Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Snow Birds

It's late February, and here in the Northern latitudes, it's pretty easy to get a little bit of cabin fever. We're at least a month away from being able to do any real work in the dirt, and looking through seed catalogs only gets you so far. Well, it's no different for our chickens, who have been literally "cooped up" since the winter arrived. You can see in this view out toward our backyard that it's hardly chicken-friendly weather.

Of course, the coop, where the chickens spend the night, is well insulated and protected from the elements. We keep it stocked with fresh pine shaving bedding, and try not to open the doors any more than necessary, to keep the wind and moisture out. In theory that should be enough to sustain our hens, but it gets pretty darn cold in Iowa (sometimes below zero overnight). So we opted to add a little more heat in the form of an infrared heat lamp. The light provides heat, while the red keeps it from being too bright and keeping the chickens awake at night.

That takes care of the coop, but the chickens really only spend the night inside there. Most of the day they wander about the run, eating, drinking, pecking and scratching. And our run is constructed of wire mesh, which would let all the snow and wind through. That's a big danger for chickens, since it can cause frostbite. As a result, we've had to create a windblock about the entire run. This we cobbled together from whatever we had on hand, including cardboard, plywood, and used feed bags (which work great). We also covered the top of the run with clear plastic sheeting to keep out the snow yet let in some sunlight.

This setup keeps the chickens safe and protected from the elements, but the downside is that it also makes things pretty boring for them. During the summer they're accustomed to seeing the yard outside the run, munching on bugs that wander in, and also snacking on weeds and scraps that we throw in to them. Most of those are gone during the winter, so we try to provide some interesting enrichment inside the run. This way, even if they have to be inside, at least things aren't too monotonous. This picture shows them crowding around a hanging cabbage - good for extra nutrients, and some excitement as it swings around in response to their pecks. It's just like chicken tetherball!

You'll also notice that the last two pictures have a wall or two of the chicken run uncovered. We do this periodically on nice days during the winter to let a little fresh air in and to let the chickens enjoy some scenery. Days like this are somewhat rare during an Iowa winter, but when it's relatively warm and calm, it's nice to take advantage of it. In the future we're hoping to build a larger fenced area that can be utilized on nice days for some supervised "free-ranging." After all, our chickens can get by while being cooped up, but we do what we can to relieve their cabin fever too!

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