Arizona can be brutal and deadly during summer. With daily high temperatures routinely peaking above 110 F, it can be difficult to tolerate being outside for any length of time. Now imagine that your core body temperature is 103 F, you are covered with insulating feathers, and you live outside! This is the reality our chickens face. If you are a desert dweller, there are several things you can do to help alleviate the heat stress your birds endure every summer day.
First, it is critically important to keep their drinking water cool. Chickens do not like warm water and will not drink it, even to the point of heat stroke and death. Therefore, at a bare minimum, one should change their water every morning with a cool, fresh source. You can also add ice blocks to their water so they can comfortably make it through the afternoon when it is hottest and they need to drink the most. We freeze water in large empty containers (yogurt tubs, cake pans, etc) and put the ice blocks in both their indoor and outdoor waterers. Just like people, they really do love ice cold water and greatly prefer it! Also, make sure they have several drinking containers available, especially if they are free ranging. This reduces crowding and allows everyone to drink.
What you feed your chickens also has the potential to give them some relief. Giving chickens cold or frozen foods helps them cool down internally. We give them frozen fruits and vegetables as well as cold treats like yogurt. Fruits that have high water content like melons are also a great treat since they will hydrate the flock and provide energy through the natural sugars. Avoid giving chickens cracked corn during the summer months. Digesting certain foods like cracked corn actually increases their body heat as they metabolize it and should only be fed when the ambient temperature has fallen considerably.
Increasing air circulation in the coop is another great thing you can do to help your feathered friends. This can be done by adding a fan or two to help move the air (make sure the coop is well ventilated!). Air is a fluid, and when it is forcefully moved by fan blades, an artificial convection current is created. Forced air convection acts in a way to transfer heat away from the chickens’ bodies.
We hung an industrial fan from the coop ceiling (a 20” Air King 9020) and also have an evaporative “swamp” cooler positioned next to an open window. Both fans are connected to outdoor electrical timers so they rotate on & off throughout the day. The evaporative cooler runs from 10AM to 5PM during peak heat to keep the coop as cool as possible. This cooler is connected to a 20 gallon plastic tank and typically evaporates 2-3 gal/hr. The basic principle is that cool, moist air is blown into the coop, and as the liquid water droplets evaporate, they transition to gas phase causing energy transfer and the local air temperature to decrease. The ceiling mounted fan runs from 5PM until 11 PM since it is common for the evening temperature to hang at 90-100 F long after the sun has set.
Worried about the cost of running fans? At first, we were too, but let’s do some math – it’s actually not bad! Imagine that your fan uses 150 watts (this is what our 20” fan uses) and run it for 10 hours. That’s 1500 watt-hours per day, or in other words, 1.5 kilowatt-hours. If you are charged 10 cents per kilowatt-hour (the average US retail price of electricity for July 2011), then it costs you 15 cents per day to run that fan. That works out to $4.50 per month. It’s affordable and your chickens will thank you!
A misting system can also be a good investment, whether it be permanent or portable. Portable ones are nice for free ranging chickens since they can be easily moved around. Our chickens seem to like the mister and congregate around it when it is running. Try to get brass mist heads since they are easily removed and can be periodically soaked in vinegar to clean them.
It’s also important to have shade readily available. If your flock is kept in a run, please make sure that it is adequately shaded. Shade cloth from the hardware store works wonders. If the chickens free range, make sure they have access to the most shaded areas of your yard. Our chickens always run under the largest trees to stay out of the sun.
Unfortunately, the grim truth is that you can do all of this and more, and sometimes it’s not enough to protect your flock. Recently, we had several measures in place and still lost one of our Buff Orpington hens. She was our biggest hen, which are often the first ones to go during extreme heat. Unfortunately, her extra body mass and small comb was not a good combination. Chickens do not sweat! Instead, their primary way of rejecting heat relies upon their combs and wattles. Blood is circulated to these areas, and due to the large surface area, they act as a radiator which cools the bird. Since the loss of our Orpington, we have added more heat reducing measures and thankfully have yet to lose another chicken. Good luck and stay cool!