It’s that time of year when the feathers seem to fly. Literally. One day, you step into the coop and you are greeted by feathers everywhere. You get worried that some critter got in the coop and had a chicken for dinner. So you do a head count. After breathing a sigh of relief that everyone is safe and sound, you realize that it’s just time for the annual chicken molt.
If you aren’t sure what molting is, it means that the chickens lose all their feathers and grow new ones. It’s usually a process that happens over time, not all at once. Some chickens seem to molt slowly and you don’t even notice the feather loss. Others seem to molt very quickly and have bare patches of skin showing.
If you purchased baby chicks this year, they won’t go through a full molt. (They did a mini molt around one week of age and again between 7 to 12 weeks of age.) However, you may still find that they lose a few feathers now and then. But in the fall of their second year, most chickens will lose all their old feathers and grow new ones.
How can we help them through this stage? And what should we expect. Read on to find several ways to help your chickens get through their molt.
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What to expect during a molt
When chickens lose feathers, they lose them in a specific order. Starting with their head and neck, then down their back and across their breasts, before finally losing their tail feathers. Some chickens will molt quickly, replacing their feathers in three or four weeks. Others will take several months to grow new ones. Occasionally, you may get a chicken that is molting so quickly she (or he) has bald spots. My poor Ellie (below) looks pitiful but she is a fast molter.
New feathers are called pin feathers and while they are growing they contain a blood vessel that carries blood to the growing feather. If any of these get broken, they can bleed quite a bit. If this happens, you need to monitor your chickens closely, to ensure they don’t peck each other and cause sores, especially the chickens that are lowest on the pecking order. Your favorite chickens may no longer enjoy being held either, because the growing feathers are painful.
The new feathers are covered in a waxy substance that can been seen on emerging feathers. It will typically fall off on its own, or be removed by the chicken while preening.
When chickens are growing feathers during a molt, it takes a lot of their energy. Many lay fewer eggs, and some may stop completely. Most of the hens will not resume egg laying until late February or early March when the days start to get longer again.
How to care for your molting chickens
During a molt, chickens need extra protein in their diet. Changing their feed to a higher protein feed can help. Many feed brands even offer specialized feed (like Nutrena Naturewise Feather Fixer) that can be purchased to help your birds through their molt. You can also supplement their current feed with high protein treats such as mealworms or black oil sunflower seeds. Don’t let treats exceed 10% of the hen’s diet and refrain from giving them many low protein treats during this time.
Try not to stress your molting chickens. Stress can make the molting process longer for your chickens. Now is NOT the time to move them to a new home or introduce other chickens into the existing flock.
Occasionally, you may have a chicken or two that decides to molt in the dead of winter. To help them along, be sure that the coop is draft free (but still well-ventilated) so they have a place to stay warm. But please don’t put a chicken sweater on the poor thing. Growing new feathers is a painful process, and you will just be inflicting more pain by attempting to put a sweater on your molting chicken.
One interesting fact to note about molting chickens: Generally the faster a hen molts, the better the egg layer she is. She replaces her worn feathers and gets back to the business of laying eggs. So if you need to cull some chickens, watching how long they take to molt is a pretty good indicator of how well they lay. Slower molting chickens tend to lay less eggs, so those can be the ones to remove from the flock.
Once they are finished with their molt
Once your chickens have finished molting, you may want to do a quick clean up of the coop. Remove as many feathers as possible, especially if you compost their droppings. (Feathers take quite a while to compost.) And once the majority of the flock is done, you definitely want to return to their regular feed (as opposed to a high protein one). Too much protein in a chicken’s diet isn’t good for them in the long term.
So with a little extra care, your chickens should be able to get through their molt just fine. Before long, you’ll realize your flock looks a whole lot prettier with their shiny new feathers.