Preview: There are several things chicken keepers can do to help their molting chickens when they start to lose feathers in the fall.
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.
Your first thought is that some critter got in the coop and had a chicken for dinner. So you do a headcount. After breathing a sigh of relief that everyone is safe and sound, you realize that it’s just time for the yearly chicken molt.
What Does It Mean When A Chicken Is Molting?
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 natural 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.
The average chicken will take between 6 to 12 weeks to complete her molt. However, some chickens may take up to 4 months.
A few that chickens that molt really fast may complete their full molt in just 3-4 weeks.
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 Causes a Chicken to Lose Its Feathers
The yearly molt is triggered by several external factors such as the length of the day and the change in seasons. As the number of daylight hours begins to wane, this signals chickens to molt.
Generally, chickens will start their molt in late summer or early fall.
However, a molt can occur at other times of the year. These atypical molts are generally caused by other factors such as stress, lack of water, changes in the chicken’s environment, or malnutrition.
The best way to prevent an atypical molt is to be sure your chickens have plenty of clean, fresh water and are fed a balanced layer feed. Try to avoid any unusual stressors such as moving coops or adding new members to the flock during this time.
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 be 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. Most hens will lay fewer eggs, and some may stop completely.
Most chickens 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
Molting is hard on your 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 with their new feather growth, 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 fewer eggs, so those can be the ones to remove from the flock.
Once Your Chickens Have Finished 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.