Protecting Your Backyard Birds raising happy, healthy chickens

Stress in Chickens

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Have you ever seen a stressed out chicken? Stress comes in many forms. To animals and humans alike. No one, it seems, is immune from stress. The first form of stress in chickens I’m going to cover will be risks of extreme temperature.

Risks of Extreme Temperatures

Extreme temperatures are something else, other than predators, that can hurt or kill members of our backyard flock. And this is, of course, dependent upon where you live and the breeds of chickens you have. I live in Oklahoma, and on occasion we’ve experienced triple digit summers. But at the same time, this is the coldest Winter we’ve had in a long time since we moved here (2010). I actually can’t remember how many times it’s snowed now this season But at the time that I’m writing this post, it’s 16 degrees outside. Chickens that do well in summers that are hot don’t do so great where it gets cold. Their ventilation system is in their wattles and combs. So the larger the combs and wattles are, it’s great in the summer months. However, it’s to their detriment if the conditions are brutally cold in the winter months.

Cold Rooster in Watercolor Courtesy of Paul Smith

We have different breeds in our flock, have always had different breeds, so we have some with large wattles and combs. But most of our birds have small or very small wattles and combs. This means we have to be diligent all year round to make sure everyone is doing OK in regards to the weather. Since we’ve moved in our house, we’ve added more trees for shade in the summer months for the birds to keep cool beneath. I added a kiddie pool once, however they wouldn’t go near it. In 2020 I tried getting a misting system, but Lowe’s and Home Depot didn’t have what I needed. I’m not sure if that’s because of Covid19 problems or not.

Many people want to add heaters to their coops in winter to protect their flock, although that isn’t a great idea. Your birds can’t acclimatize to the cold if their coop is heated and then go outside in the cold; it can actually make them sick or possibly kill them. Having a heat source in the coop is also a fire risk. We’ve known of a few people whose chicken coops burned down this way.

Heat Exhaustion: Symptoms and How to Prevent it

The risks of extreme temperatures are heat exhaustion and death for the summer months and frostbite and death in the winter months; these are the worst possible things that can happen. Signs of heat stress in chickens to look out for are

  • panting
  • increased water intake
  • lethargy and weakness
  • reduced egg production
  • reduced food intake
  • diarrhea
  • and outstretched wings and legs

To prevent heat stress make sure there is

  • plenty of fresh, clean water daily
  • a lot of shade
  • ventilation in the coop
  • and provide frozen treats

In the summer I regularly freeze bananas, and on particularly hot days, I make my birds ‘ice cream’ by mixing the frozen bananas, that I slice, into plain Greek yogurt with frozen blueberries. They absolutely love it. Chickens who suffer from cold stress will appear cold with ruffled feathers, huddled, and not moving around a lot.

Drawing of a Rooster with Frostbite Courtesy of Paul Smith


Depending on the conditions and the bird, cold stress can lead to frostbite. Birds with large combs and wattles are at more risk of getting frostbite. And it can range from mild to severe. Indications of frostbite are

  • blackening edges of comb and/or wattles
  • reddening of toes
  • blackened areas of claws
  • and swelling of comb, wattles, and/or toes

Preventing frostbite is the best option by winterizing the coop with insulation, keeping the bedding dry, and keeping proper ventilation. It’s important to examine your birds for evidence of frostbite if it’s been particularly cold.

Casanova, our first rooster, got frostbite in late 2017. He usually was very good at staying in the coop in inclement weather. Well, the first couple of days he remained inside like a smart roo. However the third day he left; I suppose he was lonely. When we went to lock them up, we saw that he was lethargic. We brought him to the garage and gave him water and put food in front of him, yet he wouldn’t eat. It wasn’t until the next day that we noticed he had frostbite on his leg. Unfortunately by the time we treated him it was too late, and infection is what most likely did him in.

I mention this because it’s been very cold, and we have two roosters now. Megatron is very suited to this weather, whereas Baby Nay isn’t as much. They don’t have a very good relationship, father and son. Baby Nay gets into trouble with his dad all the time, and he gets kicked out of the coop; when our below freezing weather started last week he was kicked out and was seen lying down in the snow. I was at work, but Paul rescued him, and put him in chicken jail for his safety after examining him for frostbite. And because of Megatron’s behavior, I didn’t let the birds out the following day. I fed and watered them but left them inside their coop.

They have all been sequestered in the coop and run for a week or more now. Normally they don’t like that, however they have all been huddling together, including the ducks, because they need the body heat. We’ve regularly added extra straw to the bedding for insulation as well, and each time Paul has gone outside to feed and water them, he checks them over for frostbite.

How to Treat Frostbite

To treat frostbite, the bird needs to be brought inside, and if the feet are affected, the feet should be placed in warm, not hot, water for about 20-25 minutes, slowly, to bring the tissue back up to temperature. Do NOT apply direct heat, and only soak the bird’s feet in warm water if you’re not going to immediately put it back outside, as this will only cause further damage. Don’t rub on the affected areas and don’t remove any tissue. However keep the area clean with chlorhexadine 2% solution spray 2-3 times a day until healed. Give the bird water and electrolytes with water.

Monitor for signs of infection: oozing, redness, swelling, etc. If you live somewhere with access to a poultry vet, call them, because this requires immediate attention depending on the location and size of frostbite. And they would be able to call in prescriptions and give you more guidance.

Causes of Chicken Stress Other than Extreme Temperatures

This next part is about stress in chickens not caused by the weather. There’s no medicine to treat this problem or vaccine to prevent it from happening. Though it can disrupt the lives of your birds just as easily as any body ravaging illness can.

Stressed out Chicken Courtesy of Paul Smith

What Does Chicken Stress Look Like?

If your birds aren’t laying eggs, and they’re normally happy to see you, but now are withdrawn, chances are you have a stressed out bird. In the event your birds don’t seem to be getting along, or there’s more pecking going on than normal; if they’re starting to look sick or have mites or other bugs, chances are high that your birds are stressed.

Usually the first sign that the flock is stressed or a bird is stressed is a decrease in egg production. After that, it’s a good idea to examine them and their coop for causes.

Adding Too Many Birds at Once

If you’ve ever added birds to an existing flock, you know that it takes time for everyone to learn their place in the pecking order. But sometimes the established birds can’t take any more additions. That’s it, they say, they’ve had it!

In a previous post, you can read here, I mentioned how in 2017 our flock was experiencing a lot of changes all at once: 5 adolescent chickens plus 4 adult chickens added to the flock, and a rooster who crowed all night long for several weeks. It was a lot for the flock to take on all at once. And it started presenting in their decreased egg laying. Because they were stressed out.

Abuse or Mishandling

Disease, parasites, malnutrition, predators, overcrowded conditions, abusive roosters or too many roosters, handling the chickens or being rough with them, especially when they’re molting, lack of clean water, poor ventilation in the coop, and extreme temperatures–any of these situations can stress the girls out and cause their egg production to drop. But some of these things can even cause disease.

Another time my hens stopped laying eggs was January 2019. It was just after their molt, (so they weren’t laying eggs already). And I noticed that the chickens stopped treating me like I was their god; I’m the one who gives them all good things in life and they usually flock to me. But they were actually afraid of me. Hence, it made me very suspicious. Even my rooster was afraid of me.

I soon found out that my youngest (she’s now 10) and her friends had been chasing the birds. And 2 of her friends threw some of them in the air. Thus the odd behavior. This wasn’t an isolated incident. They had been chasing my birds for some time, and gradually the flock stopped coming out to meet me for treats, which was a big clue something was wrong. They were stressed, so they didn’t lay eggs for 6 or more months extra and didn’t trust me for almost a year!

The brown eggs are Maran eggs.

Too Many or Unruly Roosters

If you have a rooster, be sure to have 8-10 hens for him at the very minimum. And do NOT get another rooster unless you have enough hens for the second rooster. 2 roosters will be entirely too much and the hens will be abused.

Two and a half years ago my daughters brought home 4 Cuckoo Maran chicks. I wanted that breed for a couple of reasons: I heard that they laid well in the winter months, and their eggs are a rich chocolate brown, which I thought would complement the blues of my Ameraucanas. One of those chicks developed into a rooster, and he had quite the urges. But Megatron is definitely not like his predecessor; he does not like to share. At all. He would chase Springer off his girls a hundred times a day. Eventually Springer was looking ragged; his tail feathers were not coming in like they should. This went on for weeks, months, what started to feel like forever. Why didn’t Megatron just finish Springer off? Clearly he was wearing both of them out, not to mention the girls.

Four Cuckoo Marans; Springer is the lighter one.

Springer’s behavior started to get worse with the hens, more violent, I suppose because he was desperate. No one wanted to be around him, not one of the hens. Everyone avoided him like the plague. One time he tried getting Soundwave, Megatron’s other hatchery-mate, as she was sneaking back under the fence. He trapped her there-she was pinned under the fence until one of us went out to rescue her from her attacker.

Springer was then labeled a violent sex offender, and he had to go. He was starting to cause unnecessary stress to the flock, and though Megatron had drawn blood on him, he was unable to put him down. We needed to do this humanely and quickly before any of the hens were killed or injured.

After Springer was gone there was complete peace in the backyard; it was like the whole flock could breathe a sigh of relief. If Megatron could speak words other than crow, he would’ve thanked us.

The causes of stress to a bird are not that different than stress to a person, although the effects can be divergent. Whenever you notice atypical behavior in your birds, it’s time to start doing some research.

Do you have any stories of chickens stressed? Have you ever noticed your flock stressed before? I would love to hear your stories and your solutions.


I breed pure Black Ameraucana chickens and Easter Eggers that are Black Ameraucana mixed with either Cuckoo Maran or Barred Rock. And I donate eggs to people or organizations in need.

4 replies on “Stress in Chickens”

[…] What does ‘culling‘ mean anyway? Well, for the purpose of this post, it means to slaughter or process an animal. However if you don’t want to do that, because it can be difficult emotionally, then you can try to find an animal sanctuary. But if you have a lot of roosters compared to your hens, then you absolutely are going to have to do something. Because, unless you keep them separated, the roosters will end up abusing the hens. […]

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