Can Chickens Swim? A Warning to Chicken Owners

Chickens don't like to swim often (1)

We’ve all seen YouTube videos featuring a chicken doing the proverbial backstroke in a pool. How cute, right? Not really. Not everything we see on YouTube is good practice. So do a few videos with floating chickens mean that all chickens can swim? And is it a good practice to take your chickens for a dip? 

Can chickens swim? While most chickens can technically float for short periods and paddle themselves to the edge of a pool or lake, it is not good practice to put your chickens into the water and force them to swim. Their bodies do not swim well due to the shape and position of their feet, the structure of their feathers, and their underdeveloped uropygial (oil) gland to keep their feathers from getting waterlogged.

Their inability to use their internal air sacs that keep swimming birds afloat inhibits swimming as well. Forcing your chicken to swim is stressful and unhealthful in the long run.

Six Reasons NOT to Take Your Chicken Swimming

Everyone likes to cool down during a hot summer afternoon. Why not let your chickens enjoy a summer swim? While there are emotional reasons to want to take your chicken in your pool (it’s so darn cute–think of all those Instagram likes!), there is good science behind not doing so. Here we’ll consider the top six reasons to keep your hens out of your pool. 

  1. A chicken’s skinny claws can move very little water compared to the effort it’s putting forth. Their legs are also in the center of their bodies, which doesn’t allow them much force when swimming.
  2. A chicken’s feathers interlock to a certain degree, but not enough to provide significant air pockets in their feathers that might help them float.
  3. Most chickens have a small uropygial (oil) gland, which allows for only slightly water-resistant feathers. 
  4. While chickens have nine air sacs and two lungs, they have not evolved to use their air sacs intentionally to help them float. 
  5. Putting your chicken in the pool is most likely going to create stress for it. Stress in any animal is likely to lower its resistance to pathogens. A stress-free lifestyle is better all around for a healthy flock.
  6. Pool chemicals are not suitable for your chicken’s skin, AND chicken poop is not good for you or your pool. 

Features That Affect Swimming Ability In Birds

Let’s look more carefully at the science behind where our chickens stand regarding a bird’s ability to float. What exactly allows a bird like a duck, pelican, or swan to float? And to what extent do chickens share these traits?

Chickens like water, but not swimming (1)ar

 

1. The shape and position of a bird’s feet and body.

Look at the skinny claws of a chicken. They’re ideal for scratching around in the dirt and unearthing tasty grubs and other morsels. Birds that spend most of their time in the water have webbed feet for swimming strongly. A swan’s webbed feet displace much more water than a chicken’s claws. As a result, the waterbird uses considerably less effort to paddle than a chicken. 

Think of the difference between swimming with your fingers together and slightly cupped compared to swimming with your fingers entirely apart. You might want to give up swimming if you had to swim with your fingers apart!

In addition, the location of the feet matter. Swimming birds tend to have legs and feet located toward the backs of their bodies. In the water, this gives them a more powerful stroke (it also makes their gait awkward on land). A chicken has no such advantage, as its feet are located closer toward the center of their bodies. This helps them to scratch and balance on land but is a disadvantage in the water.

Floating happens when the upward push of the water balances the weight force of an object. The boat-like shape of waterfowl provides more surface area than a roundish bird like a chicken. So heavy breeds, like Brahmas, have a hard time floating. Roosters can weigh from 12 to 15 pounds. It takes a decent amount of upward push to balance a 15 pound, roundish object, especially if said object is squawking and flapping about, which is likely to occur when your chicken gets nervous.

2. The Structure of Their Feathers

If you were to look under a microscope at most birds’ feathers, you would see tiny hooks along the edges of the feathers. These hooks are called barbs, barbules, and hooklets. Water birds’ feathers have evolved to hook together almost like Velcro to trap air. This trapped air helps them to float. When the waterbird spots a tasty morsel underwater, it tightens its wings, dispels the trapped air, and the bird can quickly submerge for a bite.  

Chickens, too, have barbs in their feathers, but these feathers have not evolved to be efficient at trapping air for swimming purposes; as a matter of fact, a chicken’s under fluff quickly absorbs water, which has the exact opposite effect: waterlogged feathers sink birds.  

Still, thanks to the barbs and uropygial gland (more below), most chickens’ stiff outer feathers (contour feathers) are water-resistant. Their water-resistance evolved to protect them from rain, not to help them to swim. 

Though water-resistant, feathers quickly become saturated when a chicken is in water. It happens even quicker as soon as it panics and flaps about in the water. Flapping soaks wings, which sink birds. Think about the difference between your water-resistant watch and your waterproof watch. Which are you going to take for a dive? 

Can Silkie Chickens Swim? Some chickens, like Silkies, have feathers that are not at all water-resistant. Their feathers are similar to the under fluff of other chickens–they look and feel like fur. Silkies can’t float for more than a few moments, as their feathers waterlog quickly. 

And even if they were to survive their breaststroke, they’d likely get sick or die from hypothermia, as their feathers take a long time to dry. That’s why Silkies are so sensitive to rain and snow. 

3. Oil Glands

Many birds have uropygial (oil) glands, which they use in the preening process and which provide different amounts of water resistance in their feathers. A chicken’s uropygial gland is small, and a chicken’s pointy beak distributes small quantities of the oil throughout its feathers. This results in limited water resistance in a chicken’s feathers.

A water bird’s uropygial glands are substantial. Many such birds have large, flat beaks that are efficient in distributing the oils throughout their feathers. Their feathers are pretty water-resistant and absorb very little water as a result.

4. Chickens’ Lungs and Air Sacs

Birds have complicated respiratory systems that include two lungs, seven or nine air sacs, and a trachea. Their air sacs extend into their bones. 

A chicken’s air sacs and lungs might be initially helpful in its floating process, but they did not evolve for that purpose. Some research speculates that water birds’ air sacs are inflated for flotation and deflated for diving purposes. A chicken would not have learned or evolved such adaptations to water, so their air sacs will not help them to float for long.

5. Chicken Distress in Water

Most chickens don’t even like to get soaked in heavy rain. (See our article on how to keep your hens healthy during the rainy season) So, they will probably feel threatened in a pool.

Although your pullet may not act as if she hates the pool, it is safe to assume that animals feel safest in their natural environments. Pools aren’t natural for chickens. Most chickens will experience distress in the water.

And if your chicken does feel threatened, she’s likely to flap and panic. Again, flapping chickens means wet wings, and wet wings sink chickens. 

Even if your chicken doesn’t drown, repeated pool experiences are likely to cause repeated stressors in her life. Just like people, stressed-out chickens have lowered defense mechanisms, so they are more likely to get sick. 

6. Chickens in Your Pool

While many new pools are being filled and maintained with saltwater, most pools still rely on store-bought chlorine to keep them free of bacteria and algae. This chlorine is most likely not healthful for a chicken to soak into her skin. 

Even more important, consider the effects of your chicken pooping in your pool. Chicken droppings could include E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Cryptosporidium (often called Crypto). While most of those bacteria are susceptible to chlorine, Crypto is not. There is no evidence that Crypto passes from birds to humans, but why find out?

In addition, even if your chicken does not poop in your pool (my chickens often poop when they are incredibly stressed out), it’s likely you’ll end up with a plop on your porch before your poultry-pool session is over. Who needs that?

Cooling Off MethodsYour Chicken Will Enjoy

Living in South Florida, our summers are long and hot. Our afternoon rains often serve to cool down my chicken pens, but when the rains miss us, the heat is brutal. I have been tempted to invite my favorite hens over to the pool for a glass of mealworms and a quick dip. 

Instead, I have found that around 3 PM, they very much appreciate having their waterers topped off with fresh cool water. I dump out and refill their waterers every morning to keep them clean and avoid spreading anything among the flock. But the afternoon refills are done solely to offer the flock water to cool themselves down. 

The flock comes over as soon as they see me with the hose. They all partake of the cooler water, and the more dominant hens often take a foot bath after a nice long drink. They enjoy standing in the cool water. 

So while your chickens will not appreciate an actual swim in a pool, they will thank you for a shallow(ish) dish of fresh cool water on a hot summer afternoon. 

Many people suggest a kiddie pool as a possible shallow water container for chickens, but my experience is that none of my chickens go near our kiddie pool. They gladly drink from and stand on the edge of our water buckets for our goats, they stand in their water bowls, but they never venture near the kiddie pool. 

I would recommend a wide, heavy watering bowl that can easily be dumped and refilled and that will not tip when your birds perch on the side. 

Can Baby Chicks Swim?

Baby chickens can’t swim and are susceptible to drowning very quickly in very little water. Baby chickens don’t have feathers, and they chill very fast as hypothermia sets in. The soft fluff on baby chicks quickly becomes waterlogged.

To minimize this risk, ensure you don’t leave open water containers around. Baby chicks can easily fall in from perches and drown. Keep drinkers at suitable heights and positions to minimize the risk of chicks drowning as they try to drink.

You can also place small bricks or rocks in the drinkers so that if a chick falls in, it can find a way to exit. If you rescue a chick that has fallen into the water, dry it off -gently!-with a towel and make sure you place it near a heat source. This action will protect the chick from hypothermia and most likely save it. 

Baby chickens are very fragile and delicate.

Conclusion

Keep in mind: as cute as it may look to see The General kicking his way to your pool stairs, chickens did not evolve for swimming. Waterlogged chickens can easily drown, and even if they don’t drown, they are most likely experiencing stress. Do your chickens and yourself a favor and keep your chickens out of your pool!

MaryZoe Bowden

Dr. MaryZoe Bowden has taught something in every grade level from pre-K through 12th grade at the same independent school where she worked for over 20 years, and she has served as an adjunct professor at the college level. Although she is primarily an English teacher, she initiated a chicken program at her school and could be seen carrying baby goats in a bucket into her classroom for weeks at a time. MaryZoe believes that we are called to help others to recognize and actualize their dignity, charity, and obligation to fill the world with beauty and joy. It is easy to see, then, why she loves teaching, writing, and all living things. MaryZoe and her husband Bill have six adult children, two of whom have young children and live close by, one of whom is a nun in Spain, and the rest of whom they are gently prodding towards marriage in hopes of additional grandchildren. Some years ago she and Bill created a small hobby farm as a petting zoo for their future grandchildren. Her two granddaughters can now be found outside with MaryZoe tending to her fruit trees, watering her garden, or bottle feeding one of their baby goats. At the moment the grandchild count is 2.75 (one due soon), and the critter count is 2 cats, 2 dogs, 6 goats, and 50+ chickens. She’s hopeful her grandkid count will one day catch up!

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