Each fall, leaves aren’t the only things that begin to fall.
You might also notice that your chickens are losing their feathers.
It could be a feather here or there, or it could be a shocking amount of feathers lost, leaving your chicken looking a little naked but very much afraid.
Don’t worry – you aren’t dealing with a coop full of chickens who suddenly decided to become nudists. Your chickens are molting.
Molting is a natural process that is encouraged by the drop in temperatures and shortened daylight hours of fall. When your chickens sense these changes, their bodies naturally begin the automatic process of molting.
Molting isn’t a bad thing – it allows your chickens to get rid of old, bedraggled feathers and to put on a luxurious new coat of gorgeous, glossy new growth. However, it can be a bit stressful because it can encourage a whole host of other issues.
Here’s what you need to know about molting chickens, as well as my best tips to help get you through the season.
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What Causes Molting?
Molting on a chicken really isn’t that different than you leaving behind a few stray strands of hair in your hairbrush. Over time, the plumage of a chicken becomes broken, dull, and otherwise shabby. Compare a bird that has recently molted and regrown new features with one who has not molted in a while, and you will likely be able to see the difference on your own.
There are several practical evolutionary purposes as to why a bird molts. Feathers that are damaged and aged aren’t able to protect the chicken from natural elements like rain, wind, snow, and other damages. In addition, when a chicken molts, it produces feathers that are shiny, glossy, and tight to the body, making it easier for your chicken to stay warm and endure the elements.
Molting serves one more purpose – it helps your chicken put on better-looking feathers that will allow it to be more attractive to the opposite sex.
Molting is a natural process so while nothing really “causes” molting, there are some natural triggers that can encourage it to occur.
Here are some signs that your chickens might be getting ready to molt:
- The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are getting colder.
- Your chickens are at least 18 months old.
- You have seen a drop in egg production.
When Do Chickens Molt – and How Long Does Molting Last?
In most cases, molting lasts about eight to twelve weeks, but this depends largely on the personality, health, age, and breed of your individual chicken. Usually, the molting process begins in the fall to prepare for winter, but the timeline can be as early as summer or even edge into the winter months a little bit.
The timeline for when your chickens will molt will depend on where you live, your local climate, and the age of your birds. Typically, by the time you receive your first snowfall (if you live in an area that receives measurable amounts of snow) your chickens will have finished molting – but this is not always the case.
There’s actually an old wives tale that says that you can predict the severity and duration of your winter based on the molting patterns of your chickens. If they molt early, expect a bad winter – if they molt late, Mother Nature is probably going to take it easy on you.
I’m not saying you should plan your calendar by this, but I guess in some cases it would make sense!
In any case, molting is a highly individualized process. Not all flock members will molt at the same time, but often, the most prolific layers in your flock will molt the most quickly. Keep in mind that young hens who are less than a year old won’t molt the first year, either.
Molting usually starts at the head and then moves down toward the tail, progressing slowly as it does so. It can take some chickens weeks to molt while others will be done quite quickly. Diet and age can affect how long it takes your chickens to regrow feathers, too – older hens tend to take longer to regrow their plumage.
Molting isn’t something that’s restricted to laying hens, either. Rooster and even chicks go through their own molting periods, too. Molting is a little bit different in chicks – chicks start to molt at about a week old, when their fluffy down is replaced by occasional feathers.
They will molt again at seven to twelve weeks, at which time they lose their baby feathers and develop their adult growth. This is usually when you will start to be able to tell the difference between roosters and hens, roosters will develop their luxurious hackles and sickle tail feathers.
Your chickens might experience a soft molt or a hard molt. Soft molts are when birds lose very little – they might have a few missing tail feathers but will not have any bare, exposed skin. A hard molt will be a very aggressive molt, during which your bird will look as though she was just recently plucked.
Will My Chickens Stop Laying While They Are Molting?
They might. Chickens who are molting often take a vacation from laying eggs. I’ll tell you a bit more about how to deal with this drop in egg production in a minute, but know that a decline in production is nothing to be worried about while your chickens are molting. That’s the case even if they stop laying altogether.
Is My Chicken Molting – Or Is It Something Else?
Chickens aren’t nice to each other – this is probably something you’re already aware of if you raise chickens. Chickens like to pick on each other by pecking those that are lower in the pecking order.
Pecking can be detrimental if your chickens actually are molting – pin feathers are supplied with blood during this time, so if a pin feather gets pecked, it can bleed and cause even more damage and additional pecking.
If you notice chickens with exposed blood, remove them immediately to observe the damage. If it’s not too bad, you can spray it with Blu-Kote and return it to the flock. Blu-Kote will remove the chance of infection and also disguise the blood so that the chickens aren’t drawn to the idea of pecking at it. If there’s more severe damage, you may need to isolate the bird until she has regrown her feathers.
Keep in mind, though, that hens who have been overpecked are often mistaken with those who are molting. If your hen isn’t old enough to be molting – or if she’s missing feathers at a strange time of year – she’s not molting but instead being targeted by other members of the flock.
Some conditions that can increase the likelihood of pecking and aggression in a flock are:
- Crowded, cramped conditions
- A lack of clean water or food
- The introduction of new members to the flock
- Aggressive disposition of a given breed
Mites and Lice
There are some types of lice and mites that can completely obliterate the feathers on your chicken. Make sure your chickens aren’t suffering from these parasites, and take appropriate steps to get rid of them if they are.
One of the easiest ways to determine whether your chicken is molting or suffering from a parasitic infestation is to look at its behavior. A molting chicken should behave normally, going about its routines in the same way it always has, but a sick chicken will act just like that – sick.
Often referred to as stress molting, this condition happens when your birds are stressed. It can happen during the fall, when regular molting might occur, but it also might appear during other times of the year, too. It can be induced by a lack of food, water, lighting, or any other poor living conditions.
Broody hens can appear to be molting, but this is a little bit different. Broody hens often molt after they have finished raising their chicks but will also pull their feathers out while they are sitting on their eggs. This is done to help build up a stronger, warmer nest as well as to allow for a closer connection with the eggs so body heat is transferred better.
Tips for Caring for Chickens While They Are Molting
Provide High Protein Feed
Feathers are roughly 85% protein – you need to significantly increase the protein content of your chickens’ feed during this time. Consider using a game bird feed or a grower feed that is at least 18-22% protein. This will help your chickens gain the strength necessary to regrow those lost feathers.
Be careful about sticking with high protein feed after the molt. These feeds are designed for chickens who will eventually be butchered – not for chickens who are meant to be raised for longterm laying. There are some health problems associated with feeding high protein feed for too long so make sure you are vigilant about switching back.
Make Feed Available Free Choice
Allow your chickens all the food and fresh, clean water they want. Make sure it is easy to get to and that each chicken can access food and water equally. Consider investing in hanging feeders that only need to be refilled once every few days to save you some time and allow your chickens to eat whenever they want.
Now is not the time to try to save money by rationing your chickens. If you want to save money by reducing feed bills, consider adding homemade treats like mealworms, maggots, or fermented feed. Fermented feed in particular is a good choice as a supplement, because it can enhance the ability of your chickens to uptake nutrients from their food.
Which leads to the next point…
Add Probiotics, Vitamins, and Minerals
Chickens need lots of probiotics, vitamins, and minerals at all stages of their lives, but especially when they are molting. In particular, chickens need:
- Vitamins A, D, E, K, B12
- Panthothenic Acid
- Folic Acid
I recommend adding natural sources of these through supplements like garlic, apple cider vinegar, and lots of fruits and vegetables. However, you can also add a probiotic supplement like Rooster Booster B12 or Sav-a-Chick Electrolyte Mix. These will both provide your chickens with the extra dollop of nutrients they need during this stressful time.
You can continue to feed your chickens treats, but try to limit the intake to less than 10% of their total dietary needs. This is true of feeding your chickens at any time of the year, but when your birds are molting, you need to avoid filling them up with foods that lack the nutrients they need to stay healthy.
Avoid going too crazy with the scratch grain, which has little nutritional value. Instead, some healthy, nutrient-dense treat options include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Fish Pellets
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Tuna fish
- Scrambled eggs
Add a Supplemental Source of Light
However, do this sparingly. If you raise laying hens primarily for commercial egg production, like we do, you might not have much of a choice when it comes to laying. You might need to jumpstart your birds’ laying cycle by adding supplemental light.
However, in most cases, you should consider the molting period at the end of the hens’ laying cycle for the year. When laying starts back up again, you’ve started a new year on the egg calendar. A hen needs about 14-16 hours of daylight in order to lay an egg, which is why we add a light to our coop each winter.
A hen naturally reduces her laying during the winter months because she is parking for the cold months ahead. Even though you may be providing your birds with a heated coop, all the food they want, and other luxuries they would not find in nature, your hen’s natural processes are going to be telling her to slow down – or stop – producing eggs until the days get longer.
As a result, you might want to add a light to the coop to simulate the lengthening daylight hours. It’s recommended that you do this to add hours on to the morning – she will see the fading daylight as roosting time and it won’t disrupt her sleep schedule.
I recommend using a light with a timer, like this one – you can program it to add hours in the morning and you won’t have to worry about messing with anybody’s biological clock.
Clean Out Your Coop
Make sure your coop is ready for the molt. If you have chickens going through a hard molt, where they are losing most of their feathers, you will want to make sure there are no heavy drafts and that there is plenty of fresh, clean bedding.
A clean coop is also important to make sure your vulnerable chickens aren’t exposed to any mites, lice, or disease during molting. Their bodies are already going to be going through a lot of stress – don’t make it worse with an unclean coop!
You should clean the walls of your coop with water and vinegar, remove and replace old bedding, and clean your nest boxes. Now is a great time to inspect the coop for signs of pests like mites, lice, snakes, or rodents, too.
Avoid Handling Your Birds
One of the most important things you can do to keep your birds healthy and happy during the molt is to stay away. Some people mistakenly assume that their birds need extra cuddling and warmth during the molt – but keep your hands off!
Molting birds have pin feathers coming in that are extremely sensitive to the touch. They won’t enjoy being coddled or touched during this period. Don’t make things worse by buying your chickens one of those absurd chicken sweaters, either – they will not only pull on the sensitive pin feathers, causing your chickens pain, but they are absolutely unnecessary, too.
Now is not the time to introduce new birds into the flock. Remember – reduce stress as much as possible.
Transition Back to Layer Feed Once Egg Production Resumes
Once your chickens have finished molting, it’s time to resume back to the normal diet. Don’t do this all at once, though, because an abrupt change in feeding your chickens can cause additional stress. Instead, begin mixing the complete layer feed into the high-protein feed over the course of the next week. This will prevent digestive upsets.
One of the most important things to remember during the molting period is that each chicken will exhibit different behaviors and have different patterns of molting. Not all chickens molt in the same way. Your chickens should act normally during the molt, and any changed behavior could be a sign that something else is going on.
For example, some chickens might lose just a couple of features and grow them back in just two or three weeks – not even enough time or feather loss for you to realize that something is going on. Other chickens might lose a ton of feathers and take several months to grow them back.
Either way, don’t stress! As long as you’ve ruled out other potential causes of feather loss, there’s really no reason to worry about a bird who has lost a couple of feathers here and there. Just make sure you are providing your chicken with the optimal care (as we detailed in the tips above) and your chicken will be looking beautifully feathered in no time.
What tips do you have for helping your birds get through molting? What was the worst molt you ever experienced? Be sure to share your stories in the comments!
Want to learn more about raising chickens? Be sure to check out these articles!
- How to Butcher Chickens
- How to Keep Predators Away From Your Chicken
- The Best Egg-Laying Chicken Breeds
- The Ultimate Guide to the New Hampshire Chicken Breed
- How You Can Make Money Raising Chicken
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