In the fifth chapter of The Definitive Guide To Keeping Chickens In Winter, we look at molting.
So, you opened up the hen house in the morning and thought it was a crime scene from CSI. Feathers strewn around the floor in heaps…you think the worst!
A predator killed the girls, but no, they are all calmly perched on their roosts chirping away to themselves. What happened??
The molt has started.
What is the molt? Why does it happen? How does it affect your hens? These are just some of the questions we will answer here for you today.
Every year along with the leaves falling and the days’ shortening, chickens over the age of twelve months will molt their old, worn out feathers to grow new ones.
Note: If your hen is loosing feathers and you don’t think they are molting, read our chicken feather loss article.
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Why Do Chickens Molt?
When chicks are small, they go through two small molts. The first is around 6-8 days of age. They start to lose their down and replace it with their first feathers.
Their second molt is between 7-12 weeks. Here they replace their first feathers with their second set. This set will last them until they get to the ‘big girls’ molt sometime after 12 months of age.
Over a period of time, the birds feathers will become dull, broken and look tatty. The feathers also lose the insulation factor needed to keep the birds warm and the ability to perform almost perfectly aerodynamically is also affected.
It’s not just chickens that molt. All birds do. Some take longer than others, some molt twice a year, some molt so slowly that it takes a couple of years to complete!
A chicken molt averages about two to three months for completion, but some individuals can take longer.
The molt is often described as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. A hard molt can have your hen looking like she’s been plucked ready for the table! A soft molt may be so light it’s barely noticeable.
A broody hen may molt after hatching her chicks, but she will soon be back to her old self once she starts eating and drinking regularly.
What Happens During The Molt?
The shortening of the days tells the birds ‘alarm clock’ that it’s time to replace the old with the new and during this time a few things will happen.
Firstly, your hen starts dropping feathers.
They will lose their feathers near their head at first and this will eventually spread down to their tail. The old worn out feathers simply fall out, leaving the bird with bald spots.
The bald spots are populated with the new ‘pin’ feathers. While the pin feathers are growing in, try to avoid handling your birds- It is painful for them to be picked up at this time.
While growing and developing the pin feathers are contained within a ‘sheath’. Once the pin feathers has finished growing the sheath will fall off and leave a ‘dandruff’ look to the hen. This, too, will pass.
If a pin feather is damaged whilst it is growing, it can bleed profusely.
If there is profuse bleeding, remove the hen from her flock mates immediately. Once hens see the blood, they will start picking and they can do serious damage to an already injured bird.
You then need to stop the bleeding by applying pressure to the feather. When the bleeding has stopped cover the area with Blukote and return her to her flock mates. Keep a close eye on her to ensure they don’t start picking at her again.
Egg Production During a Molt
Egg production will diminish or stop whilst your hens are molting.
This is because hens need a tremendous amount of protein to lay eggs and also to create new feathers during their molt.
The hens need for protein for her feathers overrides the need to lay eggs.
Some hens will not resume laying right after the molt. Remember, her need to lay eggs is directly linked to daylight.
Some of the more prolific layers like Golden Comets will still lay, but at a reduced rate.
In the wild, it is natural for the hen to cease laying over the winter months. This is the time for resting the body and gathering resources for next years’ egg and chick production. It’s also a time of diminished resources such as food, so the bird needs to harness what energy she can and survive the winter.
Stress During the Molt:
Chickens go through a lot when they molt their feathers. They use a lot of their energy to stay warm and regrow their lost fluff.
With that being said, it’s a stressful time for your chickens and they can easily become ill or even perish during a molt if they are stressed (which often happens in forced molts—more on that below).
Along with the nutritional assistance, ensuring that your chickens are safe from predators, warm, and comfortable during a molt will go a long way for their health, and it may even speed up the molting process so they can get back to laying as soon as possible.
Also keep in mind that molting is not a time for big changes in your chickens’ lives. In fact, it should be as peaceful as possible.
So if you’ve been planing a move, wait to move your chickens and never introduce new birds to the flock while they are in a molt.
Nutrition for Molting
As we have mentioned, your chickens’ demand for protein during the molt is very high and you need to make sure you are providing them with enough protein.
First of all, make sure your birds have a high protein feed- 18-22% is about right.
In addition to their feed you can give them other snacks which are full of protein to help them during their molt.
- Fish Food: Typical fish food contains around 35% protein. So a small handful per day will help to boost the levels of your hen’s protein no end!
- Cat Food: Yes – cat food. It’s high in protein and chickens love it! Make sure you feed in moderation though.
- Meat Scraps: Uneaten meat scraps from the table are fine also. Somehow I just can’t feed chicken to the girls… it’s seems wrong!
- Scrambled Eggs: If you have an excess of eggs, by all means whip up some scrambled eggs for the ladies. I usually reserve this treat for sick or injured birds though since I never have enough eggs! Also don’t forget to cook the shells to feed to the hens for added calcium.
- Tuna: If you can afford to feed your ladies tuna – go for it! Canned in water not oil please!
- Mealworms: The eternal favorite that chickens will kill for! Make sure you read our guide on how to grow your own mealworms…
Treats such as pumpkins and ‘flock block’ will help to boost levels of vitamins and other dietary necessities.
Flock blocks are blocks of seed mixed with other nutrients for chickens to peck at. Since some contain sugars, I prefer to make my own.
As with all things chicken- extra protein and treats should be given in moderation.
If hens are not getting enough protein, they may start feather picking. Sometimes they will pick their own, but more frequently will pick at the new pin feathers of a flock mate.
What Is Forced Molting?
This is a practice used in the egg industry in many countries. All hens are subjected to a period of seriously reduced nutrition intake for a period somewhere between 7-14 days. Their light is also artificially reduced in many places.
This stresses the hens so they all go into a forced molt. This ensures that they all molt at the same time and cause minimal disruption in the egg supply to the public.
It is said that the stress induced by doing this to birds also weakens their immune system and they fall prey to disease.
This practice has been banned in the UK as inhumane and several other countries are slowly following suit.
Chapter Five Summary
Your birds are vulnerable at this time of year and are relying on you to help them through this miserable time!
There is nothing to prevent them from molting, but we can help them get through it as quickly as possible.
Watch the flock carefully for signs of picking, and treat as needed. This is also an excellent time of year for checking feather shafts and skin for any signs of lice or fleas. If noted, treat accordingly.
Remember, the hen really doesn’t want to be held or cuddled at this time of year- it will be painful for her.
Providing your flock with enhanced nutrition is probably the single most important thing you can do. Help their protein requirement by providing a feed that has higher protein content and supplement with extra vitamins.