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Are you planning to fly the coop for the holidays? If the fear of leaving your chickens for a few days ever threatens to keep you home, rest assured. A little planning will keep your flock healthy and happy while they await your return.
Access to water can save chickens’ lives. Because December is a prime time for water to freeze overnight, skipping town for the holidays means we must plan for two water outcomes—freezing and running dry—both of which leave chickens dehydrated.
During winter, I use a heated dog bowl for my flock. I’ve found it to be more effective at keeping water liquefied, and it’s easier to clean out in the winter than the double-walled fountain waterer, as water in the hose often freezes.
The caveat to the heated dog bowl is that water doesn’t last more than three days; its gentle heat allows evaporation. Ideally, water should be changed daily, but we don’t always have that luxury if we’re briefly out of town. So, taking a trip means the double-walled fountain (on top of the metal heater) teams up with the heated dog bowl to provide a second water source. The fountain holds too much water to dry out in a few days.
If you know your flock will empty the feeder before your return, find another way to ensure more food is available. Purchase an extra feeder, or put a bowl of extra feed somewhere were the chickens could access it if the feeder becomes empty. If you don’t already know about how much feed your flock eats in the number of days you plan to be out of town, test your feeder. Fill the feeder to the top, but don’t refill it until it’s nearly empty. If the feeder is empty in just a few days, but you plan to be gone a week, you’ll probably need to add a second feeder to your coop.
Keep in mind that chickens eat more feed in the winter to keep warm and because other food sources, like fresh grass, clover and insects, aren’t available.
When a flock is accustomed to free ranging most of its days, the chicken keeper’s plans to skip town for the holidays can pose a problem. We worry about leaving them out, and we worry about locking them up.
If you have a trusted friend or neighbor who is comfortable with your chickens, call on her to help you. Someone can stop by to let the chickens range for the day, and then she can return to button them up at night.
Maybe a friend isn’t close enough to your home to come by twice a day. If you’ll be gone for a week, they could be let out for exercise just two of the days you’ll be gone, or you could hire a chicken/pet sitter.
Predators, of course, are the biggest reason to lock the flock at night, but not all chickens are equally susceptible to attacks. In fact, some breeds are excellent survivors. Other breeds are a bit on the dumb side making them good targets, day or night.
If you have predators in your neighborhood and you raise breeds that need full protection, keeping them cooped while you’re away is probably your only option. Other breeds can do just fine free-ranging full-time, but whether you take the risk is a personal choice.
Our flock has done both. I’m more likely to keep them cooped during a winter trip out of town, and more likely to let them free-range during a summer trip. Predators are hungrier in the winter, and if we see snow, my chickens stand out like a 1950s-style diner. In summer, my chickens are more camouflaged, and they have foliage where they hide and spend much of their leisure time.
When you’re planning a trip out of down, know your chickens’ needs, provide enough food and water, and when you return home, check on the flock before you haul in your luggage. They will be so happy to see you!