Under natural conditions, chickens slow down from egg laying and breeding during the winter. Chickens molt in autumn, so by the winter months they have new feathering. During the winter they require additional feed to keep warm, and you must ensure their drinking water doesn't freeze.
The Right Breed
If you live in a cold climate, choose the right breeds of chickens to populate your coop. Certain breeds don't do well in extreme cold. Look for larger chickens, those weighing 6 pounds or more at maturity, rather than smaller silkie and bantam types. Well-known breeds for cold climates include buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, speckled Sussexes and Delawares.
Most chickens don't have problems with cold temperatures, unless they're exposed to prolonged sub-freezing weather. Fluffing their feathers up is how they keep warm. Standing on one foot is also normal -- it's a chicken warming technique. Make sure your chicken coop is draft-free and well-insulated but not so insulated that fresh air can't circulate. Because ammonia from droppings builds up rapidly, causing respiratory issues, the coop needs good ventilation. Along with additional food, try giving your birds an evening meal before they roost for the night, about an hour before sundown. Eating before bedtime helps keep them warm on cold nights.
Breeds with smaller combs and wattles are less likely to suffer from comb freeze, although wiping some petroleum jelly on the combs when temperatures severely drop usually prevents this. If the wattles or comb are already black, that means frostbite has set in. Try putting antibiotic cream on your bird, or take him to a veterinarian. The vet might cut off the affected areas.
Fewer daylight hours means egg production generally drops considerably in winter. Younger, more productive hens might still lay regularly, but older hens might cease laying until spring. "Older" is any hen past 1 year of age, going into her second winter. If your coop only has natural light, you'll have to wait until spring before you can expect a steady supply of fresh eggs.
You can have fresh eggs all winter long if you fool your hens into thinking it's a different time of year. If your coop has electricity, switch a light bulb on before dusk to get the chickens their 14 hours of "daylight" necessary for laying eggs. Electricity also allows for installation of frost-free waterers. However, adding electricity can raise the fire risk in a coop full of straw or shavings, so weigh the risks.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.