Emergency Chicken Accommodations
Reading Time: 4 minutes
I could smell the smoke in the air before I saw it. Wildfire season usually isn’t much of a concern where I live near Portland, Oregon, but in September 2020, fires came so close that we were under an evacuation order. The following day the smoke was thick enough to make the air hazy, and it smelled like every single one of my neighbors had a bonfire going at once. My husband, dogs, and I could huddle safely inside the house — air filters going full blast — but I worried about the chickens.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, our winters are so mild that the nest area doesn’t have to be fully insulated. Even on the coldest days, it had never been a problem; I’d turn on a panel heater for the girls to cozy up to, and they’d emerge from their freezing, windy night happy and frost-bite free. But I hadn’t counted on air quality so bad that it went from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” and finally well above the levels considered “hazardous.” I felt sick breathing without an N95 mask when I went outside and could only imagine what the chickens must have been feeling. Like all birds, chickens have sensitive respiratory systems. So my husband and I hustled to drag the Omlet coop inside the basement (usually we use as a grow-out pen), set it down on a tarp, and put some straw down. Then I caught all nine chickens one at a time and carried them up the hill from the coop and into the house. I had no idea then that they’d wind up living inside with us for a week.
I’m not the only chicken owner who has been surprised by the need to develop emergency accommodations in a pinch. I’ve seen people post photos of chickens in tents set up indoors as a temporary coop, chickens roaming all over garages or bathrooms, even a dining room that covered in plastic sheeting to minimize the damage. A few years ago, photos went viral of nine chickens in a car being evacuated because of Hurricane Irma. The birds were wrapped with newspaper like burritos — anything will do in a pinch.
Julie Fenn, who lives in Denver, Colorado, has had to hustle her small flock of four chickens inside on more than one occasion. “I bring them into my living room in some dog kennels,” Fenn says, admitting, “It’s not the best setup.” She had been surprised by the need for indoor chicken accommodations and found one dog kennel for free in an alley and the other from a local neighborhood group. “Usually, I only have to bring them in overnight, and my boyfriend puts them outside in the morning once it’s warmed up,” Fenn says. Still, last year there were a few days in a row when it was only six degrees outside, and the chickens stayed in the living room in much less space than they usually get. “But it would have been worse for them to be outside.”
Other than nursing the occasional sick chicken back to health, many chicken owners have rules about letting outdoor animals come inside the house. But an emergency is an emergency.
For the past three years, Frances, who lives in northern California, has had to bring her chickens inside for a few weeks every summer. “Temperatures were maxing out between 110-115 degrees F,” she says. Chickens can start getting overheated when it reaches about 80 degrees F, but anything over 100 degrees F should concern owners about the possibility of heat stress or heat stroke in the birds. Shade can only do so much to cool down a fluffy bird bred more for cold winters than hot summers. At first, Frances brought them into her garage, but it wasn’t air-conditioned. So, the birds moved into the house, in a prime living room spot underneath the A/C. She used a collapsible dog fence to contain them and covered the floors with a waterproof whelping blanket and about a dozen towels. She even set up a cardboard box underneath a side table for the birds to use as a nest box. “They were actually quite happy with the setup.” This is good since the chickens spent a cumulative two weeks inside last summer because of hot weather.
People who keep large flocks of chickens for eggs or meat would have a hard time evacuating hundreds of chickens in an emergency even if they wanted to. Still, for the many people who think of their poultry as pets, it’s worth considering the potentially extreme weather events in your region and what you would do with your chickens during a tornado, hurricane, flood, heatwave, or otherwise before there’s an emergency. Even if you’d only make secondary accommodations out of something you already have on hand — like an old tent or playpen — it’s better to have a plan figured out, so you know exactly what to do and what you need to make it happen while stores are still open and well-stocked.
Paul, who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says having chickens and building new coops for them “is a good excuse to buy power tools and learn new construction techniques.” The chickens have three coops. There’s the main coop and run outside. He built another one in the garage that they use for sick chickens or quarantine new ones before adding them to the flock — as well as to move the girls into on Fourth of July because all the explosions scare the girls, Paul says. Then there’s what he refers to as the “bomb shelter,” a portable coop in the basement that the flock (which ranges in size between six and 12 chickens) gets moved into during tornado warnings or when there are particularly high winds. Unfortunately, his flock no longer fits inside the coop, so last time there was an emergency, the girls “free-ranged” in the basement, hunkered down with Paul and his wife, weathering the storms together. “Our storm response could use a little work because the hens are less likely to come when called when they are scared,” Paul says. It means there’s a lot more chasing chickens one by one, “so you wind up with wet hens, wet people, and mud.”
“Still, we are happy to clean up after the hens,” Paul says, “because it’s better to have a happy and safe hen than not.”
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.