Naked chickens are quite ugly and so naturally one is a bit disconcerted when your chickens start to lose their feathers.
Don’t panic and start pulling your own hair out.
Instead, sit down and make note of several things. Molting, which is the process of shedding old feathers and getting new ones, is a natural process that chickens go through on a regular basis.
First, let’s make sure it’s not some other sickness or condition.
Chickens start molting, or losing their feathers, at their head and neck. Then the molt moves down the back, breast, and tail. If your flock is losing feathers around the vent (a classy way of saying butt) without losing feathers elsewhere first, the chicken may have mites (parasites that live on their skin) or it may be getting pecked by other chickens. If the chicken has a sudden bald spot in the middle of summer in the middle of it’s back, it’s likely not molting. You have some parasites or a pecking problem on your hands. (Here’s how to deal with hen pecking)
What is a “Molt?”
A molt is when a chicken loses it’s old feathers and replaces them with new ones. The new feathers push out the old feathers. The old feathers become loose and fall off. The new feathers become visible as “pin feathers,” or small spikes that are rich in blood supply. They are very sensitive and so handle your chickens gently as they go through the process. The feathers are encased in a waxy coating, or sheath, and as they grow they shed the coating and unfurl. You will notice old feathers floating around the farm and shed feather shaft coatings on the coop floor. Now they have new feathers!
Why do chickens molt?
Chickens molt because they need to replace their old feathers with new ones. Feathers become stained, beaten, and out of shape making them lose their flying or insulation capabilities. A chicken needs to replace her feathers every so often.
When do chickens molt?
Chickens molt regularly through their life. There are three types of molts in a chicken’s life:
- First Mini Molt
- Second Mini Molt
- Annual Complete Molt
First Mini Molt (6-8 Weeks Old)
When a baby chick is hatched, it’s covered in soft, fluffy down. At about 6 – 8 weeks of age, they start replacing the downy feathers with harder feathers which helps protect them from the elements. The harder feathers can deflect wind, retain warmth, and shed moisture better than only down. These are the chickens first feathers. This first mini molt is controlled by age and not outside conditions.
Second Mini Molt (7-12 Weeks Old)
At about 7 – 12 weeks of age, the chicken goes through it’s second mini molt. This is when the rooster gets its first ornamental feathers. You can also start to see definite differences between breeds and sexes. The second mini molt is controlled by age and not outside conditions.
Annual Complete Molt (Around 16-18 Months Old)
The first annual molt happens around 16 – 18 months of age but is not stimulated by age after the chicken reaches maturity. Rather, it is determined by outside stimulus. Typically that stimulus is seasonal and is triggered by shortening daylight hours. Chickens will probably molt in the fall. They will also slow down their egg laying or even stop, especially if they are molting. Your chickens may also molt after they have hatched chicks or if they are stressed, underfed, or not given enough water. If you have a healthy flock free of stress (and aren’t hatching chicks), they will molt on a yearly schedule. In the spring they will start laying more eggs as the daylight hours increase.
The molt may take 7 – 8 weeks to complete on average but may even be as fast 4 weeks or as slow as 12 weeks.
A molt may be “hard” or “soft.”
A “hard” molt leaves a chicken looking like a shivering naked chicken ready for the cooking pot.
It will have large bald patches and new pin feathers while old feathers are just so hanging on.
A “soft” molt is a gradual molt that is slow and steady and sometimes barely noticeable.
You can get an idea how fast the chicken is going to complete their molt by looking at the flight feathers of the chicken. If the chicken drops only one feather at time early in the fall, the chicken will likely be slower to finish its molt. If the chicken starts molting later in the season and drops several wing feathers at a time, it will likely not take as long to finish molting.
If you are using artificial lighting to extend your chicken’s laying season, you should leave the lamp off for 6 weeks during fall or winter to help your chickens finish the molt.
What to Do When A Chicken Molts
Modify or supplement their feed
Feathers are made up of 85% protein. When chickens are growing new feathers it can be extremely stressful for them and they bodies need more protein. Switch their feed to a broiler crumble (or pellets, whatever your chickens are used to) with a 20 – 22% protein content. Be sure to also offer oyster shell free choice in a separate container so that hens who are still laying can get the calcium supplement they need. You can also use a feather fixer feed (a popular one by Nutrena) designed to help meet a molting chickens dietary needs. This has about an 18% protein content and contains other minerals and nutrients to aid in feather growth and overall dietary health.
NOTE: Too much protein can lead to diarrhea and other health issues. It is possible to mix broiler feed with your regular feed to lower the overall protein intake and to make the switch to different feed less sudden.
Limit their stress
Do not add new flock members, modify their coop, or stress the flock while they are molting. Stressing the chickens may lead to longer molts and less healthy chickens.
Do not handle the chickens more than necessary. The new pin feathers easily damaged and highly sensitive. Handling the chickens may hurt them and will cause undue stress.
Watch for pecking
Chickens can be very cruel. If an injured chicken is bleeding, other chickens may peck it and injure it further, maybe even killing it. If you find an injured, bleeding chicken, isolate it from the flock, treat it, and re-introduce when it’s back in health.