August isn’t too soon to think about winter chickens and plans to keep them safe and snug.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
by Gina Stack The sound of rumbling snowplows and the shining sun early in the morning signaled that the blizzard was over. Peering out the windows, the land was covered with sparkling white and thick waves of snow.
Suddenly, I thought of my six young pullets, stuck inside their tiny coop surrounded by a large dog kennel that I could no longer see. It was completely buried! Were they alive? Except for the faint sound of snowplows, I could hear nothing of the chickens. My husband and a man who had been stranded by the blizzard the night before were already out struggling to shovel out the driveway. The snowplows were even stuck out on our country road. I was the only hope for their survival!
Rescuing the Birds!
Cramming on thick snow pants and all the gear I needed for this cold task, I grabbed a shovel and headed down to the exposed basement, where I was struck with a huge, looming mass of snow as tall as me when I opened the door. It stretched all the way out to the coop about 50 feet away. It looked like a mile.
I was overwhelmed at what I would have to accomplish as I am not a very big or strong person. Bracing myself, I began to shovel a path through this wall of sparkling white. All I could hear was my shovel scooping and tossing the snow away, but no chicken sounds. What would I discover when I finally reached them, I wondered. Dread gripped my heart as I worked. My breath hung in an icy cloud around my head as I battled this towering mass. The air stung my nose, throat, and lungs as I stopped to catch my breath.
Then I heard it! Barely audible in the muffled silence, they were alive and calling! Joyfully, with renewed hope, I blasted through the frozen white stuff. I finally arrived at the run door, visible at last but packed in with snow. The tiny coop was still covered with snow, muted chicken cluckings emerging from it. They were buried, but alive.
Thinking about the beautiful flock I had raised from tiny chicks with their gleaming, russet feathers made me shovel more speedily to release them. At last, I was able to pry open the run door with a piercing “squeeeeaaak.” All went silent for a moment but then the hens started to frantically cry out to be rescued!
I finally shoveled out the tiny coop and exhausted, I opened the door expecting to see my beautiful chickens covered in their gorgeous plumage. But that was not to be. Instead, I choked back tears as I saw that half their feathers were gone, their necks were naked, tufts were out of their chests, and their backs were bare. Only a few straggly tail feathers remained. They looked completely disheveled as they tiptoed out slowly, looking for fresh food and water. Then I saw their eggs — frozen brown stones strewn across the coop floor.
I didn’t know a lot about chickens at the time, but I did know about the pecking order and scanned the group for the culprit as she would have all of HER feathers intact. I finally spotted her, sauntering away as if she couldn’t be troubled by such a mess of scruffy chickens that were so beneath her exalted position. I immediately named her Queen of Sheba. I don’t like her anymore, but I like her eggs.
How did this happen? They had food, water, and straw in their cozy little coop, even though the snow was blasting around in the night. You would think they would be peaceful, but no, someone must have made a wrong cluck or gotten on someone’s chicken nerves. Maybe they were just complaining, which never works. And so, Sheba let everyone have it, taking out her temper on them.
Now my once-beautiful flock was a complete mess. Except for Sheba, the queen of the coop who continued pecking the others even after I dug them out. Sheba eventually was banished to a separate cage, humbled and alone, for pride comes before the fall. They all continued to lay eggs in spite of their ragged appearance, but with Sheba separated, the rest could have peace and grow back their new feathers.
The next year, we added some new birds to the flock, but really focused on breed temperament. High-strung chickens are more apt to be aggressive, I have found. This doesn’t mean there will never be pecking order problems; the severity can be controlled, in my experience. We’ve also modified the run to add more nest boxes and a pecking block so the girls can peck at that instead of each other. Winter can be a challenge with chickens!
GINA STACK is a freelance writer in southwest Wisconsin. She, along with her husband and son, resides on five acres with 22 laying hens (some as old as 10 years!), a large vegetable garden, perennials, and Lily the pug.
Originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.