That moment you walk into your backyard and it looks like a feather bomb went off – or worse, like a hawk attack went down. It must be molting season! Some chickens molt hard and fast, some slow and less intensely, but they all do it! Molting is a totally natural, normal process that chickens go through about once per year. While they’re molting, they will appreciate some extra TLC, treats, and special care.
Read along to learn more about the molting process, and how you can help your backyard flock get through this somewhat awkward process -in the most comfortable and healthy manner possible! Even though molting is natural, it can be quite taxing on their nutrient reserves – and also a bit stressful. We’ll also go over a few frequently asked questions about molting, and what to do with all those lost feathers!
When & Why Do Chickens Molt?
Chickens molt to naturally “turn over” their feathers, pushing out old ones and making room for the new. Some chickens may lose nearly all their feathers at once, while others may molt in patches. Timing can vary from chicken to chicken, thought molting is most often associated with the fall season. The decrease in daylight hours triggers the molting process to begin. Some of our girls wait until closer to winter. Younger pullets, less than one year old, may not molt during their first fall or winter at all. The duration of a molt will also vary for each individual bird, and can range from several weeks to a few months to complete.
Keep in mind that there can be a few other causes of feather loss in chickens, including but not limited to rooster-riding, bully-plucking, lice or mites. If your chicken is losing feathers at an odd time of year, rule out other causes by observing their behavior and carefully inspecting their feathers for parasites.
Does Molting Hurt Chickens?
While chickens can’t exactly tell us how it feels to molt, it is thought that it is uncomfortable for them. I mean, it sure LOOKS painful, doesn’t it?!? You can tell the birds aren’t their normal, chipper selves, as their activity usually decreases. Persnickety birds will get extra persnickety. Molting chickens may also be seen sitting differently than usual, avoiding pressure on the areas that are extra pokey and tender. Therefore, take care to give your girls the space they desire during this sensitive time. Try not to pick them up or otherwise handle them unless necessary. Also avoid creating stress – such as introducing new flock members during this time.
In addition to a decrease in activity, your molting chicken may eat and poop less as their metabolism generally slows down. With that, their combs and wattles will also shrink and become less brightly colored – a sign that also coincides with egg laying patterns.
Molting & Egg-Laying
Chickens usually take a break from laying eggs while they are molting. A sudden decrease in egg production can actually be a signal that molting is about to begin, weeks before you even observe any feather loss! Always pay attention to your chickens egg-laying behaviors, since a halt in laying can also signal potential health issues – like being egg bound. In the case of molting though, not laying eggs is totally normal and part of their natural self-defense to conserve nutrients and stay healthy during a molt.
Because they are not laying eggs, molting chickens will eat less of their free-choice calcium during this time too. Free-choice should remain out and offered for those that are still actively laying. If you have any questions about providing calcium to laying hens, be sure to read this article. It is essential for their health!
How to Care for a Molting Chicken: Extra Protein
Did you know that feathers are made of the same material that forms our nails and hair? Yep! Keratin. Feathers are made of this very light-but-strong type of protein. This means when they’re going through the difficult task of growing back new feathers, molting chickens need more protein than they otherwise would. A normal layer feed consists of about 16% protein, while molting chickens will benefit from a diet of up to 20% protein.
Here are a few ways to increase the protein intake for molting chickens:
- Provide protein-rich treats such as scrambled eggs, seedy treat squares, canned tuna, and fresh or dried mealworms and grubs. No, it is not bad to feed chickens eggs! In nature, wild chickens commonly eat their own eggs as a food source. I do suggest providing cooked eggs though, to prevent them from developing a liking for the taste of raw eggs.
- Black oil sunflower seeds (aka BOSS) are another excellent source of protein. Furthermore, they contain methionine, which is an important amino acid for birds and helps with feather re-growth.
- While our chickens are molting, we also give them helpings of sprouted seeds once or twice per week. Even more than whole seeds, the nutrients, enzymes, and proteins in sprouted seeds are enhanced and are readily digestible. See this article to see how easy it is to spout seeds for chickens, or humans!
- If you choose to rely on “treats” alone to increase their protein, aim to provide them at least a few times per week – or better yet, every day if you can! Dried mealworms and BOSS are the quick and easiest options for busy work days. And trust me, you won’t hear the girls complaining!
- Yogurt is a popular treat suggestion in chicken circles, but we recently learned that chickens lack the right enzymes to properly digest dairy. Therefore, it can give them diarrhea and actually reduce the nutrients they’re absorbing. So for a little boost of probiotics, we give our girls a glob of discarded sourdough starter about once a week.
- Some chicken keepers switch their feed during molting season, from a layer feed to a higher-protein grower or broiler feed. If you choose to go this route, avoiding making a sudden switch in feeds. Instead, slowly mix the feeds together over the course of a week – gradually increasing the ratio of new feed to current feed. Follow the same transition when you switch back.
- Don’t be alarmed if you witness your chickens gobbling up their own fallen feathers. They are a great source of protein, after all! However, take that as a signal that they may not be getting enough elsewhere.
What if my chicken is molting during the winter?
In an ideal world, your chickens will all molt during the fall when the temperatures are still moderately comfortable. However, this may not always be the case! If you live in a climate that experiences harsh, freezing winters, and also have molting chickens on your hands, it can be a little extra stressful – for everyone involved! They just lost part of their natural down jacket after all.
Do keep feeding them their extra protein to encourage quicker feather growth. Do not put a sweater on a molting chicken! Remember, they’re already uncomfortable and don’t want to be touched. A sweater will only make it worse. Inside the coop, provide additional insulation like layers of straw or wood shavings. In extreme situations, you could consider heating your coop or providing a heat lamp – but always follow safety precautions! Another tip is to tuck the molting girls between larger, fully-feathered birds at night. There’s nothing like a group cuddle to stay warm.
What to do with molted chicken feathers?
When I see chicken feathers, I see one thing: fertilizer! In addition to being protein-rich, feathers have a very high nitrogen content. There is such a thing as “feather meal” fertilizer after all! Therefore, we don’t want them to go waste. A good amount of our flock’s lost feathers will stay littered about the yard, allowed to decompose in place and feed the fruit trees. On the other hand, I like to scoop up the massive amounts of feathers that collect in the coop and run – and add them to our compost pile! Similarly, I gather up any large piles that form in the yard, such as those that get blown into a corner together.
And that is the scoop on molting.
Don’t worry! With time and a little help from you, your chickens will be back to their normal selves in no time. Actually, they’ll be even fluffier, fuller, and prettier than before – better than new! Sometimes their feather color patterns even change a bit after each molt. And yes, the eggs will be back soon too! Though practice patience there, as it may take several weeks after they appear fully-feathered to start laying again.