It can be a frightening sight, walking out towards your chicken coop and seeing feathers scattered everywhere.
My first thought is usually the worst- has a predator broken into the coop and attacked my chickens?
Luckily, I haven’t ever lost any of my chickens to a predator and their feather loss is normally something much less serious. The most common reason for a chicken losing their feathers is the annual moult; however this isn’t the only reason.
Let’s take a look at the most common reasons why chickens lose their feathers and what we can do about it.
The first and most common reason why chickens lose their feathers is the ‘annual moult‘.
A moult is when a chicken sheds its old feathers and replaces them with new feathers. Chickens moult during the end of the egg laying season, in the fall. This is normally closely linked to daylight hours. So, during the fall when there is a drop in the number of daylight hours, you can expect your chickens to start their moult.
You will noticed when they start to moult they lose feathers around their neck first. This will spread to their back and then move to their breast until finally their tail feathers drop out.
The typical moult lasts around 6 weeks, however older chickens moult much slower and it can take them up to 10-12 weeks.
In addition to their feathers dropping out, you will also notice that their comb will lose some of its colour and it won’t be a vibrant red any longer.
Finally, during a moult you will notice that the amount of eggs they lay will greatly reduce and most likely stop all together. This is because chickens need lots of protein to make eggs, but also, their feathers are 80% protein. So your chicken can either moult or lay eggs, it doesn’t have enough protein to do both at the same time.
Can You Stop Their Moult?
When people find out their chicken in moulting the first question they ask is can you stop the moult?
Well, not really. But you can help speed it up.
We mentioned above that when chickens moult they require a lot of protein to make their new feathers.
So the first thing you can do is stop feeding them layers pellets and give them food which has a higher percentage of protein in it. I like to feed my chickens game bird feed during their moult because it is 20% protein- this is double the amount of protein in layers pellets.
In addition to changing their feed you can also give them tonics. Personally I don’t give them any tonics but a commonly used tonic is apple cider vinegar.
You can mix this in with their water supply to give them a boost of minerals and vitamins.
One supplement we do give our chickens is ginger powder and we’ve wrote about this extensively here.
You can mix ginger powder up with their game feed and it helps to boost their circulation and spread vitamins and nutrients throughout their body.
A word of caution with ginger though- don’t give them too much ginger because it can be extremely bad for their health. For my 12 hens, I give them 10 grams a month in one of their meals.
If only one of your chickens has lost their feathers, it could be that she is just broody.
A broody hen is one that wants to hatch their own chicks and she will lay on top of their eggs all day long. You will easily notice that she is broody because she won’t leave the nesting box and will rarely eat.
When they are broody they tend to pluck their own breast feathers out so their skin is in direct contact with the eggs.
This isn’t healthy for your hen if it continues for a long period of time so make sure you read how to stop a broody hen.
Pecking Order and Bullying
Chickens can also lose their feathers when they are being bullied.
If you’ve kept chickens for any length of time you know that they often jostle and compete to move up the ‘pecking order’. The pecking order is the chickens ‘hierarchy of status’ and chickens at the top of it control the rest of the flock.
Whilst this jostling for pecking order is normally harmless, occasionally it can turn into bullying and hens get singled out and targeted.
I’ve found the more aggressive breeds are those that are genetically ‘closer’ to original jungle fowl.
If a single hen is being targeted, their feathers will get plucked out and their skin may also get broken. Broody hens often get targeted because they have plucked out their own breast feathers and the other chickens will then peck at the red flesh.
This can be very dangerous because chickens are attracted to blood so they will peck the injured chicken even more.
You can spread tree pruning sealer onto the cut to help protect the injured chicken. The sealer will dry hard nearly straight away and will give the chicken time to recover. Also, the sealer is black so the chickens won’t be anywhere near as keen to peck at it, and if they do it will rub off on their beak so you know which hens have been bullying. You can then either isolate the culprits or use a blinder for a few days.
I always prefer to isolate the culprit instead.
To do this I place them in a separate smaller pen for a couple of days. What’s interesting is that when the bully returns to the pen they get knocked down a peg or two by the other girls because the bully is consider ‘new’.
You will notice when you add new chickens to your existing flock there will also be some jostling for position in the pecking order and as a result some of your chickens will lose their feathers.
This should settle down in a few days if you introduce the chickens to each other properly. If you find they are still pecking out each other’s feathers you will need to separate the new and old chickens for a few days and then attempt to reintroduce them to each other.
The final reason chickens will bully each other is because there isn’t enough room in either their coop or run.
Chickens need at least 3 square foot each inside the coop and 15 square foot each inside the run. If they have less than this, they will bully each other and peck out each other’s feathers.
Parasites and Disease
In addition to moulting, the only other occasion when feather loss can be flock-wide is when your chickens have a disease or are infected with parasites.
Parasites can cause your hens to lose their feathers and also stop laying eggs.
The most common parasites are lice and red mites. Mites will live in the chicken coop and only appear during the night to suck blood from the chickens. Whereas, lice actually live on the chickens’ body so they are easier to spot.
In both cases you can use poultry dust from your local hardware store to remove the parasites.
If you are treating mites you can spread the poultry dust in the coop whereas if you are treating lice you need to apply the poultry dust directly onto your chickens.
To prevent either of the parasites returning make sure you regularly clean your chicken coop and wash your hands both before and after handling your chickens.
If your chickens have lost their feathers for over 12 weeks and there is no obvious sign as to why, make sure you visit your vet just to double check they are ok.
Surprisingly, roosters can be the cause of chickens losing their feathers as well.
When roosters mate with hens, the rooster holds onto the hen’s back with their beak- this is known as treading.
When this happens the rooster can quite easily pull the feathers out of the hen’s neck and back. If the rooster only mates with a certain hen then over a period of time the balding can be very obvious!
Fortunately if your rooster is placed with several hens then this balding won’t be noticeable.
Change in Diet
A sudden change in a chicken’s diet can inadvertently trigger a moult.
In fact, this was a common technique used by industrial grade farmers to force their chickens to moult and improve the quality of eggs they laid. Fortunately, this is now illegal in many places.
By changing their diet if you’re not careful you can reduce the amount of protein your chickens are getting and this can cause them to moult.
I’ve previously wrote about the importance of giving your chickens good quality layers pellets and what happened when we stopped giving our chickens pellets.
If you want healthy, happy chickens you need to make sure they get access to a high protein diet, and the simplest way to do this is through layers pellets.
The key thing to remember is that normally when chickens lose their feathers it’s completely harmless. However sometimes it can be a cause for concern, so make sure to give your chickens a thorough inspection if/when they do lose their feathers.
Let us know in the comments below what methods you’ve used to help your chickens during their moults.