Just as many chicken owners discover, chickens and other feathered friends may molt in the summer or fall. Some molting may be light enough so that it is barely even noticeable, but you may go in the chicken coop one morning or evening to what looks like a pillow explosion. Either way, this is perfectly normal during molting. However, during a molt, you may also need to help your birds get the proper nutrition. Here are some tips to help your flock during a molt.
- Be sure to supply them with plenty of protein. Feathers consist of about 85-90% protein, so protein is a much needed nutrient. While they are molting, you can feed them high-protein snacks, such as canned cat food (this will not harm chickens as it consists mostly of meat) and tuna. Other snacks may include cooked ground turkey, a broiler feed, or even cooked chicken. Whatever it is, be sure to feed them something containing a lot of protein.
- Allow access to dirt baths, which help to keep parasites, such as mites and lice, off of them. Just because they're molting does not mean that they will remain free of parasites. If your chickens do not have access to dust for dust bathing, you can make your own. Start off with a box (big enough to fit a chicken comfortably) and add one part sand to one part wood ash (free of charcoal). Sand can be found at many hardware stores. Next, add one part diatomaceous earth. Put the box outside and allow them to dust bathe.
- Reduce the stress they experience. Molting is very hard on a bird's body, and exposure to more stress can increase the time it takes them to complete a molt. If they had excessive stress or improper nutrition during a molt, the new feathers may be of poor quality.
So how do I tell if they are molting or infested with parasites?
Generally, you will be able to see the parasites on the chicken when you pick them up and inspect the bottom of the feathers. If nothing is seen towards the bottom of them except some feathers regrowing, the chicken is molting. If you see what appear to be little ground pepper flakes that move on their own, then your flock may have parasites.
Another good sign to look out for is what I call symmetrical shedding. Symmetrical shedding is where the chicken loses feathers in the same spots, only on different sides. While inspecting one of our hens the other day, I noticed she was missing some feathers toward her thighs on both her left and right sides. I inspected her more, but found no sign of parasites. Instead, she was busy regrowing feathers on her back too. I was able to conclude that she was molting. She was lightly molting, and the other feathers covered up the spots where she lost feathers.
If you are still unsure, consider the following tips:
- If you do not see parasites, look in the coop for any hiding places for red mites, which feed during the night and hide during the day.
- Feather loss throughout your entire flock could also be a sign of parasites. Parasites will begin to spread very rapidly from chicken to chicken.
- While inspecting a chicken, if you see bite marks or scratches on their skin, that is a good indication that there are parasites.
- Watch your flock's behavior to see if they are being overly aggressive, as it may cause feather loss.
- If all you notice, despite all your searching efforts, is that the bird is pale and has stopped laying eggs, he/she may be ill. Paleness can sometimes mean a respiratory illness and all birds showing any symptoms of an illness should be isolated from the flock.
If none of the above is true about your flock and feather loss, then your flock is likely in molt.
When do chickens molt?
Chickens will typically molt in summer to fall months. However, I have noticed that some will molt in spring as well. It can also depend on how old they are. Chickens will generally molt at the following ages:
- 1 year old
- 2 years old
- 3 years old
Above, one of my hens, around one year old, molts on her back.
Here, you can see some feather regrowth. This is also a good sign they are molting.
Some chickens will not molt as often after about the third year, as we found out with our 5 year old hen last summer. Her younger sister molted, along with another hen that was a little over 1 year old. The 5 year old hen didn't molt. Some chickens will also do a 'mini molt' around 8-9 months of age. Sometimes this 'mini molt' can be so small that the only sign they're molting is they have not laid many eggs. Still, you may want to check for parasites.
I've also seen that some of my chickens who have been bullied a bit will molt to regrow any lost feathers.
While your flock is molting, don't expect many eggs. Some chickens will even stop laying for a few weeks. Add more protein to their diet, and provide a dust bath. Within a few weeks, your flock should be back to normal, and some chickens that weren't frizzled before may even be frizzled after the molt, due to a gene. Egg laying should resume between 1- 2 1/2 weeks after the molt is completely done. You may also want to keep feeding them snacks rich in protein even after their molt, so that the hen can replenish herself.