Preparing Your Coop for Severe Weather
Severe Weather and Human Safety
Every year, as the seasons progress, we field a lot of questions from chicken owners on how to cope with severe weather events. Some inquiries are fairly harmless, such as wondering how chickens will tolerate their first snowfall, but some are downright alarming.
Far too often, a member of our group will ask what to do about their free-ranging chickens while severe weather is in progress. Tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, hail, and lightning are all life-threatening weather events to human and fowl alike, and if any of these weather conditions are at work in your area, the last thing you should be doing is running around outdoors trying to round up your flock into their coop. Not only does this not significantly improve your flock's chances of surviving the storm, it puts you in mortal danger. Storms can and do kill people every year, so if there is severe weather in your area, trust the chickens to find shelter on their own and focus on getting yourself to safety.
If the weather has not yet arrived, there may be things you can do to prepare your flock for the storm, but keep in mind the natural limitations of man-made structures in the face of natural forces. If a hurricane or tornado can sweep a house off of its foundation, your chicken coop is unlikely to be any match for it either.
What to Do: Blizzards and Winter Weather
Blizzards and other winter storms can be dangerous or deadly to man and beast alike, but fortunately, chickens are well-equipped to endure the cold. If you live in an area that is prone to heavy snowfall, your main struggles will be to prevent the coop roof or run cover from collapsing under the weight of the snow. Likewise with ice storms, which will laden bird netting with layers of ice and cause it to collapse, your best preventative is to make sure the cover on your run is amply supported by a framework or structure.
It is prudent if you live in areas prone to cold winters to focus on breeds known to be cold hardy, though most breeds will tolerate temperatures well below 0º F as long as they are able to escape the wind. Good ventilation to allow fresh air to cycle through the coop is imperative to their health, both to prevent frostbite and respiratory distress, but heating the coop is not necessary nor advised. To help reduce the humidity levels within the coop, it's recommended to set up the chickens' water source outside of the coop. This will also help keep bedding fresh and dry all winter long.
What to Do: Tornadoes
It cannot be overstated that tornadoes are extremely dangerous weather events, and if you are under a tornado warning, DO NOT attempt to secure your animals. Seek immediate shelter in an interior room, basement, or storm shelter away from windows, and wait the storm out.
Not only does going outside in a tornado warning put your life at risk, closing the chickens up in their coop--if you're even able to do it--will not offer them any additional protection in such a storm. Tornadoes regularly demolish man-made structures of greater fortitude than a chicken coop, so if one does come through your yard, and your flock is cooped, they will be caught up in the destruction with no hope for escape. That said, do not go out to release your chickens if a tornado is approaching, either. Your safety must come first in the event of an active weather situation. Keep yourself safe, so that your chickens will have someone to care for them when the storm passes.
Although one could hypothetically build a "tornado-proof" storm shelter, it's highly unlikely anyone would, due in part to the challenges in incorporating natural light and ventilation, as well as the resources that would be required. You would essentially have to build an actual storm shelter and convert it into a chicken coop, which admittedly is not the most practical way to house a flock.
What to Do: Flooding
Floods may come slowly with considerable advanced notice, or they may happen suddenly without warning. Floods wash away roads, inundate towns, and drown livestock. They can spread disease and toxins when they infiltrate waste treatment ponds, sewers, or other sources of contaminants. Mold and mildew are often left in the aftermath, sickening humans and their animals alike.
It is important regardless of where you live or whether or not flooding has ever occurred in your area before to study the topography of your region and look into obtaining a flood map of your area. If you are in a zone likely to flood, have a plan in place to evacuate or secure your animals well before the threat of severe weather is even an issue. You will not have time to make plans if you wait until flooding has already begun.
If flooding strikes unexpectedly and you are forced to evacuate, you may not be able to take your flock with you. If this is the case, DO NOT lock them in their coop, and seriously consider opening their run to give them a chance to escape. Although turning your chickens loose until you are able to return means they may be at risk of predation, keeping them locked in a coop guarantees their demise if flood waters inundate it. Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution if you are forced to flee severe weather and cannot evacuate with your animals.
After flooding has passed, if your coop and run have been inundated, remove as much of the contaminated soil as you can and replace it with pea gravel topped with coarse sand. Clean and sanitize all solid surfaces in the coop and run, or consider scrapping the coop and building a new one from scratch to eliminate the risk of mold or contaminants.
What to Do: Hurricanes
Hurricanes are the tour de force of dangerous weather, because they can bring with them almost all of the other threatening weather conditions discussed in this article. Hurricanes bring dangerously high winds, flooding, hail, lightning, and tornadoes, making them a force to be respected.
The advantage to hurricanes is that you usually have some warning before they strike. Unlike with tornadoes in the Midwest that can blow in on an otherwise lovely day with only minutes of warning, hurricanes take several days to form, gather steam, and make landfall. Coupled with modern-day meteorological science, their paths can be projected with fairly reliable accuracy, giving those in the affected area time to prepare.
Just like with tornadoes, it's important to remember that you cannot hurricane-proof a chicken coop. There are things you can do to help it resist an indirect hit from a hurricane, but any storm that can destroy office buildings and houses is going to make short work of even the sturdiest coop. The most important thing to do is prepare before the hurricane even threatens. If you wait until the storm makes landfall to secure your flock, it will be too late to do anything substantial for their safety.
If you are sheltering in place and you are concerned that your coop won't protect your flock from the storm, consider bringing them inside and sheltering them in your garage or another spare room where the dust, noise, and odors they produce won't be a problem. Anyone who lives in an area prone to this sort of weather should keep a number of animal carriers or temporary indoor enclosures on hand, just in case they are needed for such an occasion. Camping tents have been used by several chicken owners to give their flock an indoor sanctuary without having to sacrifice an entire room to the chickens' whims. The downside to using a tent instead of a crate or carrier is that if you have to evacuate, the tent cannot double as a traveling crate for the chickens.
If you have to evacuate and you cannot take your animals with you, DO NOT close them up in their coop, and consider opening the run to give them the chance to escape if they need to. Although this makes them vulnerable to predators, keeping chickens closed up in a coop during a hurricane means they will be unable to save themselves if floodwaters or high winds devastate their enclosure. It is better for them to take their chances with wildlife than have no chance at all.
After the storm has passed, follow the steps detailed above for flooding if your coop and run have flooded. If they were spared the floodwaters, repair any damage done by the storm and remove any debris. Predators will be eager to exploit damage done by a storm, so don't delay on repairs.
What to Do: Thunderstorms
Because they are so common, it is easy to disregard the danger thunderstorms pose, but an average of 51 people per year are killed in the United States by lightning alone, making it one of the most dangerous weather events we contend with. Even those that survive being struck by lightning are likely to suffer lasting effects, with roughly 80% of lighting strike victims reporting lifelong injuries as a result of their encounter. Lightning alone is reason enough to remain indoors when a thunderstorm is in the area, but it is not the only threat we face during a storm. Thunderstorms can also bring a variety of other severe weather events along for the ride, including dangerously high winds, microbursts, tornadoes, hail, and flash flooding. If a thunderstorm is in your area, postpone your chicken-keeping duties until after it has passed, and do not go outdoors unless absolutely necessary. You cannot care for your chickens at all if you have been injured or killed by severe weather.
Because thunderstorms can be so destructive, it's important to have a coop sturdy enough to withstand the weather you can typically expect in your area. If you tend to experience high winds, for example, a cheap, prefabricated coop may not be resilient enough to meet your needs. Additionally, your coop and run should be built on the high ground on your property and be elevated above the surrounding ground by building up the soil. Pea gravel and coarse sand are a good choice for the run, as this will allow the water from heavy rainstorms to drain away from your coop and run. Building your coop on a low part of the yard will subject your chickens to standing water during heavy storms, which could sicken or kill them even if the coop itself isn't flooded, so it is important to take your topography into consideration.
Words to Know
There has been a lot of confusion about the terms used in weather forecasting, particularly where severe whether is concerned, so here is an explanation of some of the terms you're likely to encounter and what they mean. For a more comprehensive list, visit NOAA's website.
An advisory is issued when there is a potentially hazardous weather event such as extreme heat, high winds, or winter weather that could make daily activities more dangerous. If your area is under an advisory, heed the advice of meteorologists and do not take unnecessary risks while caring for your animals.
A watch is issued when conditions are right for a severe weather event, but that event has not yet occurred or is not yet on track to affect your area. If you are under a watch, consider postponing travel or other events that might put you in a dangerous situation should severe weather occur. You may if you so choose, attempt to secure your flock at this time, as long as other weather factors don't pose a threat to your safety.
A warning is issued when a severe weather event has been confirmed and is going to affect your area in the imminent future. Exercise the necessary precautions and take shelter. Do not attempt to secure livestock during any severe weather warning.
Remember, as much as we love our chickens and other animals, our own safety must come first in an emergency situation. Severe weather is not a force to take lightly, and you cannot care for your flock if you have been injured or killed by severe weather. Stay safe, and happy chickening!