Hipster Hens Hate Heat!

At 7 PM, the temp in the coop was still hovering around 90 degrees
Like most of the country, we’re in the midst of a July heatwave here in Minnesota.  For the last several days the temps have been in the nineties and once you factor in the high humidity, the heat index has been in the 100’s.  Last night it only cooled down to the high seventies and this morning the temperature started rising with the sun.  If you live in Phoenix, I’m sure what I just described is business as usual.  But Minnesotans are about as used to and equipped for handling hot weather as folks in the South are used to and equipped for handling snow.

The heat has been pretty stressful for the hens.  The drop in egg production is proof of how stressed they are.  The egg count yesterday was one.  One single egg.  That egg was compliments of Veronica the Easter Egger.  The nest boxes are small and enclosed and hens give off heat. While she was sitting in the nest box she was sticking her head out of it as far as she could, her beak was open, and she was panting the entire time.  Laying that egg was miserable for her. 

Chickens have three main ways of getting rid of excess body heat.  One way is simply by radiating it away from their bodies from their skin surface. Chickens were domesticated from the Asian Red Jungle Fowl, a bird of the tropics whose body is designed for getting rid of heat.  The Red Jungle Fowl has a huge comb that has a rich blood supply and works just like a cooling fin by expelling lots of body heat.  Unfortunately, domestication has resulted in different shapes, sizes and feather patterns, and some of them are actually adaptations for cold weather, which means those chickens are less able to deal with heat.  Because combs can freeze in the winter, most of the chickens I’ve selected for my flock have combs that are small – great for winter, but bad for hot weather.  My Silkies and Cochins also hold more heat since they have feathers all the way down their legs and on their feet, again not a good trait for hot weather.  Last night when the hens were roosting, many of them were spreading their wings to increase their body surface area and dissipate as much body heat as they could, and many of the bigger and older hens were panting.  

Charlie Barred Rock pants
Panting is a second way chickens get rid of heat—the air they breathe out is hotter than the air they breathe in, so as the weather gets hot, the chickens pant to increase their air exchange.

Darcy Barred Rock spreads her wings to cool down
Maran the Cuckoo Marans hen takes an ungainly pose as she pants and spreads her wings
A third way chickens expel heat is to increase their water intake, just like humans.  Drinking more water works to cool us because we sweat and also because the urine we pass is warmer than the water we drink. Chicken’s bodies are very different from ours, so bear with me as I talk a little about biology.  First of all, chickens don’t sweat.  Sweating, contrary to what all those antiperspirant ads would have us believe, is a wonderful thing—it keeps us cool.  But since chicken don’t sweat, any heat transferred into the extra water they drink must be expelled by passing more urine, right?  But hold on!  Chickens don’t pee either!  Chicken’s kidneys produce uric acid which is eventually exits their body with their poop.  Chickens only have one opening in the back so everything – uric acid, poop, and eggs all enter the world from that one opening.  Which is very efficient but also maybe a little disgusting if you didn’t know that before.  But back on subject, chickens don’t pee, so they can’t transfer heat that way!  “Well,” you say, “We’re running out of options here!  So crap!”  “Bingo!” I say.  Chickens get rid of all that extra water by producing lots of loose, runny poop.  Welcome to the wonderful world of staying cool through diarrhea! This works great for the chicken, but can be disconcerting for the new flock owner uninitiated in the concept of excretory heat transfer (the technical term)!  And it can create some very foul fowl.  My sweet little fluffy white Silkie hen, Courtney, got a bath today because the back half of her body was drenched in—Ok that’s too much information.

(Please note:  I'm not providing a picture of the third type of heat transfer, much to the relief of all of us, I'm sure.)

So I’m doing what I can to keep the flock cool.  I have a huge industrial fan that blows air through the pole barn all day and well into the night.  I also have been replacing the water in the water fonts several times a day.  I get my water from a well, so it’s icy cold when it’s fresh.  

Large industrial fan
And yesterday, I decided to try a new trick.  I capped an old garden hose, hooked it up to the cold well water, snaked it through both chicken runs, and then used a nail to punch a bunch of holes in it.  It immediately started spraying a fine mist of cold water.

The chickens ran to the spraying water and joyously splashed around!  OK, the previous sentence is what I wanted to happen, but is, in fact, a complete lie.  The chickens were terrified by this strange new hissing snake-like thing in their run.  They all ran away from it like cats from a cucumber, dashed into the coop and cowered in a corner.  Eventually, one brave and smart chicken strode forth, started pecking at the spray, and decided that it was quite cool, delicious, and wonderful.  That chicken was Snowball the Silkie roo.  Perhaps I was witnessing evolution at work--the smart, brave chicken gets the water, thus survives.  After a while he went back into the coop and came back a short time later with his BHF (Best Hen Forever), Angitou.  How did she know to follow him?  I guess he must have told her!  Eventually all the chickens went back into the run.  Today they’re used to the hose and amble over frequently to cool down.  But there hasn’t been any joyous splashing.  My lesson learned:  Chickens are not ducks.

(There's a video of Snowball enjoying water from the hose on the "Randy's Chicken Blog" Facebook page.  Videos work better on Facebook, so I'm not embedding it here, but go please go over there and enjoy it!)

Hipster hens nonchalantly staying cool by the somewhat terrifying hose
While the temperature is in the mid-nineties again today, it is less humid.  Tomorrow we’re expecting highs in the eighties, so maybe the worse of this heat wave is over.  And as we Minnesotans say, “Next winter we’ll all be wishing for some of this warmth!”

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