By: Elyse Fischl
March 3, 2018
Whether you’ve owned chicken in Southern Nevada before, or are curious for the future, one major concern in keeping them in our climate is the scorching summer. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach 115 degrees or more in the shade, with ground temperatures in direct sunlight far exceeding that. Most veteran poultry keepers in our desert climate can recall the heartbreaking loss of a flock member or more from heat exhaustion.
Setting your flock up for success with adequate shade and water during the summer is crucial, but an often overlooked step in caring for chickens actually takes place before you bring your chickens home! Choosing heat tolerant breeds for our desert climate can greatly impact your success in preventing deaths during the summer, help improve egg production in the hotter months, and will increase the quality of life for your flock.
Keep in mind, any breed can be kept in our climate when provided enough reprieve from the heat, but if your egg production is slow in summertime or you struggle to keep the flock alive, you may want to continue reading.
Ready to hear some helpful guidelines to gauge the heat tolerance of a breed?! Here are some things to watch out for:
Chickens come in all sizes and weights. Heavier breeds like Cornish and Dorkings make better meat birds, but their weight produces extra insulation and makes it difficult for them to stay cool in the heat. Medium breeds (often called “dual purpose”) may have an easier time cooling off, and lightweight birds like Leghorns that make terrible meat birds will do the best in the summer. We don’t recommend raising meat birds (Cornish X) in the summertime in Nevada. Years of breeding has made it difficult for their organs to function in extreme stress.
Besides weight, feather type plays an important role in insulating chickens to retain heat. Cold tolerant breeds developed feathers will soft, fluffy lower layers that help keep them warm on those freezing nights. With Southern Nevada birds, you’ll want the opposite if you can help it. A hard feather makes it easier to stay cool. Avoid birds with a puffy, round appearance and opt for the more streamlined look.
Chickens don’t sweat, so they lose the majority of their excess heat through their featherless parts. Besides panting when they are hot, the first thing a bird will do when they start to overheat is to splay their wings away from their bodies. They are exposing the featherless parts of their underwing to the air, which helps remove heat from their bodies. The comb is an important heat regulating feature for this reason. The bigger the comb, the more surface area exposed to air to help lose excess heat. Opt for birds with straight combs when possible, avoiding birds with pea combs or rose combs.
Like we mentioned, chickens lose heat through their featherless parts, and chickens who evolved in colder climates have extra feathers to help keep their bodies more insulated. Feather footed breeds like Cochins will have a harder time in the heat, as will breeds with muffs or “beards” like Ameracaunas that hide their wattles. You’ll want to look for clean legged and clean faced birds when possible.
Some of the best breeds for a heat tolerant flock are the Mediterranean breeds like Leghorns, Minorcas, Anconas (straight comb variety), and Andalusians. They all come with lean bodies, clean legs, bigger combs, and were all bred for egg production and are beautiful birds with a variety of colors to choose from. If you can find them, a great choice is also the Egyptian Fayoumi, an attractive and hardy rare breed that is known for their early maturity and disease resistance. While they produce a good number of eggs and take heat with ease, Fayoumis can be flighty and noisy. Many of these lighter bodied breeds are also better at escaping!
Heavy bodied breeds with fluffy extra feathering and smaller combs like Faverolles, Cochins, and Brahmas can struggle with our heat, as do a good number of other dual purpose breeds. Egg production can drop as the heat stress takes its toll. If given adequate relief, these breeds may continue laying through the summer even if sporadic. While they aren’t especially heat tolerant, the heavier birds do tend to make friendlier birds and bear confinement better, making them more popular as backyard flocks and are often sold to the unsuspecting desert poultry keeper.
Interested in pursuing the heat hardy breeds but don’t know where to get them? There are many ways to get the breeds you want. You can order directly from a hatchery (pro: you get to control where you purchase from, con: there is usually a minimum order quantity), you can ask your local feed store to do a special order of chicks for you (pro: there may be a reduced or no minimum order if the feed store is buying chicks already, con: you’ll be subjected to the availability of the hatchery that services your feed store), you can order chicks from a breeder (pro: possibility of higher quality chicks, con: prices are usually higher and don’t come with the same guarantees as bigger hatcheries), and for the adventurous folks you can even order hatching eggs online of your preferred breed and hatch them yourself (pro: watching chicks hatch, con: dealing with roosters)!