Longtime local journalist Bill Radford and his wife, Margaret, live on 5 acres in the Falcon area with chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, two noisy parrots, goats and two horses. Contact Bill at email@example.com.
To heat or not to heat, that is the question.
It's been a question for us ever since we got our first chicken coop. Should, we wondered then, get a heat lamp to keep the chickens warm in the winter?
No, said Bradley Mork, the guy who made our rugged coop."I'm from Minnesota, and we raised chickens in a single-wall building at 30 below, and the chickens did fine," he told us back then.
So while we've always had a heated water bowl for thirsty chickens in the winter, we've never heated the coop. (On the coldest nights, I've closed their little door to keep them all huddled inside.) But as some of our hens have become older and more frail, we've raised the question anew. (Our hens get to live out their retirement years in peace; no stew pot for them.)
Worried about the risk of fire, we ruled out a heat lamp. But there are other options out there, including heated perches and heaters that look like a flat-screen TV and radiate heat. We ended up buying one of those but not using it; although the instructions say the screen is safe to touch, it seemed way too hot to us and we worried about chickens getting burned.
So what to do? I asked Marcy Mathews, aka "The Chick Chick of Eastern Black Forest," for her opinion.
"I personally do not recommend routinely heating coops for several reasons," she said via Facebook. "The biggest reason is that if the chickens do not naturally adapt to the changing temps and the heat bulb goes out in the cold, they risk frostbite and illness, as they relied on that heat source. Also the obvious fire hazard involved."
Still, she has heated the coop for limited periods when really severe weather was expected that could make it tough for her to get out to the coop. In that case, she said, "I usually go set up their coop with extra food. I bring the water inside the coop in a heated bowl and give them a lamp. But I have only done that three times in the last seven years."
I also turned to fellow members of the Colorado Cluckers group, aka the Critter Swap Falcon, on Facebook for advice. I found several people who use the type of heater we bought, and they said it has worked fine.
"We have one and hang it on the wall where they can’t really touch it. We got it last winter because we were down to just two, and I felt really bad for them not having other cuddle buddies," one member of the group said.
Others, though, said they see no need for heating.
"Not recommended," one person said. "Insulate your coop, use a deep litter bedding, make sure your chickens have fresh water at all times. They can't keep warm without it. Best bet is a heated water dish."
Another member of the group echoed Mathews' concern. "I've never heated mine, and I have an open coop," she wrote. "I was concerned that it would be hard for the girls to adapt if we ever had a power outage and they'd never acclimate to really cold temps."
One woman said it depends on the coop. "If your coop is the size of a coffee can, no heat is fine because the poor critters hunker together. My coops/barns are large enough for a bird party, so I heat with infra. Just to take the chill off."
I was also guided to the website of Kathy Shea Mormino, known internationally, according to her site, as The Chicken Chick. (She even has the title trademarked.) The Connecticut woman comes down on the side of not heating –- and certainly not with a heat lamp."There is simply no way to make heat lamps completely safe regardless of the number of chains/clamps/tethers or guards used," she wrote.
If you do decide to heat your coop, use the radiant, flat-panel heaters, she advised on her website. But she notes that chickens have "unique attributes that allow them to regulate their body temperatures very well in cold weather. … Without interference from well-meaning caretakers, chickens will naturally adapt to the changes in temperature from warm weather to cold over time."
But don't skimp on the chicken food, she warned; the process of digestion creates internal heat. She calls chickens "tiny, food-fueled furnaces in down coats."
So, back to the question: to heat or not to heat? For now, we're going with "not." But we are planning to add some insulation inside the coop. And next time there's a brutal cold snap, I'll move the heated water bowl inside the coop along with some food. That way the hens will have no need to venture out. Meanwhile, we'll hang on to our new heater in case we change our minds. Besides, I've read online that some people find it to be a wonderful foot heater. Toasty toes!
The Radford chicken coop is currently home to 10 hens. Photo by Bill Radford