Molting refers to the shedding of feathers. It is the natural process of losing and re-growing feathers. Most all birds do it including chickens. Molting is generally, not a pretty sight! In fact, it usually is hard to watch a chicken undergo a rough molt. Every chicken has about 8,500 feathers so losing them all is quite the ordeal! Chickens have two kinds of molts: the juvenile molt and the annual molt. Let’s take a look at when molting happens, how to help chickens through it, and how to manage the molt itself.
When Molting OccursThe first molt, also known as the juvenile molt, happens in the 4-12 week period of a chicken’s life. They are constantly losing and growing feathers during this time. The annual molting happens once a year, normally in autumn/fall and the chicken will experience this hard molt when it's around 16-18 months old. In fall the daylight hours get shorter, which signals to the chickens that it's time to re-grow feathers for the upcoming winter months. However, molting can be caused any time of the year by lack of nutrition, lack of water, and bullying/stress. I had a hen who went without water for about 8 hours and she molted for a week!
Also, it is possible that if you get poor quality stock chickens, like I did, for them to molt three or more times each year. Chickens generally don’t have the annual molt in their first year of life. But this is not always true. My chickens molted in their first year. The annual molt lasts 5-7 weeks on average. However, they can be as short as two weeks or as long as twelve weeks! Older chickens always take longer than the average yearling.
Why Molting OccursMany people don’t understand the whole point of the molt. But, there is purpose and beauty behind it. Since chickens are busy creatures, they are constantly losing and breaking feathers. By the end of the year, their feathers are not appropriate for the duty of keeping the chickens warm in winter. The molt causes the chickens to lose these old feathers and grow shiny, strong, and warm new ones. By the end of the molt, your chickens will look amazing! Like they are brand new! Of course, the actual molting process is not fun to watch or experience. BUT, it is not pointless!
How Molting OccursIn most articles and books you will read, it says that chickens start molting at the head and neck and then work their way downward. This is not true! I, along with other chicken keepers, have experienced hens who begin molting at the tail and move up from there. Or start molting their saddle feathers first. All chickens molt differently.
Signs of the MoltYou may wonder if you’ll be able to notice your chickens molting. The answer is yes….and no! It really varies from chicken to chicken. Some molt so slowly you will hardly notice. Others throw all their feathers off at once and are half-naked for weeks. Rarely will you get a completely bald chicken. You also will notice great amounts of feathers laying around the coop and run. Other signs of molting include:
- Decreased Laying
- Hungrier Chickens
- Feather-Eating Chickens
- An Aggressive and Suddenly Shy Flock
How to HelpAs you have probably gathered from the already stated information, molting is stressful and hard on a chicken’s body. While some people may run screaming for the hills, other people immediately want to know how they can help. There are many ways in which to help the molting flock. First of all, feathers take up 85% protein, and with all the feathers being lost; there is a great need for extra protein. Besides the normal chicken feed, you should provide foods with extra protein such as oatmeal, quinoa, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, meat scraps, corn, peas, dry dog or cat food, tuna fish, black oil sunflower seeds, and soybean meal. Be sure that you feed these all in moderation and do not overdo them! This will cause diarrhea and other problems.
If your molting chickens do not get enough protein, they will start pecking aggressively at each other and eat any feathers they can find. There are some feeds out there that are specially made for molting chickens and can be fed in higher quantities. These include Feather Fixers and Mite Fixers. Apple cider vinegar also helps a lot during the molt. It is full of vitamins and minerals. (Here is a link on how to use it https://www.backyardchickens.com/a/...t-and-natural-ways-to-keep-your-flock-healthy)
Some people make special foods for their flock during the molt such as molt muffins. They also make mashes using oatmeal, layer feed, and eggs. These are all wonderful for your flock. It will not only help their molt but it will also take their mind off it and make them happy.
Other ways to help molting chickens include: not handling them as much as possible to prevent injury, pain, and stress, making sure they have plenty of roaming room and access to shelter, making sure they have lots of water, and trying to reduce as much stress as possible.
Sometimes you may come across an injured, molting bird. Newly emerging feathers have vein-filled shafts. If a shaft is injured or cut, it will bleed a lot, similar to cutting the quick in a dog’s claw. This causes pain and stress on the bird so be sure and remove her from the rest of the flock. Clean her wound once it stops bleeding and remove it using tweezers. Keep her isolated until she is completely healed.
Facts About the Molt•During the molt, hens normally quit laying. Who could blame them? Molting takes lots of energy and is stressful. Not to mention the protein required to molt. Instead of going to eggs, all the chicken’s body nutrients go to finishing the molt. Roosters often stop fertilizing during the molt too. Your flock will not be very productive during the molt.
•Molting is a great way to find out which of your hens are the best producers. Good layers molt late and fast while poor layers molt early and slow. The primary wing feathers determine whether a hen is an early or late molter. The large, stiff, “flight” feathers can be seen on the outer part of each wing when the wing is spread out. Generally, there are ten primary feathers on each wing that are separated from the smaller secondary feathers by a short axial feather. Late molting hens lose primary feathers in groups of two or more, whereas early molters lose feathers individually.
•Pure bred chickens usually take longer to molt than hybrids.
•Broody hens molt after every hatch.
•Chickens become shy during the molt because they are stressed and fear the touching of humans which can result in pain.
•Once the molt is finished, your flock should return to their normal behaviors and duties.
•Bullying behaviors increase during the molt.
•Molting doesn’t always happen in fall. Chickens have been known to molt in spring, summer, and even winter.
•All chickens have a different molting pattern.
Once the molt is finished, the chickens will look shiny and amazing!
Molting is stressful, hard, and regular. It can last anywhere from 2-12 weeks. All chickens molt differently. Chickens need extra protein to make it through the molt successfully. Hens usually stop laying eggs during the molt. Make sure you watch for bullying behaviors. By knowing the facts, you will be able to help your chickens through it.
Feel free to PM me with any questions.
BYC members, ChickenShan and Dan26552