They can, and do. But there are steps we can take to make the cold and less available food easier for them.
Here are the seven simplest and most useful tips I've found to help my flock through the often intensely cold Italian winters.
For each section I offer one simple tip, and point you in the right direction should you want more detailed information.
Click on any link to go to that tip, or read through the whole article to take advantage of them all!
Chickens eat more in cold weather. They need the extra nutrients to maintain their body temperature.
It's important to maintain a balance in the nutrients they eat and not to over-feed them, so using their own food as the basis for their winter nourishment is ideal.
It's been known for centuries that fermenting food boosts its vitamin and probiotic content. And there's overwhelming evidence specifically about chickens and fermenting feed. (e.g.1)
Fermenting chicken feed increases...
Best of all – chickens absolutely love fermented feed! Put it on the ground and move away from the rush to get at it first!
Cold weather, feather loss, increased stress from predator activity, grubs and greens covered in snow... winter can be a hard time for chicken health and safety.
Increasing their protein intake can help deal with those stressors. Overloading them with protein, though, can have a serious impact on their liver and kidneys.
The solution? Use my high protein recipe occasionally to address those special needs.
This is a super-simple recipe which uses a variety of high protein ingredients you're likely already to have in your food cupboard.
It's so popular with chicken-lovers that it's been shared on Pinterest more than 75,000 times!
And it's so popular with my chickens I must have made it almost that number of times!
Winter, not so much. Most plants have gone to sleep until spring. Excessive rain turns grassy areas to mud. Snow and ice bury any goodies that might be left. Even eggs, a real superfood, are fewer.
They may seem an unusual recommendation as a treat, but they're freely available all year, inexpensive, low in fat and high in antioxidants and a variety of healthy vitamins and minerals, and can be used as different treats – try sprouting with them, for example.
You may not be surprised that I also have another recipe to offer for lentils. It's simple, easy and full of goodness.
It's one used in Italy to celebrate New Year and bring prosperity in the year ahead – good for humans too!
Food isn't the only way of keeping chickens safe in the winter cold. It's also critical to keep the flock hydrated, particularly as cold weather can freeze their usual waterer.
(Bonus tip: try using a heated chicken waterer if you have electricity in your coop – this is an affiliate link. I recommend this particular one because it just keeps the water unfrozen, not warm – chickens don't like warm water).
There's a way to add nutritional value to water to help chickens with winter weariness...
A lot of claims are made for apple cider vinegar, many unproven. Among the known, proven benefits(4) are...
So at a time when cold, wet weather can compromise chickens' health, apple cider vinegar – again, given in moderation – helps boost their well-being.
Chickens deal much better with cold than with heat. As long as they have food and drink, somewhere to shelter and something to stop them getting bored, they'll be fine.
Here's a bonus tip: unless you have rescued chickens who have no feathers, do not dress them in sweaters! Far from helping chickens retain heat, any form of clothing prevents them from fluffing out their feathers – which is how they keep warm.
Because winter days are generally shorter, chickens tend to spend more time on the roost. So the best way to keep them warm in the winter cold is...
If you've ever watched a chicken sleep in cold weather, you may have noticed how they hunker down over their feet.
That's because their feet are susceptible to cold, and fluffing out their downy feathers over them helps them keep warm.
So the best place to roost has a flat surface, with rounded edges where the chicken's toes can grip and lock onto the wood.
Ideally, roosts for large breeds (ie not bantams) should be between 4.5 cm (2") and 6 cm (2.5") wide, and long enough to allow 25cm (10") space for each bird.
This is a very regular question, to which the general answer is "no".
See my article for detailed information about why it's not a good idea, and for other tips about keeping chickens warm in the winter.
Cold, wet weather. Warm, wet droppings. Warm breath. Humidity in the coop, accompanied by freezing air. Droplets settling on combs, wattles and feet.
A sure recipe for frostbite.
It can affect even cold-hardy breeds, and it's painful. It may not kill your chickens, but frostbitten tissue is more liable to infection – which can kill.
So one of the most important thing you can do for your chickens in the winter cold is...
Cold, wet, snowy weather – chickens tend to spend more time (literally) cooped up together during the winter months.
Restricted spaces can lead to different behaviour problems: feather pecking, egg eating, aggression – chickens may even become depressed.
Providing them with some interactive "boredom busters" is one way of helping. I've tried various approaches and found the most successful is to...
In their original jungle habitat, chickens would roost naturally in trees. In our modern world, roosting outside at night seems too risky.
But there's no reason why your flock can't enjoy somewhere to roost and hop on and off during the day.
Use anything available: logs, fallen trees, old ladders – even your old Christmas trees make a great "jungle gym" right there in your own backyard.
Where possible, cover a corner of your run with a tarpaulin and nestle the logs underneath. That way, there's a dry place as an incentive for the flock to venture outside.
And old pieces of wood often hide bugs – a definite winter bonus for your chickens!
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. Engberg et al: Fermented feed for laying hens: effects on egg production, egg quality, plumage condition and composition and activity of the intestinal microflora. Pub U.S. National Library of Medicine, March 2009.
2. Steenfeldt, S, et al: Effect of feeding silages or carrots as supplements to laying hens on production performance, nutrient digestibility, gut structure, gut microflora and feather pecking behaviour. Pub. Journal of British Poultry Sciences, 2007.
3. Firas, F.M.F. Hayajneh et al: Anitcoccidial Effect of Apple Cider Vinegar on Broiler Chickens: an Organic Treatment. Pub. Polish Journal of Veterinary Sciences, 2018.
5. Struelens, Dr E et al: Perch width preferences of laying hens. Pub. British Journal of Poultry Science, 2009.
7. RSPCA: Welfare standards for chickens. Pub. Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, 2002.