~ January 28, 2022 ~






I have owned hundreds of birds over the last couple of decades. With all these birds, I have only experienced frostbite on 5-6 roosters, none on hens. It was mostly on their combs and sometimes the wattles. I have not seen any frostbite on any feet, but not to say it canít occur there. And it is possible for hens to get frostbite, although they have less exposed skin than roos. It is possible they have had frostbite, but a small affected tip on their heads was just not that noticeable.

The biggest culprit of frostbite is extremely cold temperatures. It affects a bird in two ways. In both ways, the bird is unable to keep it's extremities warm. One way is when the surface skin is exposed to extremely cold temperatures alone, or escalated by wind and/or water. The other is when the cold temperatures are prolonged for many days and the bird does not have the support to keep itself warm. When this happens, the bird gets so cold, all the energy goes to the core of the body to keep the important organs warm.

Frostbite is when the skin and underlying tissues freezes, and it reduces blood flow and oxygen to the body part. The tissue will then die and it is irreversible. The best course of action is to let the tissue underneath heal, and the dead tissue will fall off. It will be sore in underlying tissue for your bird until it heals completely.

Through time, I recognize there are key things I do in management, feed and herbal support that have kept frostbite at a bare minimum in my flock. Five or six roosters out of probably 100 roosters is a pretty good track record, living in the northern climes of Michigan.

Temperature

The number one factor you need to pay attention to is temperature. You canít have frostbite without extremely cold temperatures. My experience is that my birds seem to maintain quite well in temperature of 32 degrees and above. Once the temperature starts dropping below that, their bodies start to work harder to generate internal heat. That heat is generated from the body out through the skin to be trapped under the feathers. However, if your bird is carrying excess fat in weight, it can impede heat getting to the outer skin tissue. I have found my flock will eat more to generate this body heat. But, there comes a point where it can become so cold, the birds will simple huddle together and fluff up their feathers to trap as much body heat as possible, roost to cover their feet (the size of roost does not matter) and tuck their heads under their wings if they can. This tells you your bird is feeling cold and working hard to keep warm.

Wind Chill

Most people might not know that the wind chill metric was really developed to predict the likelihood of frostbite on exposed human skin. The weather people like to use it in reporting to catch peopleís attention to how cold it is outside because it can be dramatic Fun fact is that wind chill doesnít change the real temp, it is merely tells you how cold bare skin feels along with cold and wind. Wind (chill) will speed up the process with the cold temps to cause frostbite. So this means I do not let my birds out in the open when temps, real or with wind chill, are zero or below. I think there is a greatly increased risk for frostbite at those temperatures. This is one of the very few instances I do not give my flock a choice.

Air Moisture

When bare skin becomes wet and it is exposed to cold temperatures, like the wind, it also speeds up the process of frostbite. So, it matters, but I donít think in the way I see it normally written about. Managing excess moisture in the coop is common management, like wind blocks. Excess moisture will settle on the hard surfaces in your coop including on your birds. Most people notice it on windows and walls in the coop if it occurs. This is managed by adequate ventilation, which is easy to do. If you have appropriate ventilation, I would not worry about moisture causing frostbite. Evaporation from a waterer is a non-issue if you are managing good ventilation.

Another factor to pay attention to is when you let your birds outside. We already talked about wind chill, but also exposure to snow can also make skin wet, especially the feet. There is a real increased risk of frostbite on the feet and toes is if your bird is walking around in the snow or ice. Most birds donít like to walk around in it, and I think that is why. The wet snow makes their feet feel even colder. I know of an instance where a friend had a crazy hen that liked to run around in the snow. That hen eventually lost both feet to frostbite. I would make sure if you want to let your birds outside, they have lots of area to not be directly in the snow. My birds donít even want to go out in it either for very long or at all. I would let them decide what they want to do and not force them outside. This is where they do know better than you.

I have experimented with, and thought a lot about putting an oil or salve on the skin on some of my birds to prevent frostbite. The thinking is, oil and water do not mix, and oil on the skin will repel moisture, or water. That is true. Oil does take a lot longer to freeze than water, but eventually it will. The temperature at which it does, the skin on your bird is going to freeze whether you have oil on it or not. So, I think it is not really preventing a whole lot in the meantime. I have found with the management practices and diet, my flock has done OK without it.

Diet / Herbs

We know that wind blocks, limiting exposure to very cold temps and moisture are good management to preventing frostbite. The biggest internal prevention is food. Digesting food creates heat internally, which can generate heat up through the skin, to be trapped by the feathers. If you offer grains or seeds, it should be mixed with a nutritious layer mash and/or herbs that will also aid digestion and circulation. I would also offer herbs that boost and support the immune system as cold stress can weaken it. Virus, bacteria and parasite exposure are high during winter with a change in lifestyle when birds are more confined together indoors. A strong immune system is the best first defense.

Herbs to boost digestion, circulation and the immune system is an easy way to help ward off frostbite. I have already talked about digestion and the immune system, but circulation is a concern in elderly birds. In general, I would support circulation in elderly birds from age 6 on up. Good circulation supports the integumentary system which is the skin, feathers and claws and beak. Herbs like ginger, chickweed, garlic and berries are simple choices. Cayenne and black pepper are also very stimulating, but for safety I would administer in formula, preferably in the drinking water to control dosage. Birds are not reactive to the capsicum compound to register ďhotnessĒ and if too much is eaten, it could cause digestive distress. I would not feed either of these free choice.

Drinking Water

I put a high importance on making sure my flock has access to water 24/7 during winter. We all know how critical water is to a birdís health. My waterers are always inside the pen and on top of a heated water base. My flock is never without access. If it seems birds drink more water during winter, in fact, they are. Food is drier during winter, due to eating mostly grains, seeds and layer mash and not fresh forage or wet fermented food. Dehydration increases risk of frostbite.

Waterers might cause a small issue causing wet skin, when birds dip their waddles directly into water. I donít know if there is any kind of waterer that can prevent this entirely, even nipple waterers. Birds can be sloppy drinkers and water can dribble. I think it helps to have the waterers inside, with no wind chill and they are also usually eating food too. I can only point to my own personal track record and tell you that for my flock, this doesnít appear to have been a big problem causing frostbite

Hardiness

Much is written about ďcold hardyĒ breeds and being better suited for cold weather. I think the differences noted are negligible, and not a big consequence overall. If the bird is of sound stock, healthy, has healthy feathers, nutritious food, readily available drinking water and well ventilated draft free shelter, they should have the resources to navigate a cold climate winter. Every bird has bare skin, so every bird is susceptible to get frostbite.

So to summarize, I keep my flock as healthy as I can year round, and especially going into the winter months. I limit exposure to both extreme temps and snow. I feed nutritious food and make water readily available at all times. Their pen is free of wind and excess moisture. I supplement with herbs to help the elderly and any who might be struggling with a weakened immune system to keep them well.

Original Source: Susan Burek 2022





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