In the fifth chapter of The Definitive Guide To Keeping Chickens In Winter, we look at chickens molting in winter.
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??
Chickens Molting In Winter, What and Why
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 losing feathers and you don’t think they are molting, read our chicken feather loss article.
BEST FEED FOR CHICKEN MOLTING IN WINTER
Scratch and Peck Feeds – Naturally Free Organic Layer Feed
- High in protein to help chickens’ grow back their feathers.
- This feed is organic and non-GMO.
- This is by far one of my hens’ favorite layers feed.
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 bird’s 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 have 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 covering the area with Blukote and returns her to her flock mates.
Keep a close eye on her to ensure they don’t start picking at her again.
Egg Production During Chickens Molting in Winter
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 hen’s need for protein for her feathers overrides the need to lay eggs.
Some hens will not resume laying right after they 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 Chickens Molting in Winter
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 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…
There are many other healthy treats that your hens will enjoy. In addition to the higher demand for protein, she will need more vitamins and nutrients to maintain good health.
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.
Disclosure: We may earn affiliate commissions at no cost to you from the links on this page. This did not affect our assessment of products. Find full disclosure here.
28 thoughts on “Chapter Five: Chickens Molting During Winter”
I have a leghorn hen “Chirpy” that is molting hard. It is below 30* as we are in Minnesota. This morning she lost all her neck feathers and chest feathers and as I was bringing her in the house, her wing feathers left a trail behind us. I ha e her in a dog crate in the basement. Is it OK to keep her in there until her feathers grow back. It is a 2’x3′ crate. I don’t want her to freeze. If so, do I keep her inside until spring or is it safe to put her back out as soon as her feathers come in regardless of the cold? She’s my favorite hen and is always friendly, but seems stressed. I put another hen “sparkles” with her for a few hours today
Hi Sara and Chirpy!
Wow that is cold!
Yes that’s completely fine to take her inside whilst she is molting so hard. Just make sure she is getting light from somewhere (either an artificial light or daylight), also feed her a high protein feed and make sure she has plenty of water 🙂
Just make sure to keep an eye on her when you re-introduce her to your flock in a couple of weeks- make sure they don’t bully her!
I bring two of my hens in often. It’s very good to do that and show your love and care for them. I use an extra large cage with pine shavings and they have their food and water. I have also attached a perch in it so they can perch if they want. They will go out to forage during the day but cold temperatures they definitely come in.
great site, easy and simple NOT over complicated (thanks) So my question; WHAT do you DO when you re-introduce a bird to its group OR add a bird? (I’ve heard it must be done in the middle of the night, dark, and you sneak it in) is this accurate?
Thank you so much 🙂
Yes it can be done this way and we discuss this way in our article here:
Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!
Thank you for your kind words and it’s great to have you with us!
My hen Penelope is in a hard molt right now and it is going to be really cold and rainy this week. What do I need to do to keep her warm in her coop since she has lost so many feathers?
Hi Leigh Ann,
I would follow our winter guide to make sure the coop and run are properly prepared for winter. Also keep a close eye on the temp in the coop and add heating if needed.
Hi, I just came across your site. You helped me figure out what’s going on with our chicken whose a Welsummer. I opened her co-op this morning to let her out and it looked like the crime scene you describe with feathers. Very helpful information. It’s very, very cold here so I thought something happens to her, but it’s just a molt going on. I can’t say thank you enough for the helpful article.
I have only one chicken that appears to be molting. She is about 10 months old. There are 4 other birds in the flock. She is the only Welsummer. Recently she has not been joining with the others in the play or hunt for food. It is cold here. Her coop is about 15 degrees at night. All the chicks prefer to stay in rather than go out into the snow. What can I do to help her?
Just make sure to keep her warm and make sure she has electrolytes in their water.
Thank you so much for this helpful guide! Seeing the picture of the pin feathers really helped me identify what was happening to one of my 11 month old barred rock hens. She looked a little scruffy yesterday around the neck but nothing serious, then today her neck was completely bare except for the pin feathers! It’s been an exceptionally cold winter here in Southern Idaho so I put the old heat lamp in the coop today so hopefully she keeps warm. I’d hate to have to crate her up in the garage so I’ll try to avoid that unless we have another cold snap.
I’m also in southern Idaho (Idaho Falls) and have the same thing with one of our girls. Best of luck to us both!! It’s dang cold! 🙂
I know this might sound silly but one of my hens Grennie, is going thru a hard molt. I have a heat lamp in the coop but I’m not sure that is enough. Our temps have been below zero outside the coop and trying to maintain 35-40 inside the coop. Can I put a knitted wool sweater on her until some of her feathers grow back??? My mom knitted one just for her… lol…
I tend to avoid wool sweaters because they can irritate the hen when the new feathers come through.
Molting is very painful for them. They don’t even like to be handled since they are so sensitive. A sweater would not feel good. I provide an indoor cage with shavings and a perch for night time that is kept indoors when it’s very cold and a bird does not have feathers.
My hens went through a second molt this year. They are just finishing up and starting to lay again. They’ve never done this before. Is there a reason?
my birds suddenly started laying small sized egg instead of their usual big egs. what could be the reason?
Did you recently change their feed?
I’d like your recipe for your flock block. Care to share? 😉
I have 2 chickens a big and little. The big one is very aggressive and has pulled out several of the feathers on the little one. It’s now getting colder and I’m afraid she won’t have enough to stay warm in the below freezing temps. Any advice?
Thank you so much
I have a chicken who is lowest in the pecking order who suffered feather loss as a result. I put a saddle on her to protect those bald areas from further picking and in three weeks time her feathers had grown back in. She hated it at first and everyone was terrified of her because she had a “cape” so that also helped reduce getting picked on. They run about $5 on amazon or you can make your own. Good Luck!
Also if you choose to go this route be sure to keep an eye on the weather. The saddle if it gets wet can put your chicken at risk of getting too cold, it doesn’t dry quickly like feathers!
I’d put the bully in a time out crate for a time. Then put them back together again. If she still bullies, put her in time out again for a little longer time. Keep at it. She will figure it out.
I always have a large cage with pine shavings and a perch that can be kept indoors for these type of situations. Allow the little one to be in the indoor cage at night to protect her. When birds molt they are very sensitive and sore. I imagine having something on them would not feel good.
I love this site FYI. This is my 1st winter with chickens so Ive got questions. Can I feed my hens suet block (like for wild songbirds) as a treat?
My girls love suet! I make my own with collected bacon and beef grease that I save in the fridge. I mix in meal worms, raisins, bird seed, sunflower seeds and whatever else they love! Store bought is cheap enough, too!!