The Truth About Chickens Wearing Sweaters

During our first winter with chickens, I regularly took readings outside on the coldest days. One morning it was -27° F! Concerned for our hens, I trotted through the icy air to their unheated, uninsulated coop and took a reading inside. -20° F!  I was scared for our hens’ safety.

a chicken foot on snow

Many chicken owners worry about keeping their chickens warm in the winter.  Maybe you’ve seen the viral photos of chickens wearing knitted sweaters? Here’s one  I found on Instagram:

Cricket and Wichita being twinsies! 🐔🐔 #RadcliffChickens

A photo posted by 6 City Hens in Florida 🌴🌞 (@radcliff_chickens) on Nov 30, 2015 at 2:28pm PST


Pretty cute, eh?

Some people like to add lamps for warmth in the coop, others insulate the walls. Some people even let their chickens live in the house!

Our Philosophy for Keeping Chickens Warm in Winter

Here are the steps we like to follow to keep our chickens warm through the winter:

Step 1: Do nothing.

That’s right, most chickens will be absolutely fine in cold weather. They’re birds, not… hairless cats! They have downy feathers that have been optimized over millions of years of evolution and then were bred for optimal endurance in cold climates.

Our chickens made it through that super cold day, and all subsequent winter days since.

white hen in winter on snow

The problem with chickens wearing sweaters

The problem with the sweaters is that the idea is too easily taken out of context.  Chickens do not need sweaters to stay warm unless they are dropped into a cold environment or are a particularly weak breed.

An article I read about this phenomenon indicated the sweaters would raise awareness of the poor conditions for commercial laying hens and one woman selling says she’ll contribute all profit to charity , which is decent. The idea is that older hens from commercial operations that aren’t laying anymore can be rescued, but since they aren’t well adapted for cold weather after a lifetime indoors they will suffer if you let them free range in cold weather.

Frankly, we think older chickens that aren’t laying anymore  should be made into coq au vin or soup so their contribution can be fully appreciated.

Putting sweaters on chickens is a false fix for a serious problem.  What would really be effective is focusing on changing the way consumers shop and eat.  

chicken in a cage or behind a fence

Seeing that poorly treated chickens can have a cozy retirement makes the problem less serious.  Consumers can smile at the cute photos online, thinking “at least they can die in peace”, while the poor farming practices will continue.

To really make a difference, you need to buy local eggs from a farmer that treats their chickens right.  And don’t be fooled, these eggs don’t really exist in most grocery stores, despite clever labeling.

Talk to your family and friends about why this is important to you, share local eggs you find with your friends and coworkers.

Some precautions to take in winter if you have chickens

It is worth pointing out that there are a few precautions to take into consideration for wintering chickens. These include:

Make sure water doesn’t freeze.

Chickens die without water, regardless of season. We have a light bulb in a cinder block under our waterer to keep it from freezing and it works well (click here for an example of how to set this up). You can also buy ready-to-go water warmers or find an alternate DIY projects to suit your needs.

Ventilate, but make sure the chickens aren’t exposed to drafts.

A well designed coop will take this into account so moisture can escape and chickens aren’t being hit by crazy wind chill temperatures. The key is to make sure the roosts and laying boxes aren’t directly hit by wind that might come in through ventilation.

Give them space.

Crowded chickens can be mean to each other when they can’t hang out outside as often due to snow and may develop bad pecking and plucking habits. Shovel your run, add a roof to your run, make sure your coop is big enough…

For more tips on keeping chickens in winter, check out this post: