I didn’t know if I’d find them alive or dead. The temperature is -5 when I walk down the path behind our house cupping a small tub of meal worms. It had been -16 during the night, and the hens had never been in temperatures so cold. My husband had wanted to bring them inside. But I dusted off the radiant heat panel, the one we use for chicks and kittens, and had faith it would be enough.
I pull the wire handle on the side of the coop, and the trap door slides open between the coop and run. I rarely close them inside, so even though the cold blast can’t be fun, they’re curious and eager. A few beaks pop out. The two bravest pick their way down the ramp, trusting I have treats, and the other 10 follow.
In our first year of owning chickens, when the overnight temperatures first went down in the single digits, my husband and I thought it couldn’t possibly be safe. Everything I read said New England breeds handle cold weather well. But it seemed too much, so we brought them in the house for the night. We set the ladies up in a tiled room with a layer of newspaper on the floor, and small bowls of water and feed pellets.
They trashed the place. Newspaper confetti shredded everywhere, plastered to the floor from their spilled drinks—a bona fide ladies’ night out. The next night they went back outside. They were more than fine on their roosting bars, downy feather blankets over dinosaur feet. And they were calm again because we’d stopped messing with their program. Sometimes the solution, or what you think is the solution, ends up worse than the thing you think you’re fixing.
I scatter the mealworms for the chickens and lean down to check their water, which is frozen solid in spite of the submerged heating iron. Delilah jumps onto my back like she always does, trusting me to make things right, or just liking to be up high. I give them a trough of warm oatmeal and they start pecking the mush with gusto, fluffy butts quivering in the air. Faith, and trust.
I make sure the water heater is plugged in correctly, so that when the temperature goes up throughout the day it can start doing its work. It will take a while to make a difference. The best fixes seem to happen slowly, painfully slow, sometimes. Then you look up one day and see thaw that happened while you weren’t looking.