Breeds of Chickens for Your Climate

Select breeds of chickens well-suited to your climate, and avoid losing animals to extreme temperatures.

  • Wyandottes are calm, cold-hardy, and adaptable to a wide range of management practices. The Wyandotte’s eggs are large and plentiful, and quality meat make it a great dual purpose breed.
    Photo courtesy The Livestock Conservancy
  • Buff Orpingtons are docile, excellent layers, and are a great choice for small-scale production.
    Photo courtesy The Livestock Conservancy
  • Small fans, access to dust baths, adequate ventilation, and even a dish with a couple of inches of cool water to stand in can offer relief from heat.
    Photo by Jeremy Binns
  • Speckled Sussex chickens are a dual purpose breed with a deep broad body.
    Photo courtesy The Livestock Conservancy
  • In extreme cold temperatures, some folks add an infrared heat bulb to the coop, but make sure it is secure.
    Photo by Jeremy Binns
  • In most areas of the United States, extreme heat conditions will do birds in more frequently than cold winter conditions.
    Photo by Jeremy Binns
  • In the event that you wind up with a breed not ideally suited to your climate, make sure you have a way to keep them sheltered from climate extremes.
    Photo by Jeremy Binns
  • Lighter colored birds have an advantage in extreme heat, and White Leghorns, Minorcas, and more will do well.
    Photo by Jeremy Binns

Whether you’re getting baby chicks for the first time, or you are an experienced poultry keeper, when it comes time to add birds to your flock, thinking about your year-round climate increases your chances of success. While there are no hard-and-fast rules concerning which chickens will survive and thrive in a given area, there are breeds that are more suited for cold-tolerance, and other breeds that are better suited to regions with extreme heat.

During certain times of the year, even areas with moderate climates may have weather that is less than conducive to the health and well-being of your flock. Giving thought to some of these issues will certainly not hurt when you are making the decision of which breeds you want to raise.

Numerous books and websites offer advice on both cold and heat tolerances for different breeds of chickens. Researching a breed’s tolerance to both, before acquiring, is always a good thing to do. The only problem is the fact that terms like heat and cold can be very subjective. Ninety degrees Fahrenheit, anywhere, is hot; 120 degrees, such as can be experienced in many desert areas, gives a whole new meaning to the word hot. A breed that survives in 90-degree weather may not fare so well if the temperature rises another 20 or 30 degrees. The same is true for cold areas. Fifteen or 20 degrees Fahrenheit is definitely cold; 20 degrees, or more, below zero, begins to make the 15 or 20 above look and feel rather balmy.

Certain areas, such as the Central Valley of California, are generally considered very temperate climates. However, as anyone who has spent much time in the region can tell you, summer heat waves can be almost unbearable. While the summer heat may be good for developing sugar in fruit and wine grapes, it can be devastating to poultry flocks. During the years I lived in California, I lost Cochins, Rhode Island Reds, and even Mediterranean breeds (normally thought of as heat-tolerant) during Central Valley heat waves, and I’ve seen commercial flocks of White Leghorns have sizable mortality losses during the same periods.

Today I live in northwest Minnesota, a world away from California’s Central Valley. I still keep chickens, but now have an entirely new set of concerns each winter. Large combs and wattles can become frostbitten on the tips, or even freeze solid. While many birds can survive this horrible experience, it is painful and not something any poultry keeper wishes on his or her flock. Even more devastating are feet and shanks becoming frozen. This is not only painful for the birds, it is generally fatal. Once thawed, the frozen legs and feet actually decay and fall off, rendering the bird disabled. Even if the bird survives the infections that commonly set in, it often has to be euthanized, or simply gives up the will to live, and dies soon thereafter. Many publications and websites advise poultry owners to apply Vaseline or petroleum jelly to the combs, wattles, and even shanks to avoid freezing. This works to a point, but 20-below has a way of permeating through petroleum jelly, in very short order. One of the safer bets is to choose breeds that can live in and survive climatic extremes, if you live in an area that experiences them.

Hot-weather breeds

Lighter-weight breeds of chickens usually do better in the heat, compared to heavier-weight breeds. Birds do not have sweat glands, so they must use other methods to expel heat from their bodies. The first way is respiration. On hot days, you will notice chickens standing around with their beaks open, panting. They will often hold their wings away from the body, in a drooping position. If you give them a shallow dishpan or tub, with 6 to 8 inches of cool water in it, you will often see them standing in it, soaking their feet and cooling down that way. It is actually a rather humorous sight. You may also notice them taking a dust bath. All of these are normal actions in extreme heat.

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