Chicken Molting: What Is It and How to Fix It

All You Need To Know About Chickens Molting

The autumn leaves are falling from the trees and feathers are falling from your chickens.

What’s up with that?

Congratulations! Your ladies (and boys) are molting.

Shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger an automatic response in the chickens and so they molt, shedding the old and acquiring glossy new feathers.

This article is a guide to what to expect, how to help and other molting tidbits. Sit back and relax because there is no hurrying the molting process.

Please note: This article is part of our free complete guide to raising chickens in winter.

Why Do Chickens Molt?

Over time, their plumage becomes dulled, broken and shabby. We don’t notice because we see our birds daily, but if you compare a freshly molted chicken with her un-molted sisters you will see the difference.

Feathers that are broken and worn out are not able to insulate the bird against the elements of wind, rain and snow which accompany the winter season.

This molting discards broken, tired old feathers with new shiny, tight feathering.

It is important that the bird have a snugly fitted ‘coat’ for the winter ahead- new feathers will help to keep them warm in the bitter cold months to come.

A new vibrant plumage also attracts more attention from the opposite sex!

When Do Hens Molt?

Usually the molt starts in the Fall ready for winter but it can vary by several weeks. Currently (October), my girls have almost finished molting, but in past years some have been molting well into the cold season.

Chicken Molting
Chicken’s Back Moulting © Thomas Kriese

They looked quite pathetic- semi bald and shivering from the cold, but they all survived.

An old wives’ tale is that if chickens molt early it’s going to be a bad winter- I’m hoping it’s not true!

Not all of your flock members will start at the same time, the process is drawn out over several weeks. Generally, the fastest molters are the best layers, so watch them carefully and you will be able to pick out your hardest workers.

Young hens less than twelve months will not molt for their first year. The following Fall they will start their molt.

It’s usually somewhere between fifteen to eighteen months of age.

Broody hens may molt after they are done with their chicks. Broodys always look a bit disheveled and worn out after caring for chicks, so it seems like a reasonable time to start the molt.

How Long Does The Molt Take?

This depends on the bird. Every bird will have a slightly different ‘timetable’, but the entire process can take anywhere from three to sixteen weeks.

If you have a sizeable flock you will likely have girls that are done in three weeks and others who take their time about it! I have found that older hens seem to take longer to replace their dropped feathers.

The molt progresses in a distinct pattern- it starts at the head, proceeds to the breast and thighs, finally arriving at the tail.

How to Care For Chickens during the Molt

Glad you asked!

As you probably know, feathers are around eighty five percent protein, so during the molt hens need to increase their protein intake.

For the molting period and a couple of weeks after, switch them to a feed that has no less than eighteen percent protein or gamebird feed which is twenty or twenty two percent. The increase in protein will help them to replace those feathers more easily.

Although constantly giving them high protein feed can damage their health in the long term, short periods of increased protein are necessary for the bird to maintain/rebuild feathers and health.

Always make sure they have abundant water available to them.

In addition to the high protein feed, you can add supplements to the water to ensure they are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals.

There are several different brands out there, all are quite similar, but some have added lacto-bacilli which are good for gut health.

Apple Cider Vinegar can be added to their water to help ensure healthy digestion too. I have three drinkers so I add vitamin supplement to one, ACV to another and leave the third natural. This way they have a choice of what they drink.

Finally, because I know people love to give snacks to their hens, how many treats should you give to them during the molt?

The treat intake should be limited to ten percent or less of their daily intake. You don’t want them filling up on ‘junk’ food that has little protein.

Healthy snacks include mealworms, tuna fish (in water, low sodium), cat food, black oil sunflower seeds or fish pellets.

However, pelleted fish food has a very high amount of protein, so use it sparingly.

My Hens Have Stopped Laying During their Molt…

Molting is extremely stressful and draining for the hen.

Hen MoltingThey need a huge amount of protein to make new feathers. Making eggs also drains them of a lot of protein, so something has to give.

This can be considered the end of the hens’ laying cycle for the year.

When she starts to lay eggs again, she has started another year on her egg calendar.

Daylight has a lot to do with restarting the laying cycle. A hen needs around fourteen to sixteen hours of daylight to lay an egg; this is why many people add light to their coops in winter.

Winter is the time for the hen to slow down or even stop producing eggs.

During this time of slowed production the hen is preparing for the months ahead which will be cold- food and water may be scarce (in the wild), self-preservation takes top priority.

If you do decide to add a light to the coop during winter to keep a good supply of eggs going, always add the extra hours on the morning. This way they will see the fading daylight as time to roost- it doesn’t cause such a commotion.

The light doesn’t have to be obnoxiously bright (a sixty watt bulb should be more than sufficient).

In order to stay at the same amount of light per day, you will need to adjust the timing frequently to allow for shorter, then longer days.

Please make sure your lamp is secured well, restless birds can easily dislodge a poorly placed lamp and cause a coop fire.

The Flock Are Picking At Each Other

Unfortunately, this is a nasty vice of chickens even when not molting. It can be become very problematic during the molt though. Usually the lower status hens are the target of the pecking.

The pin feathers are supplied with blood while they are growing, so when a pin feather is pecked or plucked at, it can bleed profusely which causes even more trouble.

Chicken Molting
Example of pin feathers

If you find any hens with bloody feathers or skin, remove them from the flock and carefully give them a once over to see the extent of the damage.

If it’s just one very small area or individual feather, paint the area with Blu-Kote or similar. If the damage is more extensive you may have to paint several areas and temporarily remove her from the flock.

If it continues to ooze blood for an extended time, you can use a styptic powder to stop the bleeding.

The Blu-Kote disguises the color red, which chickens are drawn to.

If you do not remove a hen that has significant damage already, she will likely be pecked to death.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Molt

Do chicks molt?

Yes they do, but you don’t really notice it too much. The first molt starts at around seven days, when the down is replaced by sparse feathers.

Their second molt is around seven-twelve weeks when they lose their baby feather and grow in adult plumage. Roosters should now start to look quite handsome with their hackles and long sickle tail feathers.

How can I stop them from molting?

You can’t.

It’s a natural process that all birds go through. Molting is triggered by the changing seasons and the decreasing daylight and cooler temperatures. The best you can do is wait patiently for it to be done.

What is a ‘soft’ molt?

Your chickens will experience soft molts and hard molts.

A soft molt is when the birds seem to lose very little in the feather department. You may see them looking tatty and ragged with missing tail feathers, but very little in the way of bare skin.

A hard molt leaves your hen looking like she went through a chicken plucker! She will have large areas of skin visible- some birds are almost bald in a hard molt.

Make sure the coop is draft free so she can sit inside and be miserable, but warm if she wants.

What is stress molting?

Stress molting occurs when the birds are feeling stressed. It can be caused by lack of food or water, a change in coop lighting or other similar occurrences.

In the poultry industry, stress molting can be induced by withholding food and water and changing the lighting.

This is done to ensure a regulated supply of eggs to the customers. It is a practice that is banned in many countries as it is incredibly cruel.

Should I buy them chicken sweaters?

Emphatically- No!

Chickens do not need sweaters! Seeing your hens ragged or bald is pitiful and pulls at the heart strings, but they will soon look much better.

The pin feathers that are coming on are extremely sensitive to the touch, so pulling on a sweater will cause the bird a lot of pain and misery.

Have my birds got dandruff?

What you are seeing is the discarded waxy covering of the pin feathers. It acts as a protection for these new, fragile feathers until they are fully developed- and yes, it really does look like dandruff!

Housekeeping Tip

Once the majority of your birds have got their new feathers coming in, it’s a great time to do the Fall housekeeping.

Clean the coop walls with water/vinegar mix, sweep out the old bedding, clean the nest boxes, and check for any holes or entrance points for vermin. Dust with poultry dust if you desire then add new bedding.

Summary

Molting always seems to make the hens look sad- they look tired and tatty and their feathers look bedraggled.

Once they have the new feathers in they seem to suddenly perk up in looks and energy. Try to keep a close watch on the hens that are lower in the pecking order, they are likely targets for feather pickers during the molt.

Please remember to pet and handle them as little as possible during the molt as the new pin feathers are super sensitive.

Be observant for signs of illness. This is a time when the bird is most susceptible to bugs and viruses. Giving them added vitamins in their water will help tremendously and don’t forget the ACV for the winter months ahead.

Try to keep a low stress environment for them- no new birds, no changes in routine and so on. Any stress at this time can slow down the feathering process.

We hope this helps you through the molting period and explains some of the problems associated with it. Be patient this is a time for rest and renewal, they will soon be ready to start up production for you again.

Are your hens molting now? Let us know how they are doing in the comments below!



Comments

  1. peter says

    Excellent and timely advice, as usual, for which sincere thanks from an enthusiastic newbie chicken custodian. I’ve been letting my girls out of their large enclosure into my orchard and vegetable plot. Unfortunately they’ve started exploring further afield and have got into a neighbour’s garden a few times. She’s a veteran chicken-keeper so doesn’t mind too much, and I’ve got the hang of catching them. They give me baleful looks and disappointed clucks when they’re back in ‘captivity’, but we’re soon pals again, and no hard feelings!

  2. Ed Crew says

    This is a very helpful article on understanding the molting period. I use the articles to teach my granddaughter about how to care for her chickens by understanding their needs. It seems that I learn something new each time I read the articles.
    Keep up the excellent work,

  3. Michelle Bell says

    Brilliant information, my girls are just finishing their molt and are starting to look amazing. I was worried as they did look sad and also didnt want cuddles, they always sit on my lap for a cuddle.Now I know why.
    Thankyou

  4. Ronald St-Amand says

    No my hens are not molting and they won’t this year, they’re only 10 months old. They have slightly decrease egg production though.

    Thanks a whole lot for all good info. I’m a rookie in this domain and every bit of information help.

    Ron

  5. Amy says

    Thank you so much for all the info. Very direct, not too wordy. Very good through information. Will be getting my girls in March 2017. I’m sooooooo excited. My husband and I built the coop and run, as we are city dwellers. Have brooder ready. Thanks again!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Thank you for your sweet words Amy 🙂

      Good luck with your hens next year, and be sure to get in touch if you need any help!

      Claire

  6. Ronda says

    My chickens are molting now. It is 32 degrees and snow on the ground. It’s sad. Some of them look real bad.
    We compost in the chicken coop in the winter. Is this going to hurt them as they molt?
    They started in October but are not done yet.

  7. Kayleigh says

    Hi Claire! Thanks for such a great article on molting! I have 9 chickens, most of them less than a year old, but 4 of them are older. One of the older ones molted in September I think, and now two more of the older ones are molting but it seems so cold for them, is this too late? We had an issue with the light in our coop, unfortunately we didn’t catch it right away and so the light has been on all night for a few nights. To make matters more complex, I did switch them to an organic, higher protein feed last week, so it was like a double whammy. Now I’m worried their molting due to either the stress of the change in light or possibly the change in food. I got them some extra organic cracked corn to help them along, but is there anything else I can do? I’ll put ACV in one of the waterers…I feel awful!!
    Thanks again for the great article!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Kayleigh,

      Sorry to hear about this!

      I would just make sure to keep a close eye on their light for the rest of the winter. Make sure they are well feed and watered. There isn’t much more you can do unfortunately.

      Claire

  8. Gale clavell says

    What a wonderful article with awesome information. Thank you! How much acv would you use in water? Also, do you worry about or prevent mites during molt? And how long is too long for high amounts of protein? Can essential oils be added to water or vitamins and minerals?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Gale,

      Happy to help 🙂

      You should use a dilution ration of 2% for acv.

      In terms of the protein, it depends on the feed and ratio but I wouldn’t recommend high protein for more than a month or so at a time.

      Claire

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