Your Chickens maybe losing there feathers as a result of molting. There are certain times when your backyard chickens might need a little extra tender loving care. One of these is during their molt – and while it may be concerning the first time you witness it, it’s a natural process. You just need to know what to expect and understand how to support your hens (and rooster!) until they get back to their fully feathered, beautiful, and comfortable selves.
What is Molting in Chickens?
Molting is a natural process that all birds go through, including your backyard chickens. They shed all of their old, soiled, broken, and generally decrepit feathers and grow new ones to replace them for a fresh, healthy plumage. This occurs every year.
Feathers, like hair, nails, and claws, are dead structures. Once damaged, they do not repair themselves. As such, they need to be replaced.
Some Signs of Molting Include:
- Dropped feathers
- Ragged, tatty appearance
- Missing feathers
- Bare skin
- They stop laying eggs
The sequence of molting is quite uniform. Feathers will first be lost from the head and neck, then along the back, the breast, and then the thighs. The tail feathers are the last to go. Feathers will regrow in the same sequence.
A soft molt occurs when a chicken loses some feathers, but it is not usually obvious to bystanders, and there are no bare patches on her body.
A hard molt sees a chicken suddenly lose a vast number of feathers and she (or he) will look quite alarmingly naked and like they have been put through the metaphorical wringer.
The first juvenile molt occurs when chicks are just six to eight days old. They lose their hatchling down and baby feathers grow in its place.
The second juvenile molt takes place at around eight to twelve weeks of age. The second set of baby feathers replaces the first, and roosters will begin to grow their ornamental feathers.
The first adult molt occurs at eighteen months of age, and usually in late summer or autumn. Adult feathers grow in at this time.
Molting occurs annually thereafter.
Reasons Why Chickens Molt
The integrity of a bird’s feathers is critical to its ability to stay warm and dry, especially in colder weather. Feathers are critical for insulation, waterproofing, flying ability, and more. For this reason, molting will occur numerous times throughout a bird’s life, usually once per year.
Molting can be triggered by several things:
- Seasonal change with shorter, cooler days
- Hatching eggs
- Extreme heat
- Coop changes, including sudden removal of a consistent light source
By far the most common trigger for molting is fewer daylight hours, which also coincides with the end of the egg-laying cycle.
The Chicken Feather Growth Process
- Each new feather develops from a papilla, which is an outgrowth in the skin.
- Feather tips are pushed from the papilla.
- Proteins are established around the surface of the papilla and form into branching patterns which ultimately form the feather.
- The feather stays in a curled, tubular shape until it has been pushed out through the skin.
- A hard protective cylindrical sheath holds the feather. This disintegrates from the tip to the skin, and the feather unfurls. The sheath then falls off.
- The chicken will maintain its feathers between molts through careful preening, which helps maintain their structure.
How Can I Care for My Molting Chickens?
Feathers, like human hair and nails, are predominantly protein-based (beta-keratin). This means that a molting chicken has enhanced protein requirements to help support it through the process.
Molting chickens are actively growing new feathers, and their bodies can’t maintain egg production at the same time.
As a backyard chicken owner, you must provide plenty of fresh drinking water and more dietary protein:
- Layer feeds are usually around 16% protein; switch to a broiler feed during molting as this is around 20-25% protein-based.
- Offer treats including cooked meat, cod liver oil, peas, soybeans, cooked eggs, sunflower seeds, bone meal, natural yogurt, and raw nuts. These are all rich in protein.
- Limit scratch to no more than 10% of the diet so that the protein content of the overall diet is not diluted.
How Long Before My Chickens’ Feathers Grow Back?
Your chickens’ full set of replacement feathers should grow in and be established within eight to twelve weeks of the beginning of the molt. Some will regrow all of their feathers in just three to four weeks. Some chickens do not molt “on schedule”, and some will potentially take much longer to be back to looking their best.
As well as providing dietary support during your chickens’ molt, be aware that molting can be uncomfortable for your birds. It can hurt and over-stress them to be handled while they are growing feathers, and birds with patches of bare skin are more vulnerable to being bullied and pecked at by their flock mates.
Molting chickens should behave quite normally, besides diminished laying. If your chickens seem sick at all, there is likely something else wrong and they need to be seen by a vet.