Fall is in the air- the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting cooler, and the leaves are starting to fall. Along with colorful leaves on the ground, you may also notice feathers! No need to panic, though- your birds are likely just molting!
Molting is an essential part of chickens’ growth and health, but losing and replacing feathers is also a messy, stressful process. Taking steps to help chickens with molting can minimize the stress and keep your backyard birds happy and healthy.
Think of molting as a vacation- your birds will take a break from laying to give more of their energy to re-growing feathers in preparation for colder weather.
All chickens molt to replace old, broken, and worn out feathers with fresh plumage that will provide better insulation. Young chickens typically have several juvenile molts as they grow to their full size, but won’t begin their regular seasonal molts until they are 12-18 months old. Mature chickens will molt once or twice a year, often with one “soft” molt where only a few feathers may be shed, and one “hard” molt where they will lose almost all their feathers over the course of a few weeks.
When a chicken molts, it is more susceptible to illnesses and injuries, including skin infections. The molting process can be uncomfortable or even painful as new feathers protrude from the skin, and sensitive chickens may become moody, withdrawn, or even aggressive if they are exceptionally stressed. It can take 4-16 weeks for a chicken to molt completely, and during that time a hen’s egg production may be significantly slowed or even stopped depending on her breed, the type of molt she is undergoing, and her overall health.
Molt timing is tied to photoperiod, and chickens may molt both in spring and late summer or fall when the seasons are changing. This timing ensures the birds have the freshest, sturdiest plumage just when they will need it most.
Tips to Help Molting Chickens
Molting is a natural process, but there are several tricks you can use to make it less stressful on your flock. When you start to notice molting has begun…
- Reduce Stress on the Flock- A stressed chicken is more vulnerable to diseases and will lose weight and have more uneven egg production. Since molting itself is stressful, it is important to reduce other sources of stress while chickens are molting. Avoid introducing new birds that will disrupt the flock’s hierarchy during molting, and keep the birds in comfortable, familiar surroundings rather than moving them to a new coop. Similarly, avoid major coop renovations or other disturbances that can upset molting chickens.
- Increase Protein in the Birds’ Feed- A chicken’s feathers are approximately 85% keratin, the same protein that makes up human hair and fingernails. When the birds are molting, a higher-protein diet will help support healthy feather growth so they can molt more easily. Switching to a feed that offers a higher protein content is a good option. We recommend using Purina Flockraiser Pellets or Crumbles with 20% protein rather than the typical Purina Layena which has 16% protein. If you feed organic-only and would prefer something organic, opt for the Purina Organic Starter-Grower which offers 18% protein. You can also add protein-rich treats such as mealworms, sunflower seeds, or scrambled eggs to their diet.
- Limit Handling the Birds- Because new pinfeathers poking through the skin can make chickens’ skin more sensitive, even painful, it is best to minimize petting, holding, and handling the birds as much as possible while they molt. This will also reduce the risk of transferring bacteria to the chickens’ skin where it could infect even small cuts or scratches and cause more painful injuries or transmit diseases. If the birds must be handled, do so as gently and quickly as possible.
- Clean and Insulate the Coop- As chickens molt, they will be shedding large amounts of feathers. Cleaning up those feathers will help keep the coop more comfortable and sanitary to minimize disease transmission or contamination. Be sure to add deep, clean bedding and block drafts in the coop as well, but take care that the air circulation is still adequate for a healthy flock. Cleaning the yard where the chickens peck and scratch is also helpful to keep molting chickens healthier and more comfortable.
One thing never to do for molting chickens is to make them wear sweaters, coats, or other cute “clothes” to protect their skin when they are without feathers. Because their skin is more sensitive when molting, these coverings can increase discomfort and stress the birds out even more. Additionally, feathers may not grow in straight or align properly if they are covered during molting, which can disrupt the birds’ insulation and cause problems long after their molt has finished.
Using Chicken Feathers
One chicken has an average of 8,000 feathers, and even a small flock may seem to create a feathery explosion as it molts. Shed feathers are a great source of nitrogen for compost piles, or can be left to decay naturally to nourish soil in the yard or garden. If you want to use feathers for other purposes, first collect the feathers in the best condition, then freeze them for several days to kill any bacteria or parasites. Wash the feathers gently to remove any dirt or other debris, and you can then use them for creative projects such as hand-tied fishing lures, homemade cat toys, unique dreamcatchers, or other craft projects.
Molting is a natural part of a chicken’s life, and something you need to be aware of and prepared for whenever you keep a backyard flock. By understanding molting and taking steps to keep your birds healthy and happy through the process, you can help your chickens molt less stressfully and they will soon return to their pre-molting energy and vigor.
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