Helping your chickens survive the summer heat

Summer has made its arrival here in Nebraska with the heat index bringing us into triple digits. This can be deadly for chickens who can’t sweat to cool off. We’ve lost one broiler chick and the rest of our flock hangs out in the shade, wings lifted away from their bodies and panting.

Helping chickens survive the summer heat

As the heat increases, chickens slow down. They forage less and chase each other less. Layers may stop laying and meat birds may stop gaining weight. All of this signals heat stress which can be alleviated with some simple steps.

1. Select the right birds for your climate.

The most important part of keeping your flock healthy is to start with birds suited to your area. There are heat tolerant breeds, cold tolerant birds and birds that aren’t tolerant to any temperature extremes whatsoever (like broilers). Don’t build your flock based solely on looks, egg laying potential or what is available at the feed store. Know their preferences. Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart is a great place to find this information. At the very least, this will help you devise a plan to help your birds through temperature extremes they are not well suited to.

2. Plan your chicken coop with the climate in mind.

A roof slanted toward the summer sun will absorb more heat. A well-insulated coop will retain more heat and humidity. A coop built off the ground allows air flow under the coop, helping to keep bedding dry, thus reducing the humidity (and the smell!) A screened window (or hole covered in chicken wire) can make a huge difference on a hot day, as can free access to the outside where your birds have a choice between the coop’s shade and the summer breeze.

3. Water, water, water.

Warm water is better than no water, but on a hot day, keeping a steady supply of fresh, cool water will go a long way in helping your chickens manage the heat. Throw in some ice cubes to help keep it cool a little longer, especially if you need to be gone for a few hours during the heat of the day.

4. Know the signs of heat stress.

Your chickens will pant when it is hot outside. This is natural and does not necessarily mean you need to rush out and buy an air conditioning unit for their coop, even if you are hitting high temperatures. Except for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, our flock forages all day and shows no particular signs of actual stress. Our layers are laying well and our pullets are continuing to grow at a nice pace despite the triple digit heat. Basically, you need to know your birds and what is normal for them. You should be concerned with a bird that does not react normally. A struggling bird may also lay down in the dirt with wings held loosely and legs stretched behind them. This is an awkward position for a bird to take, particularly a prey species that normally is ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. When getting rid of excess heat becomes more important than fleeing from predators, it is probably past time to bring the bird inside and give it a cooling bath.

Important: Birds will acclimate to the heat over time. If the weather has been warming slowly over the last month, they may get through a heat wave with nothing but shade and some extra water. If the heat comes on suddenly, they will need more attention from you, but some of your cooling efforts can be scaled back as time goes on. Too much intervention can actually make it more difficult for them to acclimate to the heat.

5. Provide shade. And lots of it.

If you do not have shade, your chickens will tend to stay in the coop where air circulation is not as good. A shady spot in their run will provide much more relief from the heat. We have a dog house on one side of our run and a tarp spread out on the other side, though neither are of much use since most of our birds fly over the fence anyway. Instead, they hang out in the corner of an old barn, in the lilac hedge or in our windbreak. Free ranged birds know the coolest spots in their range. You just need to find where they’re going and make sure they don’t have too far to walk to get to their water.

6. Pay attention to the changing position of the sun.

This is particularly important for pastured poultry. A pen in a shady spot in the morning may trap them in full sun in the afternoon.

7. Start making ice packs.

Gallon milk jugs filled partway with water and frozen or Ziploc style baggies full of frozen water work great. Overheated birds will park themselves next to their makeshift air conditioning and drink the condensation as it forms. A pan of ice cubes will also be appreciated, though they are likely to foul them up rather quickly.

8. Mist your chickens.

Chickens don’t sweat, but a fine misting of their feathers will help cool them as it evaporates. Mine run too fast for me to spray them so I figure they aren’t that bad off. I’ve read of chickens who will stand near a sprinkler to take advantage of the spray, though, so it is definitely something to consider.

9. Mist your hen house.

This might bring up your water bill a bit, but consider running a sprinkler or hose over your chicken coop. The water itself will cool the building and the evaporative effect will further contribute to the cooling. If your birds free range like ours, this likely won’t help much but then your birds will also have far more choices of where to go to keep cool.

10. Provide wet sand for them to walk through.

The moisture will help cool their feet and legs as they walk through the sand.

11. Provide a good dust bath.

If you have chickens, you know they love nothing more than a good dust bath. They fluff their feathers, rub their wings and even roll in the loose dirt, trying to get the dust through their feathers and down to their skin. Dust baths help relieve itching, control parasites and are thought to help cool birds. At any rate, they certainly love them and all that feather fluffing has to be good for releasing extra heat! Sand or loose dirt in a shallow container (like a kitty litter pan) is perfect if you don’t have a section of your yard your birds have already turned into a dust bath site.

12. Provide a fan.

Air circulation will help your chickens significantly, especially if they’re locked in a coop for a day. Chickens keep their body temperature around 106 and, well, they’re like little heaters when they’re shut up together. Ventilation and a fan can help keep the coop from getting hotter than the outside temperature while also reducing the humidity.

How are your birds faring this summer? What have you done to help keep them cool? Most of our flock seems to be doing fine, while the broiler chicks are showing signs of stress. It has been a challenge keeping them cool. I just moved them off a table and into a larger, more ventilated pen on a concrete floor hoping to give them a little more relief. They certainly do like their ice packs! If it weren’t for the fact they are my daughter’s 4H project, I would never try raising broilers in the summer.

0 comments
  1. Alison

    in florida we battle this 6 months of the year! we found the breeds from http://www.sandgpoultry.com to handle heat very well. we raised one batch of broilers through June (slaughtered in july) with no problems at all. kept their water fresh and hosed them down on the very hottest of afternoons was plenty to keep them going strong.
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..dinner =-.

  2. M. Kimble

    One of my hens (the oldest aprox 7 years) has taken to standing in the ice water and sees to suffer was less the the other birds. So at the hottest part of the day I have been filling a bucket with cold water about 4 inches deep and having each hen stand in it for a minute or so they seem to enjoy it, well all but one or two and them are so much happier after they get out. Just a thought for you. You have to catch them and ease them in but it is not to hard and I haven’t lost a chicken in the past 2 years

  3. Mer

    I live in Phoenix and by far the best bird out of my flock has been the Golden Campine, doing better than the Red Stars. Just wished they lay better, but the heat just doesn’t seem to faze them.Weirdly, my Sultans hold up fairly well and lay better and bigger than what I’ve heard.
    Get those flat blue freezer plastic thingies, wrap in paper towels and stick in freezer bags. They LOVE to stand on those! Also we put a dual hose outlet onto the outside spigot and ran a hose with one of those cheap “snake” misters attached. They cool the area well. The advice on frozen water jugs (esp. in the henhhouse) is spot on and bottles here and there where they like to lay or roost (even in the hen house, if possible) work great. You dont want to shut them in a hot henhouse.

  4. Holly

    We are on day 1 of a 6 day heat wave: 107ish for the next 6 days…ugh!!! I put a mister in the shade under the elevated coop. We also have ice (2lt bottles) in the freezer to lay in their shady spot. Two of them are in the mist – the other runs from it:( thanks for the tips! I’m off to buy some sand

  5. chick mommy

    I am in nebraska as well.I have silky chickens and it is my first time with chickens.I have been panicking about the heat.I brought them in for a couple of the really hot days.I have them under a covered patio.I have 2 box fans going on them.It is a small coop with a nest box.I put a frozen liter bottle of water in the bottom and 2 of the blue things you but in your cooler.But ,I have a girlfriend with silkies also and hers are out in the sun with no fan and they are hatching babies!Am i spoiling mine?I just dont want them to die.

    1. Dana

      Under a patio with plenty of fresh water and air circulation *should* be sufficient. I hate to say “Oh, they’re fine” especially with the high heat we’re getting right now. They do adjust. I haven’t done anything special for mine other than let them out but I’ve had these chickens for awhile and I know what they can handle. Even the broilers are doing fine and they’re only 9 weeks old and known for not surviving the heat well.

      I don’t know about silkies specifically, but I would talk to your friend. I don’t think a fan and ice bottles is excessive. If the coop is small, they will heat up more due to their own body heat. That’s why I let mine out. They hang out in the barn and give themselves dust baths. A pan of shallow water to wade is welcome by some. And the fact that nights are cooling off helps tremendously!

      Sudden heat is more dangerous than heat that gradually increases and I’d count this heat wave as pretty sudden from a bird’s perspective. So no, I don’t think what you’re doing is excessive, but if you’ll be leaving for an extended time and won’t be able to provide the ice bottle, etc., I’d wean them off it before you leave. Otherwise, I’d say you’re doing great and I’m sure your chickens appreciate it!
      Dana recently posted…The joy and the heartache of new life on the homesteadMy Profile

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