The autumn leaves are falling from the trees and feathers are falling from your chickens. Chicken molting, what is it?
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.
These molting discards are 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.
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.
Broody’s always looked 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 lactobacilli 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 a 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.
They 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 in the morning. This way they will see the fading daylight as the 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
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.
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.
When it’s just one very small area or individual feather, paint the area with Blu-Kote or similar.
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?
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?
Chickens do not need sweaters! Seeing your hens ragged or bald is pitiful and pulls at the heartstrings, 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!
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.
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!