Pecking Away at Climate Change

A Chicken's Struggle for Survival

Pecking Away at Climate Change

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Chickens are a great addition to any home and have always been a staple of homesteads. They provide healthy, consistent protein in the form of meat and eggs, and they’re superb composters, all of this while providing excellent fertilizer for your garden. Besides the economic values, chickens are fun — they can be comical and make interesting pets. But, unfortunately, chickens don’t have a local meteorologist to tell them what the weather is going to be. So, they can’t get ready for any changes. Yet, they need to know and be cared for, because with more frequent and intense climate changes the result may become a critical factor in their health and production levels.   

The three climate issues that affect chickens’ welfare are temperature, humidity, and insect availability for foraging, especially for free-range chickens. Even if chickens are cooped up in their private “apartments,” they will react to changes in the weather in a variety of ways. And climate change has become a priority on the homestead. 

If temperatures were to increase it would play havoc with the family dynamic of these birds, possibly creating situations where a single nest contains chicks of different ages, even causing some embryos to die.

Extreme exposure to heat stress is one of the most influential climate changes for chickens. Researchers at the University of Delaware and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) have been studying how climate change affects production. They concluded that heat stress is one of the biggest hazards to chickens with regard to reduction in actual chicken numbers in the United States. The researchers studied chickens from around the world and mapped genetic markers that may improve heat tolerance. Their research could revolutionize poultry breeding by reducing the need to manage heat stress in hatcheries. The NIFA emphasized heat impact in their annual report and also referenced the vast difference between beef cattle and chickens with regard to their carbon footprint. The difference between beef and chicken and greenhouse gas emissions is so great that there is no doubt that chickens leave a smaller carbon footprint. Another interesting factor in chicken’s response to heat and other climate changes is that chicken’s skin detects temperature, pressure, and pain from numerous sensory receptors. One way to alleviate possible problems is to provide plenty of cool, clean water, and added electrolytes to the water. Poultry Nutritionist, Jeff Mattocks recommends farmers provide a rain shelter to get chickens up and off of cold ground. “Even if it’s up on slats or old pallets,” he says, “they’re going to be a lot more comfortable, less stressed, and healthier.”  

For laying hens, climate change can cause physical stress and changes in productivity levels. Laying hens are very sensitive to climate change, especially extreme environmental temperature variations, hot or cold. According to researchers at Macquarie University, in Australia, higher temperatures could be especially dangerous for hens. Decreased food intake during high heat periods is one harmful consequence of high temperatures. This stress leads to a decrease in body weight, reduced production and quality of eggs, and may lead to a decrease in the ability to digest food and reduce protein and calcium levels. Such stress may also reduce the egg weight and thickness of the eggshell, which results in damage and loss. Another study reported that if a laying hen is at a temperature of 86 degrees F (30 degrees C) for an extended period of time, she will respond by decreasing feed intake, resulting in a decrease in egg production.   

Temperature fluctuation can also affect the rate of hatching of fertile eggs. Professor Simon Griffith, of Macquarie University, states, “If temperatures were to increase it would play havoc with the family dynamic of these birds, possibly creating situations where a single nest contains chicks of different ages, even causing some embryos to die.” Griffith also stated, “Parent birds normally lay one egg daily and control incubation by modifying temperature that triggers embryo development to produce a clutch of about five chicks that all hatch at the same time. If one chick hatches before the rest, the first chick will have a monopoly on food and, if the temperature rises above 113.9 degrees F (45.5 degrees C), it could be lethal for all chicks.” 

At 105 degrees F, there is a chance for death and if the ambient temperature reaches 116 degrees F, you have absolute chicken expiration. The optimum temperature tolerated by laying hens is between 59 degrees F and 68 degrees F.  

Humidity often rises as temperatures rise. Fluctuations in humidity level will inevitably accompany climate change and are a factor in overall animal health and function. “Chickens do not like wet feet and too much rain stresses them. When the ground is wet, they will be constantly in a state of mild hypothermia,” explains poultry nutritionist, Jeff Mattocks. “As the moisture is dried off their bodies, core temperatures are not going to be at the right level.” 

During drought, it’s harder for chickens to stay cool. There’s nothing green out there. Being outside is good for birds, but it also makes them vulnerable to extreme weather. 

Humidity above 70 degrees F can inhibit the process of expending body heat, raise the possibility of bacterial disease, and increase fungi and parasite populations. At the opposite end of the humidity spectrum, drought, especially unanticipated drought brought about by climate change, can be a serious issue. In humidity below 60 degrees F, the amount of dust in the air is raised, increasing the likelihood of respiratory disease in chickens. 

With severe and unpredictable weather patterns, the hen’s control is lost, causing eggs to hatch earlier than they are supposed to or at an uneven pace.   

During drought, it’s harder for chickens to stay cool. “There’s nothing green out there,” says Mattocks. “If you’ve ever laid down in green grass and felt how cool it makes you feel, in a drought, we don’t have that. Being outside is good for birds, but it also makes them vulnerable to extreme weather.” 

An often-overlooked consequence of climate change is the effect these changes will have on insect populations. Insects are an essential food for free-range chickens. During a drought, it’s harder for chickens to stay cool, and there are also fewer insects to eat. If the temperature swings into a warming effect, chickens have an issue because the climate affects the migratory route and schedule of many migrating insects. This is a domino effect. 

We have to remember that chickens react to weather for reasons besides direct responses to temperature or humidity gauges. 

Ecologist Jason Chapman points out that, “High altitude insect migration represents the most animal movement in ecosystems on land. We may not realize, but with insect migration, so goes insects and the food that chickens are used to eating.” 

Keeping up-to-date with information about chickens’ reactions to environmental changes is important. Any alterations in steady and secure weather patterns should sharpen awareness that chickens’ customary expectations and bodily requirements may not react quickly or at their highest peak and may require our intervention. Chickens are not equipped for rapid adjustments to habitat loss, forage alterations, and sudden temperature and humidity changes.  Farmers are now becoming more attentive to these issues. Some are raising poultry outside in moveable facilities, like a structural overhead tent, that provides protective cover against changing weather.      

The main thing for poultry owners, whatever their focus, is to be conscious of climate issues that could affect their flocks and to form plans pertaining to any future changes. Keeping up with climate change data will give chicken farmers a leg up on protecting their birds and production levels. Poultry nutritionist, Mattocks, states, “It’s a matter of taking steps to keep up with climate change and our chickens.”    

Chicken owner, Mari Cantrell, purchased a breed called Golden Comets. “Within a few weeks they were running up and down the porch joyfully. I watched my babies put themselves to bed each night. One evening, one chick came out from the hutch and emitted a chirp, as if to say, ‘aren’t you coming?’” Cantrell paused. “After a moment, the chick’s demeanor slumped and she scooted back into the hutch for the night. How sweet was that? I was chicken mom, the Alpha Chicken.” Cantrell sighed. “My babies count on me to protect them, not only against wildlife, but also climate changes, to be sure they remain comfortable and happy.”

Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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