Molting chickens can look really bad and, as an animal carer/owner, can inspire feelings of guilt in that perhaps you’re not looking after your feathered friends well enough. So as the weather turns cold and our ladies stop laying, I’ve been doing some research to understand this process better and to help rid myself of unfounded guilt. Here’s what I’ve found.
Why do chickens molt?
Well firstly, it’s not just chickens, roosters also molt. There are a few reasons why it all happens including less daylight hours (as the days shorten in Winter), their laying cycle has finished (most chickens will take Winter off for a rest), or they’re experiencing some abnormal stress. The thing to remember is that molting is actually a regenerative process as they get a whole new coat of feathers which helps protect them from the elements and, apparently once they’ve molted, they’re more resistant to disease. So it’s a good, healthy thing – no matter how bad it looks.
What is actually happening?
Just like our teeth, the new feathers that are coming in will push the old ones out. Generally there’s a clear pattern in the order this happens with feathers dropping off the chook’s head and wings first, quickly followed by the rest of the body. Some birds will only loose small amounts of feathers and just look a bit scruffy, while others will drop all their feathers and look like a plucked chook – not a good look. When the new feathers do arrive, they’re called ‘pin feathers’
The ‘pin feathers’, their job is to hold the new feathers until they can break through
The Molting Experience
When molting, chickens can look a bit sick and sometimes lose weight, it’s important to keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t actually GET sick. If they start to behave sluggish or irregular, this isn’t normal ‘molting behaviour’ and you should seek further advice. Other physical changes which can occur include their combs appearing more dull in colour and their eyes can get a bit droopy.
This is all very understandable when you realise that feathers are around 85% protein while eggs only 13%, so our feathered friends are putting a huge amount of energy into growing feathers. In the process they give up the egg laying and divert that energy into feather making – fair enough I say. For roosters, fertility usually lowers in this time. As some birds will loose a large amount (or all) their feathers, their exposed skin can get irritated and bright red due to increased contact with objects (straw, the ground etc) or other chickens pecking them. If other chickens/roosters are picking on certain chooks, make sure that no skin is damaged (and starts bleeding) as infection can occur. If bullying is going on you may need to separate some of them for a period of time.
Does their diet need to change when molting?
While your chickens are molting it’s nice to be able to feed them food with higher amounts of protein in them to help keep them healthy. You can buy pellets or grain mixes with higher percentages of protein for this time (around 20% protein content). Of course, if you’re able to give them fresh bugs, worms, black soldier flies this would be fantastic. Sunflower seeds are a big time favourite with our chooks – they can’t get enough of them, this season I’ll be upping their quota of these seeds, plus bugs and slugs.
One of our ladies, ‘Scratch’
Our chickens haven’t started molting properly yet, however I know it’s coming soon as they’ve gone off the lay, their combs are looking rather dull and their eyes are a bit droopy. And don’t worry, Scratch does have two legs, she was just practicing some yoga moves during the photo shoot.
You can see the red, irritated bare skin on this bird. Simply keep an eye on it and make sure other chickens/rooster don’t pick on them.
Other useful things to know
To help prevent any unnecessary stress in the chicken’s lives, avoid bringing new birds into the flock if possible. This is a stressy process in the best of times, so definitely avoid it while molting. Another hot tip is that you should limit/eliminate handling your chooks as it’s painful for them when molting.
Photos are all gathered from various webpages from Backyard Chickens, except ‘Scratch’.
*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.