Just like humans, chickens are able to last much longer without food than without liquid. And that liquid should be nothing more than plain, simple, natural, water.
Water controls a chicken's body temperature, keeps cells healthy, helps them digest food, makes sure their waste is easy to pass. Without it, they simply won't survive.
And eggs are between 60% and 70% water(1). Without a ready supply of drinking water, your egg supply will, literally, dry up.
When chickens eat, their tongue pushes food to the back of the mouth and into the crop, where it starts digestion.
They don't have any such mechanism for drink. The only way for your flock to move water into their body is by gravity(2).
So you'll see chickens of all ages dip their beak into water and tip their head right back, which allows the liquid to drip down their throat.
That's an important detail. Your chickens need enough space above their heads to be able to raise to their full height. It's also an indicator of the type of drink container that works particularly well - see below for more information about waterers.
There's lots of information online about how much chickens drink, and complicated calculations(3) about how much to allow per chicken. Free ranging flocks, for example, are more active than hens kept in a small run, so will need more water.
The simple fact is, though, you don't need to calculate anything. Just make sure your chickens have access to fresh water all the time.
Don't ration it. Don't try to calculate how much. Chickens drink little and often and will work it out for themselves.
When they're thirsty, they drink. When they need liquid to moisten food so it doesn't form undigestible clumps in the crop, they drink. When they need water to cool down on a hot day, they drink.
And if you don't provide water, they will find it anywhere they can.
So to keep your chickens healthy, just make sure they have access to water at all times during daylight hours. Once roosted they don't eat or drink, so there's no need to keep water in the coop.
In fact, water containers in the coop can lead to the air becoming damp, which is much more harmful to your flock than the cold.
A fully feathered chicken's core temperature is generally between 40ºC and 41.5ºC (105ºF and 107ºC). The ideal water temperature is about 13ºC (55ºF). Anything much above or below this and you'll find your chickens are reluctant to drink.
But you'll be glad to know you don't need to be paranoid about getting the water to exactly the right temperature.
Just make sure it's cold and fresh.
They can, and do.
The critical issue here is whether the water is free from toxins like green algae, rotting matter such as leaves, and contaminants like poop, particularly droppings from rodents.
Any of those can cause a number of diseases, from algae poisoning to botulism. it's a recipe for disaster, sooner or later.
To avoid it, make sure any water containers are sterilised every two weeks. Some people use bleach; I use a softer sterilising solution.
Absolutely not. Chickens suffer from salt intoxication very quickly. They simply cannot deal with salt and, if they have a choice, they will choose not to drink it.
So if you've read advice on the internet to put salt in your flock's water in the winter to stop it freezing, please don't do it.
You might have unfrozen water, but you're likely to have dead chickens.
Chickens use water to help control their body temperature in summer. The higher the temperature, the more they drink - as much as a 7% increase in water consumption for every degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature(6).
Again, there's no need to work out percentages or amounts. Use common sense. There are effective ways of helping your flock deal with the effects of heat exhaustion - see this article.
As far as water's concerned, here are some simple, practical tips:
The biggest issue in winter is making sure the drinking water doesn't freeze. It's always a hot topic among chicken keepers in the winter months. Here are some simple tips.
"Open water drinkers" - bowls and buckets, for example, can be breeding places for bacteria and must be thoroughly cleaned at least weekly.
Where possible, use stone or ceramic troughs or bowls which keep water cool.
Use food-grade plastic for additional drinking sources in the summer. Non food grade can leach chemicals into the water.
Use nipple drinkers wherever possible. Originally used in commercial chicken farms, these have been adapted for backyard use and are extremely effective.
My chicks are introduced to them from the moment they're placed in the brooder, and continue to use them all their adult lives.
The nipples I use are from the Chicken Fountain, and attach easily onto a standard soda bottle which then hangs above the chickens' heads.
That allows for the bird's head to be tilted backward which, as we saw above, is prime position to allow liquid to drip down the throat.
The Chicken Fountain has sadly stopped production of its large watering system, which you can see in this photo - it's the white pipework on the right of the photo, with nipples at intervals along the bottom.
The hose is light coloured, to reflect rather than absorb heat, and buried in the ground until it reaches the water source.
Other similar closed systems exist but in my view they're not as high quality, to the extent that I'm not prepared to recommend them.
Using a gravity fed bucket system like this one is the next closest system.
The nipple drinker system is defined as "enclosed', which means there's much less chance of microbe growth and contaminants like dirt and rodent or other faeces polluting the water.
The containers still need to be frequently cleaned, though, particularly if containers aren't being refreshed regularly.
Be careful though: offering different ways of drinking - open and enclosed systems together - may confuse your flock!
1. Parkinson, T. L.: The chemical composition of eggs. Pub. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 1966.
2. Ross, P.A., and Hurnik, J.F.: Drinking behaviour of broiler chicks. Pub. Applied Animal Ethology, 1983.
3. Gardiner, E. E. and Hunt, J. R.: Water Consumption of Meat Type Chickens. Pub. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 1984.
4. Carter, T. A., and Sneed, R. E.: Drinking water quality for poultry. Pub. North Carolina State University, Department of Poultry Science, 1987.
5. Waggoner, R. et al: Water Quality and Poultry Performance. Pub. American Veterinary Medical Association, 1984.
6. Fairchild, B. D.: Poultry Drinking Water Primer. Pub. University of Georgia, 2015.