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How to have happy chickens living above the Arctic Circle

Seattle Seahawk and Carmelita, two backyard chickens that live in Anchorage, Alaska.
Seattle Seahawk and Carmelita, two backyard chickens that live in Anchorage, Alaska.(Rebecca Palsha)
Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 3:14 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - My 8-year-old came home this past spring and declared she’d adopted two chicks. I’ve always wanted chickens and agreed to add the feathery girls to our busy mix before putting much thought into what it takes to care for chickens in the cold weather climate of Alaska.

I’ve loved watching the chickens grow and hunt around in the garden, digging for bugs and running to me every morning when I bring them treats (there is almost nothing cuter and funnier than a chicken running).

Fast forward to November, and temperatures below zero. Anchorage officially dropped to the first subzero reading of the season and the temperatures will steadily fall through the rest of Wednesday.

My chickens seem shocked by how cold it’s gotten this week.

Seattle Seahawk and Carmelita (my youngest daughter named one after her favorite football team and my oldest daughter named the other for a favorite character in “A Series Of Unfortunate Events”) stand frozen beside each other, next to their heat lamp, never leaving their coop or touching the snow.

As I’ve chronicled my chicken escapades on Instagram, my messages started filling up from other first-time chicken owners concerned about how to keep their chickens happy, healthy and frostbite free.

I suspect there are even more chicken owners out there in Southcentral Alaska with the same struggles. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising backyard chickens is a growing phenomenon in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic also increased the number of people who started their own backyard chicken family.

According Alaska Backyard Chickens, which is associated with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, some of the most popular chicken breeds, such as Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red and Ameraucana, do well in Alaska and northern climates.

Fresh eggs recently laid by two backyard chickens
Fresh eggs recently laid by two backyard chickens(Rebecca Palsha)

There is even a Chicken University where you can learn about raising chickens in Alaska.

“The biggest thing of all is chickens, being jungle birds, normally they want to wrap their toes around a tree limb,” Steve Brown, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension office in Palmer, told Alaska’s News Source. “Well in Alaska, when they do that their toes are exposed to the cold, OK, and they get frostbite. ... So the biggest trick of all is to put a flat board in their coop, so that their toes spread out, and when they lay down their breasts keep their toes warm. The other thing is to have an insulated coop.”

Brown also says the chickens will stand close together to keep each other warm. He says if you see ice crystals inside the coop, you’ll need to ventilate the space more.

Issac Martin, who lives in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, says for the most part chickens will be fine despite the cold temperatures. He said his were living happily in a shed until it blew away in a wind storm.

“They’re self motivating animals,” Martin said.

Seattle Seahawk and Carmelita often try to walk in the house.
Seattle Seahawk and Carmelita often try to walk in the house.(Rebecca Palsha)

My friend Saima Chase, who lives in Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle, has been raising chickens for the past 15 years. Right now she has nine hens. She describes her coop as a little house that is fully insulated with Tyvek wrap, a vapor barrier and a fully functional heat retaining roof.

“The way I heat my coop has changed in the last years, I went from the traditional red 200 watt heat lamp on a timer to a product called “cozy coop” they are radiant heat panels and they seem to retain heat very well and are less of a fire hazard. I also use a “deep litter” program and the floor tends to retain heat that way,” Chase wrote in a Facebook message. “We keep them happy by feeding them left over veggies, starches, and fish and by enrichment activities like offering them scratch every day and freeze dried meal worms. They do really well in the space we have and tend to lay all winter, minus some time in (October) when they’re molting.”

She also keeps a “daylight” light on a timer to regulate day and nighttime routines. Chase said this keeps them happy and healthy and also keeps them laying.

“Keeping their water from freezing is also one of the most important things to do to keep your chickens alive in the winter,” Chase wrote. “We have a galvanized steel water heater with an 8 gallon water container on top. I have not had any issues with the water freezing as long as it stays plugged in.”

Chase also recommends experimenting to see what works for you and your hens. She says the extra work is worth the effort, especially above the Arctic Circle where fresh eggs can be hard to find.

“Also the quality of the egg is way worth it,” she wrote. “The eggs we get from our chickens have a dark almost an orange yolk and the whites are not runny at all, they are much higher quality.”

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