A -45 degree windchill is enough to make any Wisconsinite want to fly the coop.

The four backyard chickens at Jenny Bormett's Stoughton home did just that, journeying all the way from their two-story coop to the Bormetts' kitchen on Monday.

The Bormetts got the chickens about 18 months ago, because daughter Sofia, 10, is involved in 4-H and wanted to have an animal project. Chickens seemed like the best fit because the family can enjoy them as pets and collect their eggs while keeping them on their on property.

It's the chickens' second winter with the Bormetts — and "No, we do not normally bring the chickens in the house," Bormett was quick to say. 

"We brought them in today because of the extreme temperature, and not so much even the temperature as the wind," she said. "We have a heat lamp going, which we've never done before, but they were all having some issues with their feet. They couldn't get warm."

When picking out their birds, the family specifically chose breeds that are winter-hardy, she said. Princess is a Columbian Wyandotte, Ruby is a Red Star, Harriet is a Buff Lace Polish and Bernadette is an Americana.

But when Sofia asked her mother to let the chickens inside — reminding her of how cold it was outside "for her babies" — Bormett relented.

They cleared all the rugs out of the kitchen and put up some gates, and Sofia immediately took up her responsibility for the afternoon: running around behind the chickens, cleaning up after them with paper towels.

"They’re messy," Bormett said. "If you don’t feed them in the house they make less messes. We learned that the hard way."

While Bormett said she wouldn't let the chickens in on a regular basis, it wasn't an entirely fowl experience.

Sofia read to them from "The Battle of the Labyrinth" for a while when they first took shelter. 

Did the chickens like the book?

"I think they were just really happy to be inside out of the cold," Bormett said. "At that point they were just sitting there defrosting. Now they’re getting kind of comfortable. They're running around a lot exploring the kitchen."

She knows other families who have backyard chickens — which continues to be a popular trend in the Madison area — but theirs are the only ones she knows of who took shelter inside a house today. Most people either cover their coop, or, if that's not possible, set up cages in a garage or basement.

She said they'll likely let the chickens back outside for a while and see how they're doing. They'll probably get to come back inside again on Tuesday if the polar vortex keeps its icy grip on the area.

Another local chicken rancher kept his birds outside.

"I have what I would believe are pretty hardy chickens," said Ben Anton. He and his family have had four chickens at their Madison home for about seven years.

They "don't really have names," he said, adding that sometimes his daughters call them things, but that can change. 

When it gets really cold outside, he'll give them a heat lamp, but he's never taken any steps beyond that. Heat lamps carry a few risks of their own, though.

"The heat lamp does attract more vermin, when you create this warm space out in your backyard," Anton said. "I had two possums at the same time in the coop. They weren't eating the chickens; they were just trying to move in. And having a heat lamp plugged outside in your backyard is a heck of a fire risk. One of the possums did knock the heat lamp over."

One tip Anton has picked up over the years: When the temperatures get frigid, collect the eggs quickly, before they freeze solid and the shells break.

The number one rule when taking care of chickens in the cold is to use common sense, said Susan Troller, owner of Cluck the Chicken Store, in Paoli.

"There are breeds that are more cold-tolerant and breeds that are less cold-tolerant, but this (weather) is hard on any animals," Troller said.

Troller said she doesn't worry about her birds until the temperature drops below about 20 degrees. At that point, she looks for ways to supplement their heat or considers bringing them into the basement.

"Safety first" is the rule for supplemental heat, Troller said. Space heaters can be a fire hazard. For small, backyard coops, she recommends filling up a few gallon-sized jugs with hot water and letting the heat dissipate, or heating bricks in an oven and wrapping them in towels. Larger coops can use ceramic heating lamps or heaters designed specifically for animal enclosures.

Chickens need lots of water, and in addition to making sure it's thawed, it can be helpful to give them warm water to help warm them up, she said. Giving the birds some extra scratch grain late in the day will also help keep them toastier.

Animals need to be able to get out of the wind, Troller said, adding that she wraps the run of the coop in plastic to help shield it. It's also important to make sure the chickens aren't roosting on anything metal, because of the risk of frostbite. The ideal roost is a two-by-four with a beveled edge where the chicken can stretch out its feet and spread its feathers over them.

Chicken owners can also give their birds some extra protein — anything from oatmeal with an egg cooked in to some finely chopped hamburger — Troller said.

"If you have birds like little Bantam chickens or other breeds that are not cold-tolerant, definitely bring them in until this is over," Troller said. "But more standard cold-tolerant breeds can handle a lot more cold than people think. But this is extreme, and I think people should take extra measures to take care of their birds when it’s like this."

When in doubt, look to the bird. Like other animals, Troller said, chickens tend to communicate their own welfare.


Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.