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Spring is raging and summer is close at hand, and with the changes come the seasonal storms that mark this time of year. Many parts of the U.S., however, are experiencing more than just an occasional thunderstorm. Tornadoes and floods have ravaged numerous states, and residents have found themselves either continually seeking the shelter of their cellar or facing evacuation. While these options might help save countless human lives, they don’t do much to save the poultry flocks that find themselves in the path of a killer storm.
My state (Michigan) has seen an upsurge in the number of storms with tornadoes this year. As I evacuated my kids and our kittens to the basement at the sound of the latest siren, my teenage son, Jaeson, asked a pointed question: What about the chickens? I paused mid-step, then dashed to the kitchen window. A quick glance showed me that all of our flocks were peacefully—or raucously—going about their own business, without a care for the increasingly pea-green sky. I’ve long believed that animals are far more sensitive to changes in weather, especially barometric pressure, than humans, and if truly threatened, they would have sought shelter. In truth, part of me felt like turning around and telling the boys, “The chickens are acting normal. We’re not in danger,” then trooping back upstairs. Better to take the safe route, though. We spent several hours cramped in the basement bathroom, trying to get a radio signal, while our birds enjoyed the freedom of their runs.
This scenario sadly won’t always be the case. Should catastrophic storms head your way, you must get yourself and your loved ones to safety. To have the peace of mind to do this, prepare your coops and runs ahead of time for severe weather. These steps will help get your henhouses set for the storms ahead.
1. Sandbag the Perimeter
A tight circle of sandbags around the base of your coop will help keep rising waters at bay. This is especially true if you have a ground-based building and not an elevated coop. Standing them on end and overlapping them works fine, but it is better to lie them down and build a sandbag wall at least 1 foot high. You can do this for not much money, but it takes some effort. Ask a quarry or garden center to deliver a truckload of sand. Use empty feed bags as your sandbags. Fill them until they are at three-quarters capacity, then stitch or tie off the ends. Once the storm season is over, you have a healthy supply of sand for dust baths and poultry runs. The weight of sandbags against the bottom of a coop might also stabilize it against the strong winds that might come. Use sandbags to weigh down your movable chicken tractors, too, keeping in mind how much weight the roof of your tractor can bear.
2. Secure the Surroundings
Remove any toys, perches, swings and other freestanding objects from your run and store them in a secure location, such as a garage or barn. If your run fence is not dug into the ground, take the time to fasten the wire mesh to the T posts with extra brackets and zip ties. Make it as immovable as possible. If your fence material is chicken wire, remove it, roll it up and store it until the storm has passed. Chicken wire is not made to withstand roaring tornado winds. It can get torn to shreds and also cause problems for you or your neighbors as storm detritus. Finally, secure the gate to your chicken run. Lash it in place with zip ties so it doesn’t bang itself loose in the storm. A flying door can cause a lot of damage to your coop (or anything it hits).
3. Stabilize the Interior
If your feeder and waterer are not permanently installed inside your coop, remove these and store them in a safe place inside your garage, barn or home. Your chickens will not starve or dehydrate in the few hours it takes for the storm to blow over, and they’re safest if these items don’t become projectiles. Also remove any supplement hoppers and anything else that is not bolted down. Check your roosts and ascertain that they are firmly attached as well. Collect all eggs—believe me, the remnants of flying eggs is not something you’ll want to clean up—and, if possible, minimize the amount of bedding inside to reduce the poultry dust that gets kicked up by the wind and enters your birds’ respiratory tracts.
4. Depressurize the Coop
If your coop has windows located opposite each other, open these up approximately 2 to 3 inches and secure the lifted windows in place. Letting air more easily circulate through your coop allows the structure to depressurize during storms and quite possibly stand up to strong winds. A tightly closed coop with no air circulation can create unequal pressure inside versus outside. This is extremely uncomfortable for your birds but can also cause the building to blow out in the storm. If you don’t have windows, ensure that all the vent openings in your coop are open to allow for that critical air movement.
5. Keep the Doors Open
Most birds seek the comfort of the shelter they know best when a storm is imminent. However, if the pressure inside proves too much for them, or if they simply wish to escape, they need an exit. Keep the coop door open for them. Anxious, frightened chickens do not do well in an enclosed space, especially if panic sets in throughout the flock. Having a point of egress lets them to get outside to find better refuge—or simply enjoy the outdoors before we emerge from our own storm shelters.