Chickens like temperatures up to 75 degrees, kind of like me. But once you start getting up into the 80's and higher, a chicken's body begins to go through changes in order to deal with the heat. One thing you might notice is a drop in food consumption, an increase in water consumption and decreased egg production.
Once temps hit the mid 80's though it is time to take action to help your chickens beat the heat, because no one wants their chickens to over heats and collapse.
Chickens don't sweat. Did you know that? Chickens regulate their body temperature through their wattles and combs. Your first warning sign that the heat is getting to your birds is they will start panting. You will notice them with their beak open and that their rate of breathing has increased. Different breed will display these normal behaviors at varying temperatures. I have noticed our Cuckoo Maran pullet is always the first to start panting.
Panting will help your birds cool off a bit, nut it can also creates some problems. While panting removes heat because moisture evaporates from the lining of the respiratory tract, panting itself also generates body heat. Also the loss of water in the respiratory tract can cause respiratory alkalosis. What's that you ask? It is when a chicken expels excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) when it pants and as a result, their body fluids become more alkaline. Why is that a problem you may be asking? Because it will cause the kidneys to excrete excessive amounts of several electrolytes.
Another way chickens try to cool themselves is that they will hold their wings away from their body. This is a normal behavior, but it will let you know that they are becoming more stressed by the temperatures. At this point you need to monitor your birds closely as no one wants to loose a bird to heat.
So what can you do to help your chickens beat the heat?
The most important thing you can do is to be sure that they have access to cool fresh water. You may need to refill the waterers a few times a day and change them out with fresh cool water. You can also add ice cubes to the waterers to keep them cooler longer. Make sure their waterers are not located in the sun. This will cause them to evaporate faster and, well, no one wants to drink hot water on an already hot day.
We provide water in our shed, but our girls have been know to access any water source that is near by. Yes, our crazy chickens even drink out of the duck pool, which is located under a shady tree. I have never seen any of our girls actually get in the pool, but I do know some chickens will stand in water to cool off in the summer.
Another way to help your chickens is to provide shade and to not disturb them when they are resting. Our girls free range and we do not have one of those picture perfect yards for this very reason. We allow native vegetation to grow along fence lines, which provides not only protection from predators from above, but shade during those long summer months. If you keep your chickens in a run you can always plant bushes in the run or place a tarp on part of the run to provide shade.
Chickens will also go to dust bathing areas and dig down to cooler soil to lay in. They will not bath as normal, just hunker down in the wallow as to enjoy the cool earth they scratch down to. Again, do not disturb them. The simple act of walking can increase their heart rate and place even more demands on their bodies. I repeatedly have to stress to the littlest country kid not to chase or handle them on super hot days. It is hard sometimes for little kids to understand why they should leave the chickens alone, but it is important they are taught to leave all animals alone on super hot days.
While your chickens' appetites will drop as the temperature goes up, there are plenty of ways to get them to eat, that will help them cool off. Provide you chickens with fresh fruits and vegetables that are packed with water content, such as peas, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers and our girls all time favorite, watermelon. Some chicken keepers suggest freezing these treats, but the energy they bird will have to expel in order to peck a piece off seems counter productive to me. Don't want to give your birds a whole watermelon? They love the rinds just fine. I have been know to freeze watermelon rinds during cooler temperatures just so I will have them for my girls when they need them. Simply defrost and toss in the yard.
Other things you can do for your flock include putting a simple box fan in the coop to keep air circulating and provide a nice breeze. Some chicken keepers put frozen jugs of water in the coop as a form of air conditioning. We experience high humidity levels, so doing this in a confined space would just make the humidity even worse. If you do provide jugs of frozen water, do so outside. Trust me, if the birds want it, they will cuddle up to it.
So what do I do if my bird gets overheated?
If you notice a member of your flock succumbing to the heat, carry the chicken to a shady area. Do not take the bird into your air conditioned house. The extreme change of temperature could send the bird into shock. Instead, place the bird in a cool (not cold) bucket of water. You want to gradually bring down the bird's core temperature. If you were to plunge an over heated bird in a bucket of ice water, it would send their body into shock and could kill them.
I have never had to place one of my chickens in cool water. I have only run into this situation in confined birds. And by confined, I mean birds at the county fair when I was growing up. You know, the little pens where they can take all of two steps. I've seen people learn the hard way not to use ice water to cool a chicken or rabbit in distress, so trust me when I say cool water.
Resist the urge to take your chickens into your air conditioned house, unless you plan on keeping them there all summer. Chickens do not handle extreme temperature fluctuations well and going from 90 and humid to 65 and not humid and then back to 90 and humid when they are put back outside only makes it harder for them to cope.
Now that you have read all this information, you might be a little nervous about your chickens' well being this summer. Relax! By monitoring your flock and providing for their needs, they should do just fine. When I see panting in the coop during the evening at lock up, I know it is time to get a fan going. When I see wings held out from their bodies, I know it is time to toss them some juicy treats. It is just a matter of being attentive.