Chickens are very poor at dealing with heat. Cold winters, not so much of a problem. All those feathers do an excellent job of keeping them warm.
But when temperatures soar in the summer, there's a very real danger that your flock will overheat and dehydrate very quickly.
Water is an important part of keeping them cool. Drinking it, eating fruits like watermelon with a high water density, pecking at frozen treats, having access to some home made electrolytes are all excellent ways of keeping their core temperature under control.
But what about "dunking" your chickens in water? Is the swimming pool or even a kiddies' paddling pool a good solution? Can chickens swim, or do they sink? Do they even like being in water?
And if not, what is a good way of cooling their core temperature and keeping your whole flock safe?
This is a long, detailed article. If there's something specific you want to know, use these links – but make sure you don't miss some vital information.
Let's deal with this one straight away.
The answer is a very strong "no".
There are two reasons why young chicks should never have access even to bowls of water, even if it's very shallow:
So do not, ever, allow your baby chicks to go anywhere near a swimming pool, paddling pool or rock pool. In fact, don't even leave open water containers around babies.
Use containers which can be kept off the ground or, even better, use hanging waterers.
The short but incomplete answer is yes, chickens can swim. Or at least, they can float for a short time.
And if they find themselves in water they will instinctively move their feet in an effort to try to find a way out.
But chickens are not ducks. They are not built for swimming. The areas they originate from are forests, not lakes.
Additionally, if you have chickens you will know that they don't react well to new or different situations, specially if they feel unsafe.
Water is not a natural environment for a chicken. So naturally speaking, chickens will not choose to enter water of any depth, let alone a swimming pool.
For that reason, most chickens will panic if they find themselves in deep water. And a panicked, flapping chicken will tend to splash about and saturate her feathers with water in seconds.
It's estimated that a placid chicken can float for ten minutes or so before she sinks – if she doesn't panic. If she does, it can be all over in as little as 60 seconds.
Which leads to an important question...
You've probably seen videos on YouTube of chickens in swimming pools. Mostly, viewers find them "cute" and funny.
But what does a chicken's body language tell us about whether the chicken is enjoying it or not?
Let's take a look at this short video as one example.
This is a very calm hen! But notice this...
Now take a look at this even shorter video.
This is a Livorno (Leghorn) chicken, and it's much more typical behaviour not only for that breed, but any chicken placed into water.
We've looked at the anecdotal evidence of chickens in water. What does the biological evidence of a chicken's anatomy tell us?
Let's start with the most obvious differences between chickens and waterfowl, and what those differences tell us about a chicken's relationship with water.
Think about when you go swimming. To move through the water, you cup your hands. Swimming with your fingers open won't get you very far. If you want to move exttra quickly or underwater, you might add flippers to your feet.
Similarly, consider the difference between a waterfowl's feet – or any water-based bird or animal's – and a chicken's.
Webbed feet are designed to displace water. Ducks are very skilled swimmers.
Clawed feet are designed for foraging – scratching round in grass and dirt looking for bugs.
The position of the legs is also a give-away...
Most waterfowl have legs set towards the back of their body. It gives them extra power in the water, and their cute "waddling" motion when they're walking on land.
Poultry legs are close to the centre of the body, making them balance easily on land but have little power when on water.
So chickens' feet are clearly not naturally built for water.
Does that mean they won't try to swim if they find themselves in water? No – they'll do whatever they can to get out and into their natural, land-based environment.
But it does demonstrate that chickens are not naturally intended to swim.
Birds' feathers are quite complex structures which often only become obvious under a microscope(2).
One breed which would find it especially difficult to float for more than a couple of seconds is the Silkie.
Silkies do not have barbs, instead carrying the downy feathering which is characteristic of the breed.
A Silkie finding herself in water will become saturated and drown within a couple of seconds.
Most birds have oil (uropygial) glands which they use to preen their feathers and keep them in top quality.
These oil glands also provide different levels of water resistance in the feathering(3).
So both the network of barbs in the waterfowl's feathering, plus their ability to spread larger amounts of lipids among their feathers, make an efficient water-resistant barrier which the chicken simply does not have.
If your chickens are showing signs of excessive heat stress, cooling them down in water can work. Here's how to do it in stages, safely.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.
1. Jacob, Dr. J: The Avian Respiratory System. Pub. USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 2022.
2. Thompson, Mya: Everything You Need to Know About Bird Feathers. Pub. University of Cornell, Bird Academy, 2014.
3. Zeisler-Diehl et al: Detection of endogenous lipids in chicken feathers distinct from preen gland constituents. Pub. Protoplasma, 2020.