Most chickens manage cold well, but some breeds are especially well adapted to frosty conditions. Overall, chickens are heavily feathered and insulated against the cold.
The comb is the most sensitive part of the chicken and most likely to suffer cold damage. Frozen combs do not regenerate – it’s like dubbing. The experience is stressful for the chicken, so it’s best avoided. If your chickens have large single combs and they are exposed to temperatures below freezing, a coat of petroleum jelly on the comb can provide some protection. Choose a breed with a small rose, pea, cushion or strawberry comb instead.
A heat lamp in the coop, even a regular light bulb, can provide sufficient additional warmth to protect birds from damage. Chickens generate warmth with their own bodies, so more birds means more warmth.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is keeping the water from freezing. Electric water dishes are available. Make sure your chickens have fresh water available.
Chanteclers were developed as a Canadian breed and remain the only recognized Canadian breed. Their small, low, cushion combs are well suited to cold weather. They are good winter layers. They are big birds, cocks weighing more then 8 lbs and hens more than 6. When the last rooster being kept at the University of Saskatchewan died in 1979, the breed was declared extinct, but small flock owners across Canada and the U.S. had maintained them. The numbers were relatively low, and some breeders graded other breeds into their birds to strengthen them. Chanteclers are a modern composite breed, so they can also be re-created. As a result, there is some discussion about purity of the existing stock and whether birds come from original or re-created lines. You may determine for yourself to what extent you wish to be involved in that discussion.
Wyandottes were developed in New York State in the 1870s, another location known for cold winter weather. They feather out well and come in several colors. The Columbian color pattern acquired its name from the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, the Chicago World’s Fair, the year the pattern was introduced. It was accepted by the APA in 1905. They are a good dual purpose breed.
Dominiques, with their rose combs, are reliable and sturdy. They have a long American history going back to Colonial times, so they have survived many cold winters. They are good winter layers, good broody hens and good mothers.
Javas, a foundation breed that traces its roots to that Southeast Asian island, nevertheless do well in cold American weather.
Buckeyes are the only American breed credited to a woman, Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio. They are named for the Buckeye state and the Buckeye whose color they have. With their pea combs, they are well-suited to those cold Ohio winters and a good all-around breed.
Norwegian Jaerhons are a long established Scandinavian breed that was standardized in the 20th century breed. They are smaller, 5 lbs. for cocks and 3 ½ for hens, with attractive patterns. A good choice for a hardy dual purpose breed.
Faverolles are a French composite dual purpose breed that was developed for winter egg laying. Their eggs are light brown. They are hefty birds, with mature cocks weighing in at eight lbs. or more and hens at 7 lbs. They are the only breed with the Salmon color variety, a pattern of bright contrasting colors on the males and more demure brown and cream on the females.
White Dorkings are recognized as a rose comb variety. Other unrecognized Dorking varieties also have rose combs. SPPA president Craig Russell remembers the effects of an Arctic front that chilled his Pennsylvania farm several years ago. “The other chickens stopped laying the first day,” he said, “but the Dorkings went right on laying through that below-zero cold.”
Rhode Island Reds are recognized in a rose comb variety, and Rhode Island Whites have rose combs. Hamburgs are a rose-combed breed that has been known in the past as the “Dutch Everyday Layer.”
Icelandic chickens are the chickens of the Vikings, a landrace rather than a breed developed through selective breeding. They are small, almost banty size, but good winter layers of white eggs. . Their Icelandic name, Íslenka landnámshænan, means “Icelandic hen of the settlers.” They are long-lived, hardy foragers. The hens are good broodies. Their color patterns, combs and leg colors are not standardized and the breed is not recognized for exhibition. They are quite rare but would make a good choice for a cold climate flock. Behl Farm in Rochester, Illinois, 217-498-7522, has eggs available by mail. Chicks and adult birds may be purchased at the farm.
Kraienkoppes are another breed not included in the Standard that is winter-hardy and a good layer. Small, at around five or six pounds, they are good foragers that prefer some free range in their lives. Their history in The Netherlands and Germany explains their resilience in cold weather. They are rare but those who have them praise them.
Breeds with more feathers do better. Silkies, with their hair-like feathers, are subject to chill if their feathers get wet, but otherwise manage well in cold conditions. Keep an extra eye on them. Oriental Game breeds such as Malays and Shamos as a group may suffer in cold weather. Naked Necks, with about half the feathers of other breeds, nevertheless seem to fare fine in cold weather. To quote Mr. Russell, “Naked Necks are just tough chickens.”