I am the chicken person in my family. It is a great conversation opener and people love to send me all things chicken in the form of emails and Facebook posts. Lately, I have gotten my fair share of chicken sweater pictures. Really, Chicken Sweaters are a “thing”. I had no idea.
The cuteness factor of the sweaters struck me first. They are awfully cute, but then I started to wonder if people really think their chickens need sweaters to stay warm. Then, my mind really started to wander… these sweaters seem like a fun novelty but are slightly detrimental to a chicken when the temperatures drop to extremely cold numbers.
This all comes down to how do birds, chickens in particular, stay warm outside in freezing temps. Birds are warm blooded, much like humans, and nature has a way of helping them regulate their temperature as well as some great adaptations that have evolved to give chickens and other birds, what they need to survive the climate in which they live.
Biologically, chickens and wild birds, have processes working that help to keep them warm in the cold months of winter. They are warm blooded, they have a high metabolism that turns food calories into the energy they need to stay warm and birds can control their temperature in a process called Torpor.
Torpor is a physiological process that many animals go through where they slow down their metabolic rate and reduce their internal body temperature. This is a thermogenic process that is part of why certain animals survive by hibernating during the winter. Your chickens will use this process during the night, when movement and feeding is restricted. During the day, they can go about their normal daily life in cold weather and stay warm. At night, they have the ability to slow their metabolism and lower their body temperature to conserve energy and survive in the cold.
Feathers. Chickens have great feathers that work to keep them warm. They have the downy fluff close to their bodies, the varied length of the shafts and texture of feathers create a well designed layer over their bodies. Even a chicken’s feet have scale like texture and blood vessels that are designed to keep them warm.
Birds that live outside are also introduced to the slow changing of temperatures as the seasons change. This allows their bodies to begin to prepare for the oncoming cold gradually. Feathers molt and are replaced with new feathers. Metabolisms slow. Egg production slows as energy is instead converted to warmth. Extreme drops in temperatures are more dangerous to a bird, than having time to acclimate to the cold temps gradually.
Chickens and other birds also need to behave in certain ways to stay warm in extreme cold. Some of the things that your chickens will do is fluff, roost, huddle and tuck. Sounds technical, but you have probably noticed this in your flock all along.
Chickens fluff in cold temperatures. The fluffing of their feathers create warm air pockets that are held close to their bodies trapping the warm air close.
Your birds will roost. They will get off the cold floor of a coop and the frozen ground and roost. Hopefully their roosting area is free of drafts.
Chickens huddle. Your flock will huddle close together in the cold to minimize exposure to the elements, but also to share body heat.
Your birds will also tuck their feet close to their bodies while they roost. Some will tuck their heads under wings. Mothers will tuck their young in close to keep warm.
What does this all have to do with chicken sweaters? Well, to be frank, the chicken sweaters can hinder all of these behaviors. A close fitting sweater will not allow for a chicken to fluff their feathers. It can interrupt the huddling warmth of shared body heat on the roost. They restrict the movement of what nature has given chickens, and wild birds, to best survive in their environment.
Chicken sweaters in my opinion are a cute novelty but not something that your chicken will need to survive the remaining winter months. Plenty of food, unfrozen water, and a draft free shelter will work magic. If you have chicken breeds that are not suited for your climate, then other precautions may be necessary.