Why Do Chickens Molt?

 

This poor old hen has been run ragged.

Why Do Chickens Molt & What Can I Do About It?

Chickens molt to replace their worn out feathers with new ones. Old feathers don’t insulate and protect a bird from cold, wet weather as well as a set of glossy new ones. All birds go through this process, just as other animals shed old hair and grow a shiny new coat.

Chickens usually go through their first major molt around the age of 18 months. Some will start earlier and I’ve had a few that didn’t start until they were almost 2 years old…so there is a lot of variation between individuals. Generally, the shorter daylight hours of fall signal our barnyard birds that it is time to stop laying eggs and start working on their winter ‘clothing’…again, this will vary between birds. I’ve had chickens go into a full molt during the coldest days of winter while others molt during the hottest days of summer.

The White Leghorn (in front) is more feed efficient than the Buff Orpington (in middle).
The White Leghorn (in front) is just starting to lose the feathers on her neck.

Some chickens are fast molters and some are slow. They will take at least a month to grow out their new feathers, while others go through molts that last 4 months.

Some will start by losing the feathers around their neck first and they will lose almost every single feather on their dejected looking little bodies. Others onlyl lose few feathers and will just look a little rough for a few weeks.

As you can see, there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to molting chickens! Although chickens molt differently and at different times, they will all go through a molt once a year, starting somewhere around 18 months of age.

The hen with missing feathers in this photo is actually a Turken...a breed that doesn't have feathers around the neck.
The hen with missing feathers in this photo is actually a Turken…a breed that doesn’t have feathers around the neck.

What Can I Do About My Molting Hens?

You can’t stop your birds from molting. It is a natural process that they need to go through to replace those old feathers. But there are some things you can do to make the molt easier on them.

First, reduce stress for your flock. Remove the rooster if he is making matters worse. Don’t introduce new birds if possible. Keep the coop clean and give your chickens access to pasture and fresh air. Avoid picking up birds that have new feather shafts growing in…handling them can be painful for the bird. Make sure they have fresh, clean water and enough food to keep them healthy during their molt. You should also provide extra protein for your molting birds.

Weighing sunflower seeds for home made chicken feed.
 Sunflower seeds are high in protein.

Feathers contain a lot of protein and molting chickens should be provided with high protein feed or treats to help them recover more quickly. Sunflower seeds, split peas, field peas, and fish meal are potential sources for extra protein. Some people will also feed their flock cat food, tuna fish, roasted soybeans, or meat scraps during molt. Personally, I would stay away from cheap cat food (some pet foods contain very disturbing ingredients). However, this choice is completely up to you. You may also replace their layer feed with a high protein meat producer feed with calcium on the side during their molt.

Source: Nutrena NatureWise Feather Fixer

Nutrena has a product called NatureWise Feather Fixer, which is formulated for molting and mite prevention. It has an 18% protein content, but your molting birds may do better with a 20-22% protein feed to really encourage new feather growth. The company includes trace minerals for feather growth, as well as greens, probiotics and prebiotics for proper digestion, marigold extract for deeper colored yolks, and a “Proprietary blend of nutrients (that) naturally supports the immune system and overall health of your flock.” I am sharing the information from their website. I am not recommending this product nor am I disputing their claims. If you use the Feather Fixer for your molting birds, you may want to add some extra protein on the side.

All of your barnyard birds will go through a molt!
All barnyard birds go through periodic molts. These ones aren’t molting right now, they’re just waiting for snacks. 🙂

Do Other Farm Birds Molt Too?

Yes, all birds molt on a regular basis. Your turkeys, ducks, guineas, geese, quail, and peacocks will go through this process to replace their feathers periodically. And yes, roosters molt too. I have noticed that my ducks don’t seem to lose as many feathers as the chickens, probably because they need to keep a minimum feather covering to protect them while swimming.

You'll get fewer eggs from your birds while they are molting.
Duck Eggs! You’ll get fewer eggs from your birds while they are molting.

When Will They Lay Eggs Again?

As part of the molting process, your chickens (and other barnyard birds) will stop laying eggs during their molt. They need to put their energy into growing those new feathers, and producing eggs would take away from this process. Again, the length of time that they stop laying will vary from bird to bird. You can expect that most birds will stop laying for 1-4 months as they grow new feathers.

Some people don’t wish to feed their hens during these non-productive months and cull all molting chickens. Then they start over with a new flock. This is a purely personal (and financial) decision for each chicken keeper. If you choose to feed your hens through their molt, you will notice that the size of their eggs normally increases after each molt, although the number of eggs produced decreases. I usually keep my hens for 1 or 2 molts and then I use them as stewing chickens.

Brutus, the plucky rooster.
Your rooster could also be the culprit!

Are There Other Reasons My Chickens Might Lose Their Feathers?

Yes, there are other causes for feather loss in your flock. Here are some reasons for missing feathers:

  • Too many roosters
  • Mites, lice, or fleas
  • Feather picking
  • Fowl Pox
  • Insufficient protein in the diet

Too many roosters, or a young rooster that is rough during mating can pull out many of the feathers on the hens’ backs. This will usually show up as a balding back and perhaps missing neck and tail feathers. You should see signs of this feather loss on all of the ‘popular’ hens in the flock and you’ll see the rooster in action if you are around enough. You can reduce the number of roosters in your flock or put ‘saddles’ on your hens.

Mites, lice and fleas can cause your birds to scratch and pull out their feathers if the infestation is bad enough. Mites and lice are usually present on the birds, around the base of the feathers and around the vent. Red mites will hide during the day and come out to feed on birds at night. If you suspect these parasites, clean out the entire coop and remove all bedding. Use an insecticide (I prefer to use natural remedies, but this is up to you) or diotomaceous earth sprinkled through out the coop and dust the birds too. Be sure to wear a mask so you don’t breath in the dust while you are treating your coop and flock. The Feather Fixer feed from Nutrena may help with preventing and treating mites in your flock.

Feather picking is caused by birds that are dominant and more aggressive picking out feathers on the more docile members of the flock. You can rehome the aggresive birds, use a red bulb in your heat lamps during winter, or use little blinders on the culprits. Blinders fit into the bird’s nostrils and prevent them from pecking. Put BluKote or another antibiotic on any wounds or bald spots in your flock to prevent infection and camoflage the spot.

Fowl Pox shows up as lesions on birds where there aren’t any feathers, such as around the eyes, around vents, and on combs. They are bumps that break open and bleed, then form scabs. As they scratch at the irritated areas, the bird removes feathers. This virus can’t be treated once they have it, but you can vaccinate against it. Keep open sores clean.

If you switch feed or if you are only throwing a little scratch out to your flock and see feather loss , they may not be getting enough protein. If this is the case, you will also see a reduction in egg production. If your birds can’t find enough protein in their pasture you will need to provide protein to maintain a healthy flock. Feed a complete layer ration to get them back on track.

Do you have any suggestions for keeping your flock healthy during a molt? Did I forget any other reasons for feather loss? I love to learn new things from my readers, so your comments are always welcome!

 

Comments are closed.