Molting: Why Your Chickens Are Losing Their Feathers

molting

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It’s a little disconcerting to open the chicken coop these days; it looks like a chicken has exploded inside. There are feathers everywhere – in the coop, in the pen, blowing around the yard.

It’s apparent where all those feathers are coming from. My three older hens are sporting bald patches around their necks and are missing their tail feathers. And they must feel as miserable as they look. They don’t want to be touched or cuddled, and seem to take their only solace in meal worm treats.

Should I be concerned?

No. Autumn is here, and it’s molting season.

If you are new to chickens, you may be experiencing your chickens’ first molt this fall. You may be wondering what’s wrong with your chickens. You may be concerned that they have contracted some horrible chicken disease or were attacked by a predator. You may have noticed their egg production has slowed to a halt. But there is no need to panic.

Here are all of your questions about molting answered.

molting hen

Hazel’s not looking her best these days

What is molting?

Molting is a normal biological process during which chickens shed their old feathers and grow new ones. All chickens go through it – hens and roosters.

What happens during a molt?

When it molts, a chicken sheds its old ragged and dirty feathers to grow shiny, new ones.

The process begins when a new feather shaft pushes out the old feather and a pin feather emerges from the shaft. The pin feather is covered with a waxy coating that that the chicken removes by preening. The new feather unfurls, a blood vein inside the shaft dries up, and the shaft becomes the quill of the new feather.

The molting process is supposed to follow a set pattern starting at the head and neck and proceeding down the body to the wings and tail. But each chicken molts differently. My hens – Mabel, Hazel, and Petunia – always seems to lose their tail feathers early on while their necks are still bare.

Other physical changes you may see when your chickens molt are paler-than-normal combs and wattles and weight loss.

Pin feathers emerging during a molt

Pin feathers are emerging on Petunia’s neck

molting hen

Hazel is has one sad tail feather left

How long does a molt last?

While some chickens may complete the process more quickly, molting generally lasts anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks. Some birds may take even longer, losing only a few feathers at a time, so that you hardly know they are molting.

It is said that the harder and quicker the molt, the better the layer, and that saying is true with my hens. Hazel has been the most reliable of my layers so far, and molts the hardest.

When does molting occur?

Baby chickens shed their down to grow feathers within weeks of hatching. Young birds shed feathers as they mature, growing larger, stiffer feathers until they are fully grown and begin laying. These juvenile molts are hardly noticeable.

As an adult, the first real molt usually comes when the bird is about 18 months old. That means a spring chicken will have her first molt in the middle of her second autumn. Thereafter, she will molt annually, usually around the same time of year. Mine start molting in October, with the molt peaking around Thanksgiving.

The shorter days of autumn trigger the seasonal molt, but stressors also can cause molting.  A predator attack, a lack of proper nutrition or water, and wide swings in temperature are some of the things that can lead to an untimely molt.

molting hen

Hazel preens the pin feathers under her wing

pin feathers on hen

Petunia’s new ‘do is growing in nicely

Do hens lay eggs while molting?

During molt, egg production stops or slows significantly. It takes a lot of nutrients to fuel a molt, and the chicken’s body puts everything it has into growing new feathers.

With my chickens, it seems the older they get, the longer it takes them to return to egg production. Last year, they stopped laying just before Thanksgiving, at the peak of their molt, and started up again in February. This year, they stopped in October. Fortunately, the new girls just started laying and hopefully will keep me in eggs through the winter while the others are on break.

How do backyard chickens act when molting?

They’re pretty cranky. Pin feathers are sensitive and easily broken, which causes bleeding. Understandably, chickens don’t like to be handled while molting. Even the friendliest of hens may be standoffish during her molt.

molting hen

Feathers are coming out all over Petunia

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Hazel’s comb is pale and shrunken

How can I help my chickens get through the molt?

Three things:

  1. Avoid stressing them out. Don’t add new flock members. Avoid unnecessary handling. Don’t let kids or dogs chase them around. Make sure they have plenty of food and water on hand.
  1. Supplement their normal diet with extra protein. Feathers are about 85% protein. Giving chickens a boost in protein helps their feathers come in more quickly. Good protein sources for chickens include bugs and worms, meat scraps, canned fish, and sunflower seeds. I supplement my chickens feed with a NatureWise Feather Fixer by Nutrena, a high protein feed formulated to help feather development. I limit scratch during molting season because of its limited nutritional value. For treats, I provide oatmeal mixed with a little Greek yogurt or meal worms.
  1. Observe them for signs of broken pin feathers. Other chickens may pick at any sign of blood, so remove a bird with broken pin feathers to your chicken sick bay (a large cat carrier in the garage works well). A spray of Blu-Kote on the damaged area usually does the trick, and the chicken can be returned to the flock when there is no longer any sign of blood.

Read more: Chicken First Aid Kit and Sick Bay 

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Shop for molting hens: (click on the image to go to the Amazon store)

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