When allowed to naturally acclimate, chickens can do just fine in a Maine winter without external heat sources.

This story was originally published in February 2020.

When a fire destroyed a Clifton chicken coop in 2020, firefighters identified a newly installed heat lamp as the most likely cause for the blaze that killed six chickens. In the wake of that fire, officials want people to know the risks associated with those heat sources.

“There are four top things that can cause a fire in your [chicken] coop,” according to Greg Day, fire inspection supervisor with the Office of the Maine Fire Marshal. “Heat lamps, extension cords, bedding and water heaters.”

Of the four, heat lamps can be the most dangerous, Day said.

“The problem with heat lamps is the chickens can knock them over into the bedding,” Day said. “A lot of those lamps, especially the older ones, are held in place with a dollar-fifty clamp and that is often not going to be enough to hold it in place.”

It can take just minutes for a heat lamp bulb to ignite a coop’s straw bedding. Even running electricity into the coop can be a risk, according to Bell.

“People will run extension cords into the coop and put [the cords] under boards or directly over the straw,” he said. “These cords can get kinks in them or split open and that’s a fire hazard.”

Ideally, any wires or cords running into the coop should be placed in conduits. At the very least, Bell recommends using outdoor-grade extension cords.

To prove the dangers of heat lamps and inferior cords, Glenburn farmer Daniel Bell, Jr., filmed a video of himself setting a heat lamp on a small pile of straw. Within a minute the straw was smoldering.

“I really want to make people aware of the inherent danger of these particular devices,” Bell said. “In my opinion, they are just not worth the risk.”

Especially since chickens are able to keep themselves warm enough even in the middle of a Maine winter without the need of a heat lamp.

“People ask, ‘Do you even need a heat lamp?’ [and] the easy answer is no,” Bell said. “When you look outside on a negative 15 [degrees below zero] day with the wind chill at minus 30, you will see chickadees on a branch and they are doing quite well out there.”

That’s because the chickadees have acclimated to the cold, Bell said, and chickens will do the same thing.

“As long as your coop is one that is an adequate enclosed shelter with good ventilation, the chickens will be fine,” Bell said. “Allow the chickens to acclimate under normal conditions and they will grow extra down feathers that keep them warm.”

Proper ventilation, Bell said, keeps the coop from retaining moisture, which more than cold temperatures alone can cause frostbite in the birds.

“Chickens do not need a heat source in the winter,” said Donna Coffin, professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “As long as they are acclimated, in a draft-free shelter and have dry bedding, they will be fine.”

The only impact the cold weather will have, Coffin said, is reduced egg production from laying hens.

If someone is determined to give their chickens supplemental heat, Coffin suggests a wall-mounted coop heater that is specifically designed with safety in mind.

“These radiate low temperature heat and are mounted on the walls so the chickens can go toward them if they want,” Coffin said. “But using that 500-degree bulb and a heat lamp is just asking for trouble.

Both Day and Bell have seen their share of coop fires sparked by heat lamps or frayed cords coming into contact with bedding. In 2016, at least two Maine fires in chicken coops were blamed on heat lamps.

“Most chicken farmers use straw on the floors of their coops and it’s great bedding but highly combustible,” Day said. “You really need to keep any heat source away from it.”

As far as Bell is concerned, the desire to heat a chicken coop has more to do with human emotion than chicken needs.

“As responsible chicken owners you always feel you want to do more for your birds,” he said. “You want to keep them safe and comfy all year, but the thing is, they are comfy even without the heat lamps.”

According to Coffin, the best thing to do for chickens is properly winterize their coops, make sure they have fresh water and plenty of food and let them acclimate on their own.

“They will be just fine,” she said. “Even in a Maine winter.”

Tips for winterizing your chicken coop are available from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at extension.umaine.edu/publications in the fact sheet titled, “Winter Care of Laying Hens.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.