As the mercury rises, it's important that you understand the different needs of your feathered friends. Heat exhaustion is a very real thing and can happen quickly within your flocks.
Chickens have a few tricks in their arsenal to keep cool. They will hold their wings out from their bodies to allow any cool breeze to reach their skin more easily. They will also pant. Since chickens don’t sweat like humans and other mammals, they expel warm body heat through their mouths – and also their combs. A chicken’s comb acts as a mini radiator, allowing heat to escape.
Ducks and geese will pant when they get hot. Their wings might also droop. Ducklings and goslings are far more susceptible to heat exhaustion, so watch your little ones closely.
More water, please
Providing clean, cold water in the summer is critical. If you aren’t able to change out warm water for cool several times a day, use ice cubes (or even better, ice blocks made by freezing water in loaf pans or plastic water bottles) and set them in the water tubs. This will keep the water cooler longer.
Summer water should be located in the shade and provided in large tubs versus gravity or nipple watering systems. This will keep the water cooler longer and also allow your flocks to step into the tubs to cool their feet and dunk their heads into the water. Chickens especially use these two methods to quickly lower their body temperature. For ducks, add some frozen peas to the water for a fun treat!
Ducks and geese love splashing or floating around in a pool when it's hot. You can use a plastic kiddie pool, horse trough, re-purposed garden tub, pool kit or even just a hole dug in the ground and filled with water. If you can, set up a few pools so everyone can swim at once.
As with drinking water, 'clean duck pool' is a bit of an oxymoron, so remember that making sure the water is cool and fresh is more important than making sure it's crystal clear. Water stagnates quickly in the heat and can lead to botulism and other harmful bacteria, so refill the pools every day, dumping out the water from the day before and scrubbing the pool with white vinegar and rinsing it out well before refilling.
During a heat wave, adding some electrolytes to the water is a good idea. Electrolytes can be purchased commercially at your feed store or you can mix up a batch easily using this simple recipe: 1 cup water, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1/8 teaspoon sea salt and 1/8 teaspoon baking soda. Mix into their drinking water as needed, a cup per gallon of water.
Easy, breezy and shady
Shade is truly one of the most critical comforts you can offer your chickens, geese and ducks to help them stay cool. Shade from trees and bushes planted inside the run – in addition to any shade the coop or house might provide – is important. If there’s no natural shade, sun cloth can be used to shield a portion of your chicken run or duck pen from the sun’s rays.
For chickens, the coop itself should be well-ventilated with cross breezes, both up high to let hot air escape but also at a lower level to allow the breeze to blow in on the chickens when they’re sleeping. Installing a fan in your coop can also help to cool it down at night. And freezing gallon jugs full of water and placing them in the coop when you lock up at night will work to cool the air down even more.
For ducks and geese, planting shrubs around the perimeter of your run is a natural way to give them places to relax away from the hot sun. You'll find your ducks will pick a nice cool spot and take an afternoon siesta on hot days, conserving their energy and staying as quiet as possible.
Stick to the good stuff
Scratch grains and cracked corn should be avoided in the warm months. Instead, treats such as watermelon, cucumber, berries and other water-laden fruits and vegetables will help keep your flocks hydrated. Freezing the treats in water and offering them as frozen snacks is another option to keep them cool.
You will most likely notice your ducks eating far less feed during the summer. This is completely normal. Try feeding them first thing in the morning and then just before you lock them up for the night, or even leaving them feed and water overnight so they can eat when it's cooler. You might be tempted to leave your ducks out overnight in the pen or run where it's cooler, but if you do, be sure your pen is 100% predator-proof!
When temperatures rise, keep your flocks as calm as possible. Avoid chasing them or allowing children to carry them around excessively. You want them to exert as little energy as possible so they can concentrate on staying cool.
Note: if heat exhaustion is suspected, indicated by lethargic birds lying down, panting, or being unsteady on their feet, quickly address the issue by: bringing them indoors where it’s cool, administering electrolytes and standing the bird in a tub of cold water so just the feet and legs are submerged. These are the best ways to effectively treat heat exhaustion.
Lisa Steele is a 5th generation chicken keeper, author, DIYer and master gardener. Follow her blog at www.fresheggsdaily.com.