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The How, When & Why Of Chickens Molting

October 25, 2013


Every year, once a year, chickens shed their feathers during a period, on average, of anywhere from 4-8 weeks known as the molting period.  Depending on the breed, chickens may molt shorter or longer than this. This is the time when you open your coop door to what looks like dozens of down feather pillows have been opened and emptied into it.  During the molting period, the chicken will gradually lose her feathers, replacing them with new feathers.  Although I am saying "her" since we have all hens, both hens and roosters molt.

A typical time for molting is in the Fall, as the days get shorter, however, other circumstances can cause a molt such as lack of food or water.  Molting is stressful and energy intensive for chickens.

The feather loss usually starts with wing and then head feathers, gradually moving toward the back although we've had loss of tail feathers before loss of head feathers for a few of our hens.  The loss of feathers leaves the hens looking ragged with pin feathers quite noticeable {looking like quills}.  Pin feathers are sensitive to the touch which is why you should handle the flock with care during the molt.

If I Use Artificial Lighting Can I Prevent Molting?
No.  Even birds exposed to artificial lighting will eventually molt.  If you're concerned about egg production you can conduct forced molting, meaning you force them into a molt when you desire.  The main reason for this is to keep egg production high through winter.  In general, chickens who complete their molt early and begin laying again in the Fall will lay better through the Winter {as opposed to birds who molt in Fall and begin laying in Winter}.  Forced molting is tricky and requires inducing nutritional and environmental stress on the birds.

Will Molting Affect Egg Laying?
Yes.  Most chickens either quit laying eggs completely or very sporadically during a molt.  Usually once they start laying again the eggs are smaller than they had been prior to the molt.  The small eggs don't last long though.

What Can I Do To Help Them Through The Molt?
The main thing you can do to help them is to increase their protein sources.  Although protein, in general, should be kept at 16-24% of their diet, during a molt a slight increase will give them the nutrition needed to help it go a bit quicker since feathers need protein for proper development {feathers are 85% protein}.  If you opt not to increase protein and after a few months you have chickens who still haven't grown back all their feathers, you may want to consider increasing at that time.

Additional help would be to limit the stress inflicted on your flock.  During the molt, introducing new birds, for example, would add quite a bit of stress.  Try to wait until after the molt to do so.

Protein Sources Include:
Alfalfa Hay, Sunflower Seed, Cooked Eggs, Peas or Beans, Pearl Millet, or dry Cat Food {not dog food which is high in grains compared to cat food's protein coming from animal protein}.

Before long your flock will be fully feathered and laying eggs again!

More articles about Chicken Keeping:
So You Want To Raise Chickens Part 1
So You Want To Raise Chickens Part 2
Preparing Chickens For Winter
Using Diatomaceous Earth For Chickens
Chickens and Worms
Chickens Pecking Each Other
Prolapsed Vent
Introducing New Chickens To The Flock
Chicken Supplements
Chicken Coop 101:  13 Lessons Learned While Building Our Coop
Cleaning & Storing Eggs

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