My chickens, who were born in early June, seem to feel much the same about their introduction to winter. When I opened their coop door to the outside during our recent arctic blast, exposing them for the first time to frigid air and snow, they looked at me as if to say, “Are you high?” — a reasonable question here in Colorado. Then they skedaddled back to a warm corner, though when temperatures moderated and the snow melted back a couple days later, they ventured out.
I’ve been keeping chickens since the turn of the century, and none of my birds have liked winter. This is understandable. For one thing, they’re barefoot, while at this time of year I’m either padding about indoors in fleecy slippers or trudging around outside in Tretorn rubber boots.
But the feet of chickens are also especially sensitive to cold, because the exposed parts of a hen’s body — legs, feet, comb, wattle — are important conduits for heat exchange. The first summer I kept chickens — who, like other birds, lack sweat glands — I was amazed at how warm and pliable their feet felt on hot days, as their blood vessels dilated to shed excess heat. In the cold, it is just the opposite: The vessels in their extremities constrict to conserve core temperature (between 105 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit in adult chickens) and their scaly legs and feet become icy to the touch. So whether or not they really need it — feathers provide remarkable insulation — I hoss out to the coop with the oil-filled radiator to take the edge off.