Our first real snowstorm hit this week and, with it, came some strong winds and temperatures in the low 20s and high teens. While we are crazy excited about the snow and have already gone sledding a bunch of times, animal care in the freezing weather is a whole new ballgame.
Right now, we have a dog, a cat, a bunny, 10 Rhode Island Red hens, two Black Copper Maran (BCM) roosters, four BCM hens (still chicks), one Golden Laced Cochin hen, and two Bantam Splash Cochins (one hen, one roo). The dog is a dog. She lives a dog’s life. Her experience doesn’t really register as relevant to this blog topic, so we’ll move on to the cat.
One wouldn’t generally think much about a cat when it comes to farm life, but I am pretty darned allergic to them and only agreed to getting a cat because the rescue assured us that this particular cat (Randy) would thrive outdoors. Over the summer, he was a champ. He was killing mice and voles with reckless abandon. We gave him a little corner of the garage and kept him in dry cat food and fresh water. He minded his own business. He would go off on long explorations and return whenever the mood struck him. He was the quintessential outdoor cat and we all thought he was just the best. Then it got cold.
We set Randy up in the mud room with a milk crate filled with hay and lined with burlap sacks. He started sleeping in this every night as the temperatures dropped into the low 40s and 30s. He started slipping in through the open door at every opportunity and curling up in the chair by the wood stove. I let it slide. As long as he didn’t go on anything fabric, or get into the bedrooms, he could come in and warm up from time to time. It went on like that for awhile. Then it got really cold.
Now, Randy lives inside. He goes out to eat and to sleep, but other than that he pretty much sits in MY chair by the fire and complains when we’re late with dinner. Sigh.
Cookie (the bunny) is another story altogether. We built a hutch for Cookie out of an old dresser with the drawers removed and some pallets and chicken wire. She’s in the garage, so she’s very protected from the elements (a little too protected, actually… We’re planning to move her set-up outside in the spring), and has plenty of room to move around. The problem for Cookie is her water. While the bottle of water itself takes a long time to freeze, the metal nipple freezes pretty darned quickly. We find ourselves replacing her water three to four times per day and have started filling her bottle with very warm water in an effort to buy a little time.
The freezing water problem is also an issue for the BCM chicks. While the rest of the flock has a water heater under their waterer, the chicks are still too little to be integrated into the general population. Because they are kept separately and space is at a premium in the coop, they are using a standard plastic waterer that has no heating system associated with it. When we make our rounds to Cookie, we stop by the coop and warm up the chicks’ water as well.
As for the rest of the chickens, I’m here to report that they are not fans of snow (to say the least). Even with the first snowfall, which was only an inch or two, we shoveled the snow away from the coop doors and made little areas for them to walk around in, but they hardly ventured away from the coop.
Then, we got about ten more inches and they wouldn’t leave the coop! Dave even got out the snowblower and cleared a path from the garage (where they love to gather and poop and generally just get in the way) all the way to the coop fence, only to have them pretty much ignore it. Up to this point, we had been keeping the BCM chicks in a large dog crate in the coop. This was our way of introducing them to the rest of the gang without endangering them, since they are still too little to protect themselves. With all 19 birds spending the entire day in the little coop, however, something had to change. We no longer had the luxury of giving all that valuable real estate to the chicks. We needed to get that crate out, but needed to keep the chicks separate.
Because of how the nesting boxes were built, there is about a 14″ space below the bottom shelf of boxes. We decided to enclose that area with chicken wire, and let the chicks live there. It was a relatively unused space and so this solution seemed like a win-win. The set-up was fairly simple and within about an hour, we had them moved in to their new digs. Everything seemed great; the chicks had a new, safe place to live and the rest of the flock had substantially more room in which to hide from the snow.
We left them alone for about two hours and then checked back. Three of the four chicks were out of the new section and were gathered above it on a nesting box. The fourth one was visibly troubled and anxiously trying to figure out how her buddies escaped. We were back to square one.
As we looked at them sitting there on the nesting box, we saw our solution. Now, the word “box” here is a bit of a misnomer. The sides of each “box” only come about a third of the way up the space and so allow for chickens to actually sit on the low walls or walk over them, as needed. The coop also has at least ten times more nesting boxes than the birds use. For the number of chickens we have, two boxes would have been totally sufficient. As it turns out, they use the same two spots nine times out of ten anyway. Therefore, all the other boxes just end up being used for roosting or simply go unused. We decided to dedicate a run of five boxes to the chicks.
We quickly removed the chicken wire from below the bottom shelf and moved it up one level to contain the five boxes and give the chicks (again) a safe place to live. Once we got it all set up, the chicks seemed confused, but happy. We watched a handful of the other chickens throw themselves at the new little wall of wire a few times (chickens hate change) and felt reasonably confident that this plan just might work.