Does your chicken coop look like the scene of a fierce feather pillow fight? Are your chickens missing feathers?
If your chicken coop is filled with loose feathers and if you see bare spots or raggedy-looking feathers or porcupine-like pinfeathers on your chickens, they are probably going through a feather molt. Molting can create a mess and results in reduced egg production, but it's an indication that your chickens are healthy and that their bodies are doing exactly what they should.
Read on for why and when chickens molt, the different kinds of molts, and the best practices for supporting your chickens during their molting. We'll tell you everything you need to know about molting chickens!
Why do chickens molt?
The structure of outer feathers forms a water-resistant and windproof barrier. Tiny barbs and barbules growing off the feather shaft lock together (somewhat like velcro) on each outer feather.
Underneath these protective outer feathers are the downy feathers. The downy feathers have flexible barbs and barbules that give this type of feather "fluff" and provide your chicken insulation from heat and cold.
Over time, these protective or insulating old feathers wear and need to be replaced with new ones through the molting process. Molting (once complete) gives your chickens a full protective suit of fresh and glossy outer feathers, and new downy under-feathers to protect them from all sorts of weather.
When do chickens molt?
Patrick Biggs, Ph.D. and nutritionist at Purina, explains that late summer and early autumn trigger annual molt due to shorter days. Each day after the summer solstice in late June is progressively a bit shorter until the winter equinox on December 20 when the days once again being to lengthen. The reduced daylight of late summer and fall days act as a signal that it is time to begin replacing worn-out feathers.
The molting process is most typical in late summer or fall so that once the molt is complete, your chickens are prepared for winter weather with a full set of new feathers to keep them protected from water, wind, and cold temperatures. Molting can happen, though, at any time of year.
Chickens will also molt throughout the year if triggered by stress. Chickens can get stressed when you may be adding new members to the coop, they experience a move, illness, food or water shortages, severe weather, and/or immediately following a broody period for hens.
Hens emerging from a broody period (whether or not they raised chicks) have been sitting on a nest with reduced feed and water for a long period. Broody hens very often molt once they stop being broody. This molt after brooding can extend the time in which they don't lay eggs for several more weeks.
READ MORE: 7 Reasons to Let a Broody Hen Hatch Eggs
Juvenile Molt and First Adult Molt:
Adult chickens first fully molt at approximately 18 months of age. Prior to that, juvenile chickens have already gone through several mini molts. A chicken's very first molt sheds their chick fluff and gains true feathers, and they have several additional small molts as they grow in a full set of true feathers, up until about five months or so of age.
Molting is a natural process, typically once a year for mature chickens.
How long does a chicken molt?
Generally, chickens take two to three months (8-12 weeks) to complete a molt, but it can take more or less time (up to 18-20 weeks or four to five months). The length of time depends on whether the chicken undergoes a "hard molt" or a "soft molt."
A "hard molt" is where the chicken loses most of its feathers in a short time period. Some chickens start their molt early--these are the chickens that gradually lose feathers over time (a "soft molt") and can take up to four or five months to complete the molting process.
According to Tractor Supply, you should keep in mind that you will see a reduction in the number of eggs chickens lay during molt. Have patience. Laying resumes when less energy and resources are needed for growing feathers.
In fact, commercial layer operations who value egg production over all else will actually induce or force molts by withholding food so that all birds molt at once, and the decline in egg production then becomes more predictable.
Obviously, we don't recommend anything like that for your backyard chickens.
Hard Molt or Soft Molt?
As discussed above, a hard molt is where your chicken loses most of its feathers within a short period time. If you see any bald spots that is likely a hard molt. The picture below shows feather loss during a hard molt.
A soft molt is where the chicken more gradually loses feathers over time. The picture below shows a chicken with soft molt feather loss.
Note that a chicken losing feathers ONLY around the vent area likely has a mite or parasite problem; check that out more closely and don't assume it is a molt.
Best Care for Molting Chickens
Backyard chicken owners can best care for molting chickens by temporarily increasing protein intake. Increase the protein content of the chicken feed, add extra protein treats, and be patient during the molt process.
READ MORE: Quick Ideas for the Best DIY Chicken Treats
Increase protein in feed to support feather growth (to around 20% protein in feed).
Nutrena recommends you support your molting chickens by feeding a high-protein feed. Growing new feathers requires a feed high in protein because feathers themselves are mostly protein. You can buy a special feed ration for feather growth, or use a high protein mix formulated for younger chickens or game bird feed WITH added calcium sources available (for example, crushed oyster shells), since feed mixes for younger chickens do not have the calcium in layer feeds.
Supplement with high protein treats.
Think protein, found in free-range bugs, black oil sunflower seeds, mealworms, scrambled eggs, and dairy products like yogurt. Some backyard chicken owners supplement with cat food due to the protein content.
Cat food makes me a little uneasy so I'm not likely to try it any time soon. Fresh Eggs Daily recommends molt meatloaf, which combines meat, eggs, and oats.
Try not to add additional sources of stress such as new flock members or a move during molting.
Be aware that pinfeathers are sensitive - pinfeathers are the porcupine-like quills of new feather growth. Pinfeathers are sensitive so avoid any chicken sweaters or rooster collars during a molt.
Separate any chicken that is getting pecked.
Exposed skin during a molt can be a target for other chickens.
So no, if you see missing and loose feathers your chickens aren't having a fierce pillow fight. They aren't going bald. They aren't going to look ratty forever.
Your chickens are growing a new set of protective and insulating feathers. Before you know it, they will have a full set of new glossy feathers!
What's the funniest molting chicken you've ever seen? Let us know or show us in the comments below!
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