Link Party! It has been pinned. Remember to follow all of us and we hope to see you back this Wednesday!